I cut my foot rather badly one day this fall. It was a stupid clumsy stumble -whilst carrying a large and heavy vase. The result was a lot of blood, and the partial severing of my big toe nail. It happened, by coincidence, while both my kids (ages 24 and 28) were nearby. The male offspring, a highly trained first aider, sprung into action with disinfectant, gauze and adhesive tape, while his elder sister held me, cooed and kissed. After all that drama, when I thanked them, she responded that I had certainly taken such care of them over the years.
But I think that she, not being a parent, doesn’t (yet) get the point. We can nurture our kids till the cows come home, and not produce nurturing offspring. Reason being that children do not magically become pro-social giving beings. They have to be taught to give. Of course there are exceptions – naturally giving people who will be that way no matter what. But most of us need to be taught that habit.
Our generation of parents errs too much to the side of providing for our children. We excel at giving them every little thing they need – and much of what they want as well. Not just iPhones and beach vacations but also bushels of intangibles, the non-stop validation and reinforcement that we imagine – incorrectly – will grow their self-esteem.
But self-esteem doesn’t grow from being told how great you are. Self esteem grows from instrumentality, mastery and usefulness. Three experiences that we are woefully bad at offering our children.
When we give them so much, when their life path is laid out before them, strewn with roses, we deprive them of the opportunity to be useful, experience mastery, and feel instrumental in the world. That’s why flunking the exam and figuring out how – and why – to do it differently – is more developmental that mom forcing you to study or doing your homework with you every night. We help so much that we hinder. The Grade Four math gets done, but the personal growth and self-confidence that arise from figuring out how to do it yourself – that gets short-circuited.
As parents we suck at letting our kids experience that growth because we can’t tolerate watching it. It cuts us too deep to see them fail; so we protect them from failure by trying to prevent it, but in so doing we make them less resourceful.
And so I end where I began, with my messed-up big toe. My kids did not rush to take care of me because I took care of them. They took care of me because they were taught to do so. They are givers and they are instrumental because, as I look back on their childhood, it was filled with requirements.
We required them to cook and clean. It would have been so much easier to let the hired help do it but the lesson would have been lost. When they refused to cook (and refuse they sometimes did) we said: “That’s fine, we don’t need dinner.” If they failed to clean the kitchen after dinner, they lost a pre-set amount off next month’s allowance. Yes, allowance was given monthly and it included clothes and entertainment. Once spent, that was it. When the kids got cut from sports teams we empathized but did not confirm either their excuses or the coach’s incompetence. This too was an opportunity for learning about what it takes to make the cut.
The cleaning lady didn’t enter their rooms unless they had tidied them beforehand. Homework was 100% theirs – as were any consequences associated with not doing it. Decisions were also theirs – as my daughter just reminded me when she came to check on my injured toe. When she couldn’t decide what skirt to wear to the first day of kindergarten, I stayed out of her way and let her wear all seven of them on top of each other rather than protecting her from the social consequences of that silly choice.
From this grows instrumentality. From each of these daily decisions – and ofttimes struggles – develops a child’s sense of mastery over her world, and the resourcefulness to manage it. And from this comes the sense of responsibility that builds a giver. Hence the story of the toenail.
We raise a giver by asking a lot of our children