Photo Credit: Courtesy Jewel
In her blog for the iVillage series CelebVillage, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jewel, who recently released the children’s book and CD That’s What I’d Do, writes about the dilemma of giving her 15-month-old son Kase (with husband Ty Murray) too much -- and reflects on the lessons her own difficult childhood taught her.
A friend of mine recently went through a traumatic experience. Her son was incarcerated for drug use. Everyone wants to know why. What did SHE do wrong? Her son is 23 years old, and it's his own fault. No one to blame for your decisions but yourself, I say. But now as a a parent I find myself doing the same thing my friend is doing -- wondering where did it all go wrong?
It's every parent's nightmare to have your baby -- your innocent perfect baby -- end up in JAIL.
Mind you, my friend is a church-going, middle class, loving mom. This isn't an unfortunate, neglected kid in a slum, repeating a cycle of abuse. She was an available and loving mom: If you can accuse her of anything, it would be loving him too much. She gave him whatever he wanted, because making him happy made her so happy. This is the only fault I can see and it's one that many of us are guilty of. But that's not so bad, right? I mean, not all spoiled kids turn out to be drug addicts. Genetics and so many other factors play in to that particular blight, but it does get me to thinking: To spoil or not to spoil, that is the question?
I look around at her son's peers and they are kids that seem to be summed up by what I have heard described as Generation Me, the next crop of youth who thinks of themselves as entitled to all the perks of CEOs, rock stars or presidents, without going through the process of actually earning it.
How did an entire generation of our country's youth gain the sense that things should be theirs without the annoying inconvenience of actually working for it? The Greatest Generation must be shaking their heads: How did things change so far, so fast? It went from a generation of self-sacrifice and duty, to a generation that feels they should do little more than be born to be interesting enough for their own TV show.
It seems that in times of great hardship and need, character is won. It also seems true that in times of luxury and abundance, a mental and emotional laziness abounds. Perhaps this generation is guilty of nothing more than having it too good. No hardship ever tested their mettle. No fire ever tempered their steel. The take-away? Perhaps all hardship is not to be avoided. Like an immune system that never gets stimulated by being exposed to germs, our kids can actually be compromised by our overprotection, rather than strengthened by it. As with everything, the key seems to lie in striking the right balance.
While I do feel in general it was not in fashion for certain prior generations of parents to spoil their kids, an argument can be made that an equal amount of damage was done by lack of attention and toughness that someone like my grandfather, for example, was raised with. Kids were little more than tools at times to be seen and not heard. Generations seem to obey a pendulum effect. One swings hard right: They are tough parents who do not spoil, but do not show much affection either. The children of that generation grow up and rebel and swing hard left, showing great affection, but overindulge perhaps, and thus trends get established that embody this national zeitgeist toward child rearing, if you will.
Without knowing it, we are born into a trend, a cloud of opinion, a movement of time-outs vs. spanking, of never using the word "no" instead of listening to our child's needs. But the fact that a general mood or trend toward parenting exists in any given generation (as evidenced by the spirit of the parenting books that are in fashion for each generation) does not mean we as individuals cannot carve our own path within it.
So, what is the zeitgeist that my generation is parenting within, and within that, what dynamic has my own childhood created, that informs what kind of parent I might be?
I was not spoiled as a child. It was the opposite, really. While I certainly hope to afford my child more stability and attention than I was given, I WAS taught to work hard, and I have to admit that has served me well. So much confidence is gained when you learn that something is earned and that you have the ability to earn something. It's like the power of creation begins to live in you: You had nothing when you started, and then with little more than a desire and some elbow grease, you have something! Whether it's money earned from a few hours of mowing lawns, or a poem written from a few hours of thinking, you created an opportunity for yourself to gain something you desired. You are the master of your own ship, no matter your circumstance, if you can look at your hands and your mind as your best allies, instead of looking for someone else to make your desires come true.
I had very low self-esteem as a kid. So much was wrong with my home life that I didn't even know where to begin to fix it, and eventually I just moved out on my own at the tender age of 15. Looking back now, that seems so young. Too young. A girl like me, with so many issues and needs and fears should have been a statistic, pregnant by some man who treated me with little more regard than chewing gum, doing drugs to fill the many emotional holes that tore through me, a downward spiral into the same hell that fame delivered for so many countless girls like me...
But that was not my fate. Why did I end up okay, while my friend's son, who had a much more stable and healthy childhood, end up in jail? Of course there is no easy answer to give. But I think a big part of it has to do with the confidence I was given by knowing I could depend on myself. I had only myself to count on -- there was no prince, no parent, no magical savior to waste my time wishing on like so many stars. I knew I could work, and that good things came from hard work. I had no idea at the time what a gift that actually was.
Another thing that served me well was plain old observation. Maybe it was my writer's heart that made me want to observe, but I knew from a young age that I was in a dangerous position: I was what is called an "at-risk youth." I did not know that term then, but I can tell you I felt it. If we are what we are surrounded by, I knew I had to find the kind of role models I wanted to become and then surround myself with them. This led me to look and study everyone around me, and to try and take the good, and leave the bad. If I had no idea how to be happy, I tried to see what happy people did with their time, and what unhappy people did.
This sounds simplistic, but I found it to be profound when I applied it to my life. I simply tried to make myself do what happy people did, whether I felt like it or not. I woke up instead of sleeping in. I exercised. I quit whining and being so negative. I looked for opportunities instead of sitting around complaining about what was wrong with my life. This all took a lifetime, of course, and with many mistakes and pitfalls -- too many to even mention -- from homelessness as a teenager to unthinkable betrayal and heartbreak as a woman. But the point is I kept moving forward, striving and struggling and moving toward health and happiness, and I kept weeding out those forces in my life that did not bring health and happiness. My mettle was tested, and I answered. I still pinch myself at the blessing of my life.
But now I am in a position I never thought I'd be in: I'm a PARENT. I am no longer my own child trying to figure out how best to raise myself. I am someone else's parent, and I must figure out how to raise him. What's more, I'm not broke, but I'm in a position to indulge my child, and spoil my child, and what's worse, if I deny him his every whim, I'm in a position to have my son resent me for withholding something he knows I can afford. Huh? This is not a position I thought I would find myself in, that is for sure.
So, I have to ask myself, what is the nature of spoiling? Why do we do it? Is it for the joy of our child? Or is it ourselves we are really spoiling? What I have learned is still a work in progress, but here are my thoughts so far.
Spoiling a child has nothing to do with wealth, and is not caused by gifting material objects. In fact, spoiling is not even in the object we give, nor in the abundance of material objects, but in the timing, attitude and the message we send when we give the object. It's like any symbol in society: It is our attitudes about the symbol that give it power.
I have seen poor and rich kids alike who were spoiled beyond functioning. I mean that literally. They could never function as adults because they were so crippled by never knowing the value of earning something for themselves. Essentially they were robbed of the self-confidence that comes with doing something for themselves, instead expecting everything to magically be done for them. They entered the adult world completely unprepared -- like zoo animals that were pampered, and then suddenly released into the wild and expected to fend for themselves. They were so coddled and so "loved" that they never learned the skills necessary to function on their own.
I believe this is the beginning of a deeply codependent nature that makes it hard for them to feel fully self-sufficient and will impact their relationships in every aspect, be it romantic, platonic or otherwise. Codependence manifests itself in many forms, including drug use. I have spoken with many drug counselors who say the essence of drug use boils down to a codependent need for something outside of yourself to make make you feel better.
On the other hand, I have also have friends, the Laney family, who gave their child all the toys and perks they could afford, and yet their son was not spoiled and I think it's because the spirit in which they gave taught him their values of care, pride and ownership. For example, they got their son a portable DVD player, which few kids in the area had. These friends were not rich, but were able to afford such luxuries, but they asked that he not bring it to school with him as they did not want to make the other kids feel badly that they did not have one as well. They taught their son to be compassionate and aware of the gifts he had, and to be considerate of those who may not be as fortunate. He was raised never wanting for things, but grew into a thoughtful and hard-working man. This why I think spoiling is not in the giving of object, it's in the spirit of how it is given.
I remember back to when I was 16 and I had received a full scholarship to a prestigious fine arts high school. Most of the kids came from very wealthy families with married parents, and I was utterly shocked to see that these spoiled, soft children were little better off than me with my emotionally unstable and abusive home life. As a poor kid I imagined that having married parents and wealth just automatically equaled happiness. Boy was I wrong.
I had a roommate who was utterly devastated because she would not going to get a Porsche due to a "B" on a report card. I mean she was really clinically depressed. It sounds funny and trivial, but I promise it was anything but to her. It was the tip of an iceberg of a much larger problem that betrayed her inability to believe in herself as an autonomous individual.
Now the way I was raised was the polar opposite -- it smacked more of neglect than being spoiled. But the point is, it's the opposite side of the same coin. I was not given enough tenderness, care or more importantly enough instruction to know how to function or relate to anyone. It was sad, BUT I did learn to be self-sufficient at least, and even back then I knew I was going to come out ahead. Because at least when I looked inside, behind all the pain, there was a fighter in there who knew if my back was to the wall, I would figure a way out on my own. Hardship taught me to be a survivor.
So, what kind of mom will this make me? What kind of mom do I want to be? I have to remember the answer to that question is not pre-fated. I do not have to be the kind of mother my mother was (my mother left us when I was 8, after the divorce). I have a choice in this.
Just because I was not prepared for how to exist and relate and function in the "real world" doesn't mean I have to raise my son this way. With hard work, and by establishing new habits, I can change the pattern. But I have to be careful not to be a pendulum that swings too far in the opposite direction as well by over-coddling and overprotecting my son, in essence try to parent myself surrogately though him to somehow give myself what I never had. Or spoil him just because I wasn't.
I feel my chief job as a parent is to raise a child that can become a functioning and happy adult once he is released from my arms and out into the wild world. This may sound odd, but I have to remember my child is not my own -- he is his own. The best way I can describe what I mean here is to reference the Native Americans who said they do not own the land, they are stewards of it. I am a steward of my son. His time in my home is fleeting. I want to enjoy him every second of every day, but knowing I must deliver him to his adulthood in good shape, so he can find happiness and love and purpose on his own path and in his own terms. I must try to do no harm. I must try to take care of all my emotional baggage so I don't burden him with what is not his to deal with.
For the last year I have been watching parents who spoil their children. It is of course for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it is because they feel guilty they are gone working, and so they want to indulge them when home, or fear ruining their time together by enforcing rules. Sometimes it's a lack of clarity of what their rules even are. For others, it's because it feels so good to give them what they want. For yet others, I've noticed a need to feel close to the child, because they need that emotional intimacy. Maybe it's missing elsewhere in their other relationships. Or it gives them a sense of purpose.
These are all pitfalls I could so easily fall into, as it's obvious I am a prime candidate for NEEDING to be a spoiler. The recurring theme I see is spoiling feels good to the parent. Spoiling is for the parent. It feels good to the parent, even though it is bad for the child. This to me means spoiling my son is an inherently selfish act, masquerading as an act of kindness for my child. Sounds almost sinister! When you look at the results, it is, because it leads to an unprepared youth who becomes an adult who has a deep resentment for that unpreparedness. And since whatever emotion led us to spoiling seldom resolves itself spontaneously, the need to relate to our children on that level is still there as they leave the nest. So we continue to dote and coddle an increasingly hostile or an increasingly dependent young adult, and a new chapter begins as the parent keeps trying to get that "high" from caring for their baby, and the child continues to be handicapped by an inability to truly provide and function for themselves.
This dynamic is one my friend Sally has expressed having with her son, who is now in jail. Perhaps the physical distance imposed by prison walls will provide the emotional separation that is needed for them each to heal. I hope so. I hope it can be turned into a positive for them both. They are both such good people.
Now that I'm a parent, I understand the deep pull to indulge a child. Their love is like crack, and if doing whatever it takes to keep that love coming is wrong, then I don't wanna be right! I joke, but I'm not far off the mark.
The love a child gives you is so pure, so healing, so satisfying, that it can keep a parent doing anything to keep the source of that love happy. It is so blissful, it can help you gloss over any holes in a marriage, any discontent with a job, it makes any emotional self-maintenance seem a little easier to avoid. Loving a child seems like the most pure and innocent thing we can do. The love of a child is a canyon you want to throw yourself down into and never come out of. But sadly that's not practical or healthy for anyone.
When they grow, our children will leave us, and we will have to face our marriages, our jobs, our place in life without that intense love we had in our babies. And they will have to face that same world without being babies. And how we care for ourselves is how they will learn to care for themselves. Will we take care of our own needs, will we be responsible for ourselves, or will we put everyone else's needs ahead of our own? Will we resist temptation and make the hard decisions when they arise, or will we collapse into the easy way out? We have to remain accountable to ourselves, and take care of our own needs, so that our children don't become burdened as the sole providers of our happiness.
Now I don't see myself as a strict parent denying my child of his earthly wishes and desires, but I want to make sure the attitudes and emotions I place on giving him things are in line with my values and morals, and that I'm not just giving him things to fill unexamined emotional needs of my own, all while robbing him of the true gift -- the confidence and pride that comes with earning something for himself. If I want to really "spoil" my child, I will help him appreciate the gift is in doing rather than in passively receiving.
I hope my son's generation never has to know the hardships faced by that of the Greatest Generation, yet I also hope he does not have the sense of entitlement that seems to be defining Generation Me. I hope he can land somewhere in the middle. I hope that I can be strong enough not to protect him from every hardship, so that he may know the great confidence that can only be won the old-fashioned way -- through trial and error and prevail.
That's my plan. Sounds good on paper. Mind you, my son is only 15 months old, so check back in on me in 16.7 years. I know, we make plans while God laughs. I know. I carry on by hoping whatever holes there are in my parenting ability, he will be able to fill in with the love and wisdom of those around him. Speaking of which, I hope he will surround himself with loving and wise friends and mentors. But that will have to wait for another blog.
Singer-songwriter Jewel recently released the children’s book and CD That’s What I’d Do -- click here for more information. Check out her official website, Facebook page and follow her on Twitter at @jeweljk. And click here to read more exclusive posts in the CelebVillage series.