By: Joe Newman
I heard about a Buddhist philosopher recently asking a group, “What is the opposite of thank you?” After the listeners had offered a variety of responses he said to them, “The opposite of thank you is: you’re supposed to do that.” In others words, a feeling of entitlement. Living in the condition of thank you is happiness. Living in the condition of that’s what you’re supposed to do is suffering because you’ve set yourself up for constant disappointment.
I watched a woman reading to her three-year-old grandson, Ryan. Halfway through the book Ryan had chosen, he decided he wanted her to read a different book. Grandma said, “No. You chose this book and I want to finish this one.” Ryan whined and started to cry, “But I want the other one!” Ryan’s mother came over and said, “Come on Mom, why don’t you read him the other one?” But the older woman wouldn’t budge. “He needs to learn he’s not the only one around here,” she stated. By asserting her desires, Ryan’s grandma was insisting that he recognize her. She was instinctively trying to establish mutual recognition.
In order for Ryan to develop a healthy capacity for mutual recognition, the adults around him must be willing to have faith in his ability to survive disappointment and frustration. They must not let their fear or anxiety sway them toward indulgence. The fear implicit in Ryan’s mother’s impulse to give him what he wants in this situation is, What if he doesn’t develop a love of reading? or, What if he doesn’t learn to assert his wishes? Or, maybe just, I want this moment to be one of joy, not of disappointment.
The accumulation of so many moments when adults have yielded their wishes and desires to the wishes and desires of the child results in the imbalance toward children developing power over connection. While these moments, when viewed in isolation, appear harmless enough, the cumulative effect is a child who develops a very strong feeling about their entitlements and a very weak feeling about the needs of others.
When giving your child choices, remember that you must prepare her for being successful and happy at school. If home is a place of unlimited choices and accommodations and school is a place of limited choices and few accommodations, don’t be surprised when your child doesn’t like school.
The parenting practice that is closely tied to choices is regularly soliciting the child’s opinion. This can range from letting him choose what clothes he’ll wear to asking his preference of which restaurant to go to, to choosing what color to paint the kitchen.
Whether it’s the boy who wants to continue to wear his Halloween costume to school two weeks into November or the girl who refuses to wear anything but her favorite dress even though her mother hasn’t had a chance to wash it in five days, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a parent dragging a tearful, puffy-eyed kindergartener into school late after a long battle over what the child will wear.
Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.
I’ve seen third grade math classes where children argue with the teacher about the way she’s teaching. This isn’t spirited discussion aimed at clearing up a lack of understanding, but rather an insistence that their way is correct and the teacher’s is not.
A veteran teacher approached me after a seminar I gave and said, “It’s like you’ve given us permission to be adults again.” As parents and teachers, we are encouraged to provide so many choices and to elicit so many opinions from our children that we are left feeling as though our opinions are less important than those of the kids. We are supposed to make everything fair, consider everyone’s opinion, see to it that no one is inconvenienced (except us), and that everyone’s needs are met, all while facilitating some great, chaotic democracy. But in the middle of all this have we forgotten that we are the adults? We should decide what is good and not good for our children.
Giving children choices and soliciting their opinions can have many positive effects only when you also regularly assert the needs, to which children must yield, of the others in the home. Additionally, you should be prepared to set and hold firmer, more tenacious boundaries to balance the powerful identity your child consequently develops.
Children who are given choices –and asked their opinions –about everything grow up feeling entitled. Children who are practiced in considering the wants and needs of others learn to live in the condition of thank you.
Joe Newman is the author of Raising Lions.