To be or Not to be… Content

Disneyland at Night

How do you teach a kid to be content? This is a world filled with people misusing the word “need” when the word “want” is supposed to be used and when feelings of entitlement are more common than grass. I struggle with this because it makes me wonder, how am I supposed to teach my kids to be content with what they have when I find myself dealing with the same inclinations?

For example, last summer as a “welcome home daddy” gift, my husband and I bought a set of annual passes to Disneyland. However, todays trip was different from the previous ones. My four-year old whined and pouted for the first 15 minutes ,I will mention that it was right after preschool and he hadn’t had lunch yet so I gave him until after lunch to stop or the trip was going to be nixed entirely which would have been unfair to my two-year old who had behaved wonderfully and was getting so excited, but really whining about Disneyland? Once his food was safely in his tummy his entire attitude changed to one of gratefulness but the entire experience started a conversation between my husband and I as we drove home this evening, is the act of being content a lost art?

My husband grew up in poverty (like a combo of third world country and inner city ghetto) whereas I grew up somewhere between suburbia and military housing, no matter how you look at it I was not in poverty, just middle class. Part of that middle class American background is to overuse the word “need.” Over the years he has often voiced disdain when I mention that we “need “to pick up xyz at the store when in reality I would just like to have that item in my house. It is something that I do unconsciously, I seriously don’t realize most of the time that I am being an ingrate. Yet it is so much more than just vocabulary, it’s an entire part of our culture that seeps into all aspects of life from a very young age.

When someone in our society meets a child over the age of five one of the first questions asked is “what do you want to be when you grow up,” have you ever thought about the significance of that question? You are asking a five-year old to put aside the playthings of childhood today in order to embrace the concept of work and adulthood. Yet despite this common quarry, we as a society get angry when childhood is forgotten too quickly . We tell children to keep trying and to keep working until a better outcome is apparent. Always encouraging them to aim higher. Somehow we are inevitably teaching our children to always want more out of life, yet at what point do we draw the line between healthy ambition and gluttony? How do we teach a child to aim higher while also displaying thankfulness for the life that they have?

I cannot claim to know the answer to these questions. After all it takes a lifetime to raise I child and I have only been doing it for four years. However, my husband did bring up some distinct differences between his childhood and mine that may have contributed to his inclination to be content.

The first is that there was no other option. Growing up with so little most of the time and being the oldest and therefore the one responsible for his younger brothers (from as young as 5ish) meant that not only was he just excited to get something that would be classified as a want but that he also understood what kind of sacrifice that gift was and in turn knew not to question anything. For example, my husband can eat white rice, a banana and an egg for breakfast, lunch or dinner several days in a row. I roll my eyes in protest at leftovers that have been served more than twice in one week. I don’t think about the effort or sacrifice of an option, I would just like to make sure there are lots of them. The differences in these points of view are clear with this anecdote: while driving my husband to work one day my son asked why daddy had to work so much. My response was “because daddy is a Marine and they protect people” whereas my husband responded “because when I work I make money and money is what gets you food and clothes and toys”…daddy’s answer was better and even a (then) three-year old could tell. Which was obvious in that his response to me was “why” but his response to daddy was “oh, ok I love you and I will see you later.” It’s amazing how well he understood the concept!

Not long ago I read in a yahoo article (concerning saving money because who doesn’t want to save?) and one of the topics raised was how people who use credit and debit cards for transactions tend to spend more money than those who use cash. However what totally blindsided me was a comment (which I am pretty sure I have heard from both Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman but it wasn’t stated as bluntly) that when paraphrased comes out as “when you use a card you are showing a kid that he can fill up an entire cart with groceries, hand over a card and then get the card back, as if you’re not even giving something up in order to get your food.” How amazing is that for perspective! Maybe one way that we allow our kids and ourselves to be ungrateful is that we don’t feel the pain of purchases/choices? In fact I don’t think that I have ever forced my children to work for what they get, they barely even do chores (its one of those progressive things I am implementing in my house but im only about 2 months into it) let alone raise money or use it! Yet it may be time to start…however kids and money deserves its own post so back to contentedness!

The second thing that my husband pointed out was that his family practiced being thankful, not with cards or prayer but with actual thankfulness.If thankfulness was not obviously apparent immediately the gift or other options were taken away. I laughed at first but he was really quite serious. If his mom (a seamstress) made him an outfit or a meal that he refused to wear or eat than his mother would take away all of his other options leaving only the item given. We have tried this method with our sons picky eating habits and it usually works but I’m not sure if I would use it on gifts, clothes, or toys…I would most likely just send the child to time out and demand an apology and a thank you. Doest it work though…I’m not to sure, after all my son did whine about going to Disneyland…maybe it is time to implement more appropriate consequences. Hmmm…

I’m sure that there is more we could do for the curbing of gratefulness but does teaching a child to be thankful mean you are teaching them to be content? I would postulate that contentedness is a long-term lesson, one that is purposefully taught during times of heartache or unhappiness. One that takes years of conscientious dialogue that we force ourselves to make while we are trying to dispel tears and frustrations. Telling a child it will get better is so vague that it is impossible to know how they are interpreting “better” when what you mean to tell them is that everything is as it is supposed to be. I am in no way advocating that we end all encouragement as mothers, instead I simply encourage a dose of mitigated realism every now and again. After all it’s not just a matter of being thankful for the things we get but it is also being thankful for the things that we have despite what we really wanted. If the Marine Corps has taught me anything it is that what I want means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, it is always about the needs of the Corps. Life works the same way, just because I want my husband home for the birth of our last child does not mean that Baby Eleanor will wait until her due date. I have also found that happiness comes when you accept what you have and you learn to want what you already have. If we consistently tell our children that they can do better without ever preparing them for disappointment are we even preparing them for life at all and if we are not preparing them for life than what are we doing?


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