“Everyone Has One but Me!” Setting Limits on Kids’ Swag
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Responsibilities & Values
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It’s an all-too common problem: everyone but your child has something or is permitted to do something except your child. Because you’re too mean. You’re too stupid. And your child hates you! Can you hear a door slamming somewhere?
Whew. What do you do? How can you know that the limits you’ve set are reasonable? And how can you keep those limits without a lot of drama?
Let’s start by noticing that some reasons for limiting your child’s activities are less valid than others. If your reasons for denying whatever it is that your child wants are unrelated to this child but are more related your own convenience, then you are indeed being unreasonable. If you’re thinking anything like
“I’m trying to put you in your place” or
“I didn’t have one at your age” or
“You have to wait until your older sibling gets one” or
“I just don’t want to be bothered by this,”
then it’s time to re-examine your thought process. Your child deserves being treated fairly. Fair reasons have a better chance of at least grudging acceptance.
More valid reasons for not letting your child do as she wants usually fall into one of four categories. And, actually, three of these four reasons are actually a Yes in disguise. Let’s take a look.
Comparative Features Issues. You have more experience, of course, so you know that what your child desires is not so good as a competing product. It might cost more, it might be less-well made, or it might support a business you dislike. It’s not that you are against the thing your child wants, it’s that you’re against the precise brand or features of the thing your child wants. So this is really a Yes. Once you and your child agree on the variation of the object, you’re ready to give your okay. So consider: is your objection a matter of taste or are there true differences that matter? Is this worth all the upset it’s causing when, in principle, the answer is Yes?
This all reminds me of “social comparison” – the idea that our worth as persons is determined by comparing ourselves to others. Kids get caught up in this but adults do too. If it’s important to you that your child have the best cell phone or the fanciest first car or the trendiest clothes, examine why you think this way. If your child seems consumed by a need to have “the best” of everything, figure out what’s driving that. We all need to remember that we are not our things and that our value is not tied to stuff. Really, it’s not.
Financial Issues. You just don’t have the money. Whatever your child wants is out of reach maybe for now, maybe forever. So this also is really a Yes, though not so strong an endorsement as before. Consider if it’s possible for your child to earn the money he needs to buy this himself. Consider if something else can be substituted. Talk frankly with your child about finances and don’t feel you have to make excuses. This is a reason that doesn’t require much discussion.
This is the time to reiterate a point I hope you’ve made a guiding tenet in your family – that money doesn’t buy happiness and that Things are unimportant in the grand scheme of life. If your family has managed to avoid consumer excesses and the drive to accumulate Stuff, then you are in a good position to help your child see that what he thinks he wants might not be important in a day or two.
Developmental Issues. Maybe the child is not old enough or capable enough for whatever it is she desires. This again is really a Yes, though it’s a Yes, Later not a Yes, Now. Consider if your perception of your child’s readiness for this experience – whatever it is – is accurate. Check around with other parents to see if they permit this for their own kids. Ultimately, you get to say at what point this wish can be fulfilled, so share with your child the point at which you and she can revisit this idea.
Values Issues. Your child has settled on a wish that is not permissible, no matter what. Your refusal has nothing to do with money or the age of your child or the particular variant your child wants. You simply don’t believe in whatever he has in mind and the answer is No. No, never. This is a perfectly reasonable response and you don’t have to apologize for it.
Keep in mind that values are not just religious or political. Your family expresses its values in the food it buys, the shops it patronizes, the organizations family members volunteer for. If you value interactions and experiences over Things, your children will be better able to resist the siren call of Stuff for Stuff’s sake. Teaching values happens in everyday occurrences like discussions about what children wish for. Teaching values is what parents do.
It is part of parenting an older child that there are these sorts of confrontations. Making certain you’re being as fair as you can be and knowing the roots of your position in any dispute will help you make the teen years calmer and more pleasant.
Your objective as a parent is to create of your children responsible and self-directed adults. Guiding your kids toward more thoughtful acquisition of things is part of this process.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.