If you listen to the chatter in some circles, you may be left with the impression that the world is filled with generations of narcissistic kids and teens who have nothing but themselves on their minds—and whose happiness is dependent upon getting exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. Has the joy of a dreamy bedtime foray into the Hundred Acre Woods, or the satisfaction of ice-cream on a long summer day really been replaced by expectations of the latest phone or high-tech gadget?
Gila Brown, M.A, parent coach and educator, says that while she doesn’t believe that most parents consciously equate happiness with material things, she does think that material possessions are often mistakenly used as parenting tools—albeit ineffective or problematic parenting tools, and ones that take away the sense of personal accomplishment that can only come from earning something.
“Parents often use material possessions as bribes toward compliance or as distractions from specific behaviors,” says Brown. “While a shiny new toy might distract a screaming child, it is also sends the message that upsets are not welcome. When we try to change a child's behavior through bribes, rewards and punishments, we teach them that they are accepted only when they behave in a certain way.”
A unique problem facing today’s parents is the phenomenon of instant gratification afforded to modern children: text messaging, email, social media and the immediate access to head-spinning amounts of information available on the Internet have led many members of the younger generation to mistakenly assume that the whole world works on the same principal of right here, right now. That assumption can lead to the impression of an entire generation of demanding, narcissistic young people whose happiness is entirely dependent upon their own wishes being fulfilled. But, says Brown, it’s important to be clear about what we, as adults, are reading as narcissism, and to acknowledge that our kids are living in a world that is vastly different from the one in which we were raised.
“As a result of the changes in technology,” Brown says, “we now live in a world where we do, in many cases, get what we want when we want it. It’s not unreasonable that our children would see the world through the lens of immediate gratification, but I resist the jump to label kids as feeling entitled without acknowledging the context of their world. They simply operate at a different pace than we are used to.”
Learning from discomfort
Technology aside, many parents go to great lengths to protect their children from experiencing any discomfort or pain. Brown says that this is a result of the emphasis we, as a society, place on achievement. Buffering our children from life’s less pleasant moments, though, is not the road to real or lasting happiness.
“Parents often want to hand-hold kids towards a life of success and comfort, while avoiding any pitfalls or hardship. While the natural instinct to protect a child's safety is admirable, there is also value in allowing for struggle and upsets. If we deny kids the opportunity to fail, to be hurt, to be disappointed, we deny them the space to develop their own strength and resilience.”
What we should be doing, she says, is encouraging our children to embrace struggle. Kids need opportunities to try things that are difficult, and to learn how to sit with challenges. As parents, we have to resist the urge to help them too quickly—and to recognize that the value lies in the process, not the achievement.
“I believe,” she says, “that the singular need for any child—or human, for that matter—is to be seen and accepted for who they are. The greatest gift any parent can give their child is genuine acceptance and freedom to be authentically themselves. I acknowledge how difficult this can be for parents, particularly in the face of defiance, tantrums and sibling rivalry. Essentially, it requires ongoing validation and mirroring. We all need to be seen. It is through our understanding of how others perceive us that we begin to know and develop ourselves. In terms of the day-to-day, this means saying things like, ‘I see how frustrated you are that I am not buying you a cookie,’ ‘You must be really angry to be throwing those toys across the room,’ or ‘I wish we could play outside all day, too—that would be fantastic!’”
What parents often miss in the effort to guarantee happiness, offers Brown, is that sometimes our kids simply won’t understand, or like, our reaction to their behavior or demands. That doesn’t mean giving in to them, or expecting them to stop being upset. Neither reaction is a way to create happiness. Rather, it’s far more effective to simply acknowledge the emotion the child is expressing.
“Kids need to be seen and accepted for who they are, including their feelings of anger, frustration, jealousy and inadequacy,” says Brown. “Allowing for all aspects of a child's persona, without trying to change the unpleasant ones, is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.”