I had the money, and it seemed so harmless to buy something for my son whenever I felt like it. It made him happy, and I felt a surge of happiness too, a rush of endorphins basking in his smile.
In fairness, my husband tried to warn me that this was going to become a problem, and I didn’t listen.
There’s no question that the fact that I made a habit out of buying too many toys for my son is a first-world problem. The effects became apparent closer to Christmas, when looking at the toy catalog was a fun pastime, and my son kept asking for more and more.
My heart sank as I realized that my little boy had become accustomed to gifts and bribes. I had only myself to blame as I reviewed the number of times I had promised him a toy if he did something for me or simply because it caught his eye. I traded toys for his bright smile, feeding my addiction for his happiness. I knew he didn’t need a constant stream of new toys to be happy, but I thought that since I had the means to give it to him, it was no big deal.
It was becoming a big deal. The pleading was becoming whining, and his expectations were increasing. The refrain went something like this:
“PLEASE, Mom. I really NEED this. I want this toy, Mama. Oh, we’re going to Target? Can I get a new Lego set? Why not? So-and-so has it. It’s not fair.”
My husband, bless his heart, didn’t say “I told you so.” Yet.
One day, I lost my patience while we were driving. I pointed to a man standing on the side of the road with a sign and said,
“SEE THAT MAN, THERE? HE DOES NOT EVEN HAVE A WARM BED! HE DOES NOT ASK FOR TOYS EVERY DAY! HE JUST WANTS TO EAT TODAY! WHY ARE YOU ASKING FOR SO MUCH?”
My son, from his booster seat, sheepishly said, “Okay, mom.”
And then I remembered that he is 6. He doesn’t know what too much means except within the parameters of what I have taught him. I realized that I had taught him that anything could be his if he asked nicely enough.
It was time to clean house, so to speak. The latest trend is de-cluttering, and what we needed to do was to minimize both his expectations and mine. The last thing I wanted was for him to think that life was going to hand him everything he wanted, when he wanted it.
I wanted him to learn how to wait.
And be a little disappointed sometimes. I mean, when I was a kid, I certainly didn’t get everything I wanted. Barbie Dream House and Easy-Bake Oven, I’m looking at you.
It didn’t take long for him to learn that trips to the store didn’t mean that we were buying him a present too, no matter how many pleases he sprinkled on top. We culled through his old toys and I talked to him in depth about homelessness and children without enough food on the table. We donated some of our Christmas money to the local children’s shelter and I took him with me to shop for the gifts and then deliver them to the shelter, wrapped and ready for a family with much less than we have.
It hit home for him this summer when we were visiting downtown Chicago, and we passed a woman with a little boy perhaps a year or two older than my son, sitting on the street with a sign asking for help. I stopped and dug in my purse and found some cash, and handed it to my son, along with the half of a pizza we had left from dinner.
“Here,” I said to him. “Give this to that lady and her son.”
He walked to her and handed her the food and the money, and when he returned, he was somber. On the way back to our hotel, we talked about what $5 might mean to that little boy, and how little he had. I could see his little brain trying to understand it all, and we’ll keep working on it.
Now, I do my best to keep gift buying to birthdays and Christmas. Just because I have money to spend doesn’t mean that I should. If I don’t want to raise an entitled, spoiled child, then it’s up to me and my husband to toe the line and set an example, teaching him to value what he has and save his money for extras along the way.
Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer and producer of the Listen to Your Mother show, Austin. She blogs at Two Cannoli. She tweets @AustinKVS.