Since the bad times will come, I make it my personal mission to plan and enjoy the heck out of the good ones, like their birthdays, and every holiday I can get my hands on. Their birthday may be only one day, but it is both the anticipation and the remembrance of it that lasts longer. It seems that each day she has a new idea for her upcoming party, and she still talks about the snow machine from her fourth.
Recently, a close friend of mine questioned whether planning such elaborate parties, for example, would create children who grow up to be selfish and entitled. Because I love and respect this friend, the questions posed in our short conversation reverberated long after they were asked. I love and value friendships with the longevity and closeness that afford us the ability to challenge and question each other, without fear or worry that doing so will change or end the friendship. Friendships that stand the test of time are the most valuable. And so, I spent some time contemplating whether or not throwing amazing parties for my kids would, in the long run, do more harm than good. After a few days reflecting on this, I have to say that I believe that it is quite the opposite: Giving to my children will, in time, yield children who do the same for their children and others, because it was done for them. By putting them first as my parents' did for me, I will create children who are selfless because children learn best by example. But it won't happen without some work and conscious effort on my part. You see, what my friend asked me was "If you always plan such elaborate parties for Aut, won't she come to expect that?" And the answer to that is simple: yes, she will come to expect it. I present to you the fascinating world of behavioral economics. What my friend was referring to is actually a thing, and it's called hedonistic adaptation.
Behavioral research shows that humans can become acclimated to almost anything if they’re exposed to it frequently. It’s called “hedonic adaptation,” and it’s why Justin Bieber is always buying more outrageous cars, why the kitchen we just remodeled suddenly needs a new backsplash and why lottery winners, after the initial thrill of winning, end up about as happy as they were before.
So what does this mean for us as parents? It means that anything we provide or do regularly will become the new norm, whether it's dessert after every meal, vacations or a certain brand of jeans. And so, what we need to think about, according to this article is "What is the default I'm setting up?" In this situation, I'm setting up awesome, fun parties for my kids as their norm and I'm totally fine with that. I want them to look forward to them, and look back on them when they were older as one sign of just how important they are to me (the kids, not the parties, in case you're wondering). And don't worry, I do have fantastic plans for their 16th birthdays that will outdo all of the previous parties (think: international travel).
But my friend's question was really two-fold, beyond just the parties. Won't my children get used to me throwing amazing parties or giving her lots of gifts (yes) and then won't that cause them to be selfish and entitled. Not necessarily. We live in a broader context of society, and the older we get, the more experiences we have, and the wider the breadth of our experiences and interactions become. Travel helps with this, as it can open our eyes to just how privileged we are in this country. To this day, I vividly remember one of these eye-opening experiences I had at the age of fourteen. I grew up in a family that could not afford vacations. We never went on one vacation and so I felt very special and excited to be chosen by my friend Teresa to accompany her and her parents on a cruise. We were going to visit Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta and I was so excited that I could hardly sleep in the weeks leading up to it. At one of our ports, we were walking to go parasailing at the beach when we encountered little children selling gum. "Chicle? Chicle?" they repeated over and over again without ceasing, while also following us and tugging at our clothes. Their "chicle" cries were more of a desperate demand rather than an offer and I remember feeling deeply sorry for these underweight, small children on the busy street corner, who weren't wearing any shoes. And suddenly, a wave of shame and guilt washed over me, as I remembered my twinge of jealousy prior to boarding the cruise ship because my friend routinely had vacations like this while I didn't. I still remember the impact of that day and the realization that although poor, I was indeed very, very fortunate.
In his new book Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey shares what his mom said the day he complained about not having new, trendy shoes: Complain about your shoes, and I'll take you to see the child with no feet. We all need those reality-checks sometimes. I am always humbled and surprised when I reach out to someone whom I know is struggling and they are focused on the good instead of the bad. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they are surprisingly grateful for what they do have. Mom was this way, to the very end. In fact, I remember asking her "Why don't you feel sorry for yourself, Mom?" because it bewildered me so much. "Because there are children who have cancer, Megan, and I've lead a full life."
They say that comparison is the thief to joy. But comparison of a different kind can keep us grounded and focused on our blessings. And no matter how difficult life gets, there are always blessings and always things to be grateful for. This is beautifully illustrated in Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning. Comparison of my life with those children selling the chicle showed me that my definition of poor was in fact quite comfortable by their standard. Although my parents had very little, they would go without to provide for my brother and I. In middle school, I always had the trendy, over-priced LA Gear shoes even though we did not have a car. Sometimes, we didn't have a lot of food, yet my brother and I had an over-abundance of gifts every Christmas, without fail. And we always had a roof over our heads, and loving family within the walls, even if the home may have been small.
My hope is that our children will feel fortunate and have gratitude as they realize what they have, rather than a sense of entitlement. I want them to look back and realize that I stretched my budget, and even started a side-hustle photography business just to fund their parties. Gratitude is a mind-set that is cultivated with conversations that take place around the dinner table, like the one we had last week about how tough life was for our grandparents, and how hard they worked to provide a better life for us. It is small, daily habits like identifying three things that we're grateful each day before we go to bed at night, or focusing on all of our blessings that money cannot buy. Cultivating gratitude is a habit, and not one that comes easy to teenagers who are using a different part of their brain. And for this reason, I want to make it a habit now. We are also already teaching her the value of hard work, and earning money. She has some standard chores that are to be done without pay, and others that she must complete to earn fifty cents or a dollar. A portion of this must be donated to the child she has adopted in El Salvador, Jasmine. This is what behavioral scientists call the identifiable victim effect - our human tendency to respond more empathetically to the plight of a single individual, rather than a large group.
My husband and I have worked continuously since our first jobs (mine was the Del Taco Drive-Thru at the age of 16, where I made $4.25 an hour), and we also want our children to work and to contribute to their car and college tuition, as they get older. All throughout my undergrad and graduate school, I worked full time, often two part-time jobs when I could not find a full-time employment. I did this, and made education a priority so that I could provide for my children. Even then, as a teenager or in my twenties, I thought of my future children and how I wanted to give them everything that I didn't have and provide for them not just with material things but with experiences. But I will never make the mistake of giving them presents in place of presence. What children really want, more than anything we can buy, is our unconditional love and our undivided attention.
Giving children presents but not our presence is meaningless, and it is what creates children who grow to be adults that are never content and satisfied.
A quote by Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace comes to mind:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
This brings me to one last story. Although my Mom worked as an executive secretary for B of A in San Francisco and at William Iselin around the corner from Wall Street in New York before I was born, she decided to stay home once she became a Mom. When we were older, she started babysitting to earn extra income. She babysat one little boy named Jimmy, whose Mom always bought him toys and took him to Disneyland. One day, my Mom was sitting with him, reading a book, when he looked up at her and said "I wish my Mommy would just sit and read a book with me, instead of taking me to Disneyland." That made an impact on me and at 15 or 16 I remember thinking that I didn't want to be that type of parent. I would to buy them things, yes, but more importantly I would give them my time. Of all of the things that my Mom gave me, her love, attention, optimism and time are what hold the most value. When I would come home from school, she had a snack waiting and would sit at the kitchen table and talk with me. As the years passed and I entered college, those snacks became cups of coffee but still we talked, sometimes for hours. In her conversations, she had a way of infusing me with optimism without me even realizing it. When I came to the table and then left the table, the situation I was worried or upset over remained unchanged, yet I felt better; lighter, and happy. I knew everything would be alright. And I'll take that feeling any day over a new pair of shoes. I can't remember what she said but if I try really hard, I can remember the warmth, comfort and completeness that time in her presence always left me with. Being with Mom was like being warmed by sunshine on an slightly chilly day and that is what I want my kids to feel and remember when they're my age, and what I hope they give to their children. The parties? Those are just icing on the cake.