There’s a Gospel passage in which Jesus says no man gives his child a snake when they ask for a fish. It’s built in to our love for our children, this desire to fulfill their needs…and their wants. Whatever they ask for–the newest toy or a special treat–we want to tell them yes.
But even God, to whom Jesus is comparing us, doesn’t give us everything we want–because what we want isn’t necessarily what we need.
Growing up, my sisters and I got told “no” a lot. We didn’t go out to eat, we almost never bought treats at the store. (Like Oreo’s. Oreo’s were a huge treat.) We were a farm family in the ’80s, and my parents had to be very frugal. They were also very busy–Dad almost always worked ten hour days, and during planting or harvest, it might be twelve or more. Mom had to be available to help move equipment, haul grain, or run to the dealership for a part. And she grew and preserved most of our vegetables. So the “no”‘s were unavoidable. We didn’t go to the pool very often, and when we did we very rarely bought snacks, and then only the cheapest ones–no candy bars. I can count our amusement park and baseball game trips on one hand. Vacations, for that reason, were a Very.Big.Deal.
It was a very different childhood from that of many of my classmates, whose parents took them to St. Louis to buy school clothes every August. I don’t ever remember shopping for school clothes. We just went downstairs and pulled out the next box from the storage room.
Frankly, I don’t think I got told “no” all that often, because I learned pretty quickly not to ask for a lot. I think at some instinctive level, I could sense how much it would hurt my parents to have to say no. (Although if my memory is skewed, I’m sure my mom will hop in and correct me. It’s wonderful, but sometimes dangerous, to write when you know your parents are reading. )
Like all childhood lessons that sting, this is one I have come to value greatly. Self-denial is not a sexy concept–our entire economy is based on self-gratification. But look what it’s led to: an epidemic of debt and obesity. Self-gratification is really dangerous. It’s not intrinsically bad, but it becomes bad at a very low level. And let’s face it: in adulthood, we often have to go without what we need, or think we need.
I want to teach my children the difference between needs and wants. But we don’t face the same necessities that my parents did, and it makes it harder to say no. Their deprivation hurts my heart; their pain hurts me. Yet I know they need to learn to handle not getting what they want. That is a lesson that takes a long time to learn—to handle the word “no” with grace.
So we try to practice moderation, stewardship, and frugality, because those three things all require “no.”
Moderation: food, toys, TV viewing–we try to keep reasonable limits on these things. We have made a rule that there will always be only one television in our house, in order to moderate the temptation.
Stewardship: We steward the environment by recycling, using cloth diapers, and not buying a lot. We practice financial stewardship by saving (and saving and saving) to make any major purchase–for instance, we’ve been saving for almost two years toward an SLR camera, because the darned hospital bills and repairs keep cutting into the project. We keep on a budget, and Alex knows very well that he must practice the piano, not just because he should, but because we’re paying good money for his lessons.
Frugality: When we buy, we do it right, but we don’t buy much. We bought a new TV when I was 8 months pregnant with Alex–a great monster with a picture tube–at the time it was still the best picture quality. That’s no longer the case, and it would be awesome to have an HD TV, but how can we justify the expense? Ours works fine.
I hope these lessons help my children learn that life is measured not by Stuff, but by the quality of their relationships, both with the people in their lives and with the world at large.
What do you do to help your kids learn the importance of “no”?