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Give a Gift, Not the Guilt

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Responsibilities & Values

When I bought my then-middle-school son an electric guitar for his birthday, he was upset. He said he “didn’t want the commitment.” Although this kid grew up to become a superb guitarist and although music is an important part of his life as an adult, his first thought, obviously, was “What are you trying to get me into?”

Oh, dear.

It’s easy to overplay your hand when you want the best for your kids. It’s easy to appear to kids like the ancient Greeks who gave their enemies a wonderful statue of a horse, only to have this “gift” open and release a horde of soldiers. Your best efforts to understand your children’s talents and provide the right tool at the right time to release this potential can backfire. You can be viewed suspiciously. Is this gift a Trojan horse?

Any time we tell children, “If you loved me, you’d do what I want,” we interfere with their independence. Any time we even imply that message or make children think that message, we hold them hostage to our will.

And that, you’ll recall, is not what you want to do. You want your kids to grow up, become masters of their universes, and leave home for lovely lives of their own.

It’s easy to inflict guilt. When my boys wanted to spend their allowance, my stock answer used to be, “If that’s what you really want.” I didn’t intend to question their ability to make decisions (at least I don’t think I did). But that was the effect. But it seemed to my kids that I wanted them to guess what I was thinking about how to spend their money, not figure it out on their own. One of my boys finally told me to cut it out and I came to my senses.

So your gifts should contain no conquering hordes. You must be prepared for your efforts to be rejected or tried and discarded. Only your kids know if what you’ve offered fits who they are and what they’re prepared to try today. The light you’re trying to fan into brightness might not be ready to shine. You can only offer. It’s your kids who have to supply the commitment.

So your gift (of a guitar, of Spanish lessons, or of damp Saturdays spent cheering from the soccer sidelines) comes with no strings attached. No guilt trip gets laid on if the gift is later set aside.

You are committed, not to the gift, but to your child.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.