Do We Ruin Our Kids By Giving Them a Better Life?


father and sons

“I’m bored,” my seven-year-old barked at me, as I flipped eggs one sunny Saturday. I stomped in from the kitchen and pointed the spatula. ”You are never to say that again. You have a room full of toys and books and a park nearby and a pool. Figure it out.”

mother & son
Photo by Julie Kahn

Are my exquisite sons stricken with a sense of entitlement?

I grew up with a single school-teacher mom. We lived modestly, yet I always had a bike and a baseball team. I even went to sleep-away camp. Still, I felt embarrassed that we resided, literally, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” I’d ask my hardworking dad when we were going to join the country club to which a number of my friends’ families belonged. My children live much higher on the hog today. I know that’s the American Dream. But I struggle with it because, though my boys are good souls, silly and kind, I witness, at times, a glaring lack of appreciation for their good fortune.

Soccer

I joke that my parenting mantra is “not to f*&k my kids up too much.”

While my wife and I appear to be succeeding at that dubious metric, I believe we can do better in making our boys understand that their first-world comfort is solely based on their dumb luck combined with our hard work (and dumb luck). They appear to have certain expectations based on where and how we live, with soccer camp, X-Box, sushi dinners and family trips abroad being standard operating procedure.

In a wonderful article in The Guardian, titled, Why Depriving Your Kids of Toys is a Great Idea, Madeleine Somerville writes, “It’s time to rethink deprivation as a parenting strategy. Living with less, it turns out, means more. More money in our savings account, more space on our shelves, and best of all, more communication, imagination and concentration from our kids.”

The Politics of Producing Pleasure, Acrylic, latex house paint, oil crayon, graphite, book covers on a wood door, 2015, Stuart Sheldon
The Politics of Producing Pleasure, acrylic, latex house paint, oil crayon, graphite, book covers on a wood door, 2015, Stuart Sheldon

Somerville is not suggesting we remove toys from your kids’ lives, but that we throttle back on providing every creature comfort available to us. She writes, “My five siblings and I grew up in a cruel wasteland of deprivation that included whole-wheat cereals, secondhand clothing and shared rooms. To add insult to injury, we didn’t even have a TV to distract us from our hardship.” I asked a friend, whose three kids are about to graduate from medical schools and masters programs, how he made such solid citizens. “Just love them,” he told me. “Love them hard.” I agree love is primary, but there’s obviously more to it.

Sky's the limit
Sky’s the limit.

Somerville continues, “In a study designed to identify and prevent addictive patterns in adults, two German researchers somehow convinced a nursery school to remove all toys from the classroom for three months. Remarkably, the scenario didn’t devolve into Lord of the Flies acted out in miniature. Instead, teachers reported that while on the first day the children seemed bewildered and confused, by the end of the third month they were engaged in wildly imaginative play, able to concentrate better and communicate more effectively.”

New neighbors, with two kids the same ages as ours, recently relocated from Europe to the home directly across from us. Within minutes of their arrival, both their children were on bikes riding up and down our street. In the days that followed, we’d answer our doorbell to two toothless smiles, inviting, in charming Dutch accents, our sons out to kick a soccer ball. They even hung a rope swing in the Poinciana tree in their front yard.

“Our kids just got a normal childhood,” I said to Jodi, in all seriousness. No playdates, no schedules, no trendy toys. Just children being with their pals in the front yard, making and appreciating their own entertainment.

Father & son at the beach

At the beach recently, I watched my sons dig a hole in the sand at the water’s edge, burrowing into the wet muck with bare hands. An hour passed, and while each focused intently on the widening hole and incoming tide, my heart filled with the purity of their satisfaction. Conversely, when they display a lack of respect and appreciation for their privilege, I’m not just mortified at my own failings, I fear for them when forced to swim in the turbulent waters of adulthood.

Just because we may have the means to give our kids the world, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

The Little Prince, acrylic, book covers, paper on canvas, 60x60" 2015, Stuart Sheldon
The Little Prince, acrylic, book covers, paper on canvas, 61×60″ 2015, Stuart Sheldon

 

My Kid’s NOT a Winner So Stop with the Trophies

Diploma?

My little brother strode the stage in his cap and gown, gave his med school dean an emphatic handshake and transitioned from Mister to Doctor for the rest of his life. “Now, that is really something,” I said to my mom through misty eyes. That decades-old moment still resonates in my heart.

A couple weeks ago, my 5-yr-old, in a lemon-yellow $15 cap and gown we were obliged to buy, was handed his “Diploma” at his PreK4 “graduation.” I love my son’s school, but this, simply put, was bullshit! 

When my wife called the principal to share our opinions against PreK graduation, she was told this was an expectation of American parents; all kids receive a Certificate of Completion for the year. I’m no hater; let the children sing We Are The World, and I’m front row, lip-quivering like a granny. But let’s just call that a year-end celebration and skip the pomp and circumstance … especially when my boy could not care less about his “diploma” (which has already been recycled). By fabricating a false sense of achievement we diminish the sanctity of a graduation and do more harm than good.

We fail as parents and teachers when we “try to make each child feel like a winner or, in some way, outstanding, even if the student has done little to warrant such attention,” say Dr. Jeffery Kanov, the former district psychologist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Kids come to expect that, by doing the bare minimum, in this case, merely showing up at preschool, lavish praise is warranted. “The sad truth is that bestowing a sense of feeling special, or exceptional, or outstanding on a child who hasn’t actually earned these labels only serves to enhance that child’s sense of entitlement. It stokes narcissism which leads people to not only demand special treatment from others … but to believe it is their right. Narcissists don’t do well with criticism and tend to blame others for their mistakes and failures,” says Kanov.

Do you want your kids easily demoralized by failure and willing to cheat or avoid applying themselves to avoid it?

All-star?
All-star?

Making the little league All-star team was one of the biggest moments of my young life. And I wore that patch on my arm with immense pride. Not making that elite team the following year made me hungry to work that much harder to get back on top, which I eventually did. Trophies were once rare and powerful motivators.

The same week my 5-yr-old “graduated,” my wife got an email asking her to come in to retrieve our 7-yr-old’s baseball trophy for his just-finished first season. Flashing back to our boy absent-mindedly doing cartwheels in right field, my wife asked “Did everyone receive trophies?” Of course, everyone did. Our son’s hitting and catching improved and he brought a good attitude, but did he deserve a “reward?” Absolutely not.

The experience is the prize!

In a wonderful NYT Op-Ed, titled Losing Is Good For You, Ashley Merryman writes of “a Maryland summer program that gives young kids awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. The science is clear … nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.”

Merryman nails it, “If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.”

We don’t get trophies for just showing up at work in the real world, so why program our kids to think that’s how the game is played? Life is tough and requires hard work, respect and failure to gain true wisdom and perspective. Merryman has great advice for us all, “Parents should keep one question in mind. Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: “Which kids get awards?” If the answer is, “Everybody gets a trophy,” find another program.”

Squall, acrylic on cardboard,  10x10", 2002, Stuart Sheldon
Squall, acrylic on paper, 10×8″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Stop trying to constantly “protect” your children from the painful consequences of their inaction, or worse from their own foolish or irresponsible behavior. Or from losing. We inadvertently breed little self-righteous monsters by over-praising and trying to keep our kids happy all the time. 

When they never grasp the concept of having to do something meaningful in order to get a reward or praise, they not only miss out on critical wisdom, they can get downright belligerent. When things don’t go their way, they lash out with, “It’s not fair” and “You’re so mean” and “I’m not doing it cuz this is stupid.” This unmotivated and perverted lack-of-ownership can continue into adulthood. At which point, WE, the parents, should get a trophy for most clueless.

Again, Merryman nails it, “Our job is not to reframe our children’s mistakes as victories but to help them overcome setbacks by seeing that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss … and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.”

I still love these puppies.
I still love these puppies.