I dread taking my kids to Walmart. There’s always that one toy, of all the toys, that catches their eye. This car is so cool. Their best friend has this doll. They’ve always loved superheros. Or it’s a chocolate bar, a drink, a balloon, a craft. They don’t have to ask anything, it’s spoken with their eyes, written on their glowing faces. “Maybe for your birthday,” is the typical response. At this point, I’m pretty sure my daughter thinks she’s getting an entire shelf in October. Then we pass by the next aisle.
I don’t blame the store. The point of a store is to offer you things you might want. And I don’t blame the kids. They have eyes and they have hearts. They see things and they want them because they are good and fun and delicious. I blame myself. I want it all too. I am well acquainted with the disappointment.
Like most people, we can’t afford to buy all those things. But most people, even if they could afford every toy in the store, would not get all of them for their children. Because we understand it’s not good for a child to get everything they want. They will become entitled, acquiring unrealistic expectations of life, and selfish and ungrateful, and, in the end, disappointed and heartbroken and estranged. They will become spoiled. And we all hate those kids even as we want to be them.
Those desires never go away. Parents are just old children. So parenting involves an essential dilemma. Because it is possible to love your child as much as you love yourself, it becomes possible to want what is best for them without regard to their current desire. So you don’t buy them everything, don’t let them eat whatever they want, stay up as late as they want, go wherever they want. You recognize the need for limits, the truth that if they got everything they wanted then they would be miserable. But you can’t do that with yourself. Those pesky desires keep getting in the way.
I am forced to admit that the central motivation in my life is getting everything I want. It’s encouraged. That’s the whole point of growing up these days. Study hard, work hard, listen to your parents, so that you can get a good job and be able to afford everything you want. The specific desires change. If no longer toys then gadgets, if not dolls then clothes, if not matchbox cars then real ones, if not chocolate then, no, still chocolate. And beyond the material, fulfillment, the perfect job or vacation or spouse. All of it I should have to whatever extent I can. That’s adulthood. What limiting factor is there on my desires? Only reality, the balance of my bank account and the health of my body, which are, as far as I can tell, the central problems to be overcome in life.
But I am spoiled. And if not spoiled, then disappointed. What should I expect? The parent in me can just barely recognize, however dimly, that this means I am still a child, and that what I tell my children is better than what I tell myself.