Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Saying No Really Isn't Hard

The cover of the September 13, 2004, issue of Newsweek blares the headline, How to Say ‘No’ To Your Kids -- Setting Limits in an Age of Excess. The article The Power of No sent me into a Sparky rage.

To read more, click on the Xs

The article starts with the story of a mom who tries to resist her 9 year-old son’s request for a $250 electronic gadget. Of course, he eventually gets it, in part, because she asks around the neighborhood and finds that her son’s peers own the same or similar gadgets.

Why do we care what other people own? Why was this an important factor in this woman’s decision to buy something for her son that she didn’t really want to buy? I suppose the thinking might go “he’s a good kid” (its noted in the article that the mother thought this), he deserves to have what other kids his age have. Why? If the parent doesn’t agree with the purchase, why make it based on the fact that other mothers have decided its okay for their kids?

The article says, “[t]his generation of parents has always been driven to give their kids every advantage” from classes to college acceptance. To me it seems that the advantages conferred are those that the parent determines. Maybe a true advantage would be time for the child to dream and explore, rather than being shuttled from class to class and activity to activity.

The article notes that recent studies show that “[k]ids who’ve been given too much, too soon grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with life’s disappointments. They have a distorted sense of entitlement that gets in the way of success both in the workplace and in relationships.” I ask, who is to blame for this excess? The article suggests lots of possibilities – TV commercials, marketing in schools, product placement in TV shows and movies.

A big factor in all of this is the issue of time. The article notes that many parents give in to the material demands of their children because the parents are attempting to buy peace by giving in to the demands rather than wasting family time with conflict. This is a very real issue, especially for those double income couples that don’t need the second income for survival but want it for the luxuries they can buy. Why wouldn’t a parent give in? They are working to earn the money that allows them to give in to these demands. The time the job takes away from the family helps create the guilt that makes the parents want to give in. Ultimately, what is the money for, if not to give in?

The article asks, “[h]ow do well-intentioned parents say no to all the sports equipment and arts and language lessons they believe will help their kids thrive in an increasingly competitive world?” Well, who is asking for these activities? A recent article in the Washington Post Style section chronicled a family’s efforts to ensure that their son would score high enough on the new SAT to allow him entry into the college of, presumably his, but most likely their, choice. The article suggested that the young man would rather be surfing in Maui and not reviewing vocabulary and whatever else he was being forced to do. The parents were quoted as saying that they would do whatever it takes in terms of tutors and review. Why are they doing this? I can only assume it is because they define success as a high SAT score ensuring entry into a prestigious college. And then what? When is that young man going to be allowed to live his own life and have his own dreams? I imagine that they think a college education will equip him to do these things and perhaps it will. In the meantime, however, he is being denied the freedom to choose how to live his life. When he finally gets the chance, will he be prepared for it, or will he act out against the pressure and control he’s lived under for years?

While placing limits on the material demands of the child, the parent should also place limits on the pressure he exerts on his child.

“Children need limits on their behavior because they feel better and more secure when they live within a certain structure,” says family therapist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University. “Parents should not make the mistake of projecting their own needs or feelings on their children.” Of course, if they don’t give them enough time or attention to learn what the child's desires are, what else can they do but project their own needs and desire on their kids?

On the issue of whether requiring a child do household chores helps instil values, the article notes that “[f]ew parents ask kids to do anything around the house because they think their kids are already overwhelmed by social and academic pressures; [adding chores] almost seems cruel.” Perhaps the parents should focus on these pressures that are overwhelming the kids – can the parent do anything to alleviate these pressures or support the child? Is the parent creating or adding to these pressures, perhaps by asking why aren’t you more popular? Go to more parties? Talk to more kids? Why aren’t your grades better or your test scores better? Why don’t you become more involved in sports or debate or yearbook?

Where does the pressure come from? Parents can do a lot to add to this pressure, but they can also do a lot to relieve it. Instead, it appears that most parents want to put on the pressure in order to compete with the neighbors and then buy off any ill-effects of this pressure, or ill-will of the resentful child, by buying the child things.

Parents don’t want to nag their kids into doing chores anyway, the article asserts, again, quoting from a therapist, this time Irene Goldenberg. “When parents have so little time with their kids, they don’t want it to be filled with conflict.” The time issue rears its ugly head again.

The article discusses people looking for hard and fast rules for setting appropriate limits for their kids. They complain that it is the other parents who erode these limits. The proposed solution is to discuss these issues and “create your own village.” To me, this is bunk. The key to determining appropriate limits for each child resides within the child – his reactions and attitude toward what he receives and how he treats others. This is suggested earlier in the article when Eve Gagne, talks about her 3 year old daughter and says, “when it comes down to it, nobody really notices the outfit. They notice her behavior.”

“Parent’s still feel they have a lot to learn about how to work with their neighbors to enforce the same values.” Why do they have to have the same values? To me, it smacks of both socialism and fascism. Take the responsibility, accept being the bad guy – sure, your kids will be mad at you for awhile, but they would be mad about some issue or another anyway.

The issue is control. You’re controlling them in the ways you’ve chosen (by pressuring them to achieve academically and socially) and they are controlling you in the only way they can, by demanding material things.


Anne Zelenka said...

There's so much here. I think I need to do a whole post. Actually, if I did a post it might be just this:

I agree.

I especially agree with the point that we do not need to enforce the same values as our neighbors. I think that families need to be counterculture these days to raise their kids well. The question is not: how do we enforce the same values? It's this: how do we enforce different values.

Robert said...

I too felt the urge to vent on this topic. Thanks for getting my circulation going this morning!