Now, I certainly don’t mean to disparage the advantages of either money or education in any manner. It goes without saying that the ability to financially provide for your family is critically important, and the benefits of applied learning are tremendous. But beware, pitfalls do exist if one is not careful. Inherent in these obvious advantages are the traps of over-indulgence and over-thinking.
The father of one of my friends back in my hometown had an expression which always intrigued me. He was famous for declaring that there is no problem so great in life that it can’t be overcome by throwing money at it. Wow — a lot of wisdom there, huh? Just think about it for a second. You have water in your basement? No problem, just grab your checkbook, start writing, and eventually your cellar will be dry again. You say you’re bored? Hey, extract some money from your wallet and start to throw it around. Pretty soon, if you spend enough, you’ll be having fun. What if you happen to be the owner of a losing professional baseball team? Do you want a formula to turn the franchise’s fortunes around? Simple! Just go out and buy up all the best and most expensive free agents available, and your team will start to win! I guarantee it.
However, parenting is an exception to this priceless philosophical pearl. Money can buy a lot of stuff, but it does have its limitations. Three things you can’t purchase with a credit card are love, happiness, and good children. Yes, you can waterproof a basement, have fun, and win pennants by spending money, but it isn’t going to be particularly helpful in raising your sons and daughters. In fact, when it comes to parenting, money can have an insidious, corrupting influence. Too much of it available and the willingness to use it too freely can lead to ruination. The more toys a child has, the less they will appreciate any of them. Too easy an access to money ends up with your sons or daughters not understanding its value or, even worse, taking it for granted. The biggest temptation and potential evil is that a parent will use money as a substitute when what their child truly needs is much more basic. Don’t offer a gift when what they need is a hug.
I often get asked what my position is regarding allowances and, unusual for me, I have no strong feelings on the subject. I have seen it work, and I have seen it not work. There is the argument that it teaches a child the value of money from an early age, and that is probably valid. The idea of delaying gratification to obtain the desired prize is certainly a lesson worth learning. Oddly, though, my sister and I never had an allowance. The family’s money was seen as a pot to be shared by all of us. If we ever wanted something — and providing, of course, that our recent conduct and performance warranted it — the pocketbook was opened. Or, if not, the answer was a curt but resounding, “No.” Period. End of discussion. And, for some reason, we ended up never really asking for much.
There are a wide variety of questions such as these routinely directed my way as a pediatrician by parents on the topic of money. At what age should a child be given an allowance? How much is reasonable? Should it be automatic or based upon performance? Should the son or daughter be rewarded monetarily for doing household chores? Should money be used as a consequence? Personally, I don’t feel there is a fixed, correct, specific answer to any of those questions. It is the parents’ attitude towards money that is far more important than anything else.
Children need to understand the source of the family’s income. Mom and Dad don’t print tens and twenties out in the garage. The dollars come from hard work and sacrifice. Children should simultaneously be taught both a healthy respect and disrespect for money. Respect it for what it can provide, but understand its limitations. If this is the atmosphere you create in your home I believe whether or not you choose to give your kids an allowance is immaterial. Your choice.
The educated parent is commonly a logical one, and when it comes to parenting that is generally a positive. However, such a mother or father will often bewail the fact that their child did not come with a manual. The bad news is that life just doesn’t work that way, and there will never be a book written which will provide all the answers (not even these little essays). That is unfortunate. The good news is that you will soon know more about your own child than anyone else in the world, information which will prove to be invaluable. And that is fortunate.
Each of us possess years of experience in parenting passed genetically which is crying to be heard. All living creatures bear certain similarities when it comes to raising their offspring. The robin didn’t need to read a book to learn how to build its nest, and no one taught the mama cow how to nurse her calf. We humans also have biological instinct coursing through our veins, so one simply needs to become receptive to the messages. That is not to imply, of course, that there doesn’t exist a huge body of useful material which can be extremely helpful in the task of becoming a knowledgeable and good parent. But sometimes it may be best just to let your instincts take over and express disappointment, praise, correction, or whatever you are feeling at the time.
The exception, of course, is when a parents feels like he or she might be losing their temper. That is a potentially dangerous situation. Always be aware if you’re in that frame of mind and remember to pause, take a deep breath, and carefully consider what an appropriate response should be prior to acting. Otherwise, responding intuitively is the way we have been communicating with our children since prehistoric time, it continues to be extremely effective, so no need to stop now. Many of the best moms and dads I have known in my years in practice have never read a book on the subject of parenting. How do these parents do it? They trust — and follow — their instincts.
I am always a bit wary of a parent who requires too much detailed instruction. When a mother comes into the office with a truly exhaustive list of questions it’s a potential warning sign. Personally, I am a huge fan of the list, especially when it comes to visiting the pediatrician. It is a great assistance in making sure that all the issues get addressed. Because, let’s be honest, the inherent noise and confusion in the office is extremely conducive to forgetfulness. Every day of my life I utilize a list to help me organize myself. Even today I’m looking at a piece of note paper which reads:
- Grocery Store — Cheerios, toothpaste, milk, Cheez-Its
- Return book to library
- Finish re-write on Barriers to Effective Parenting OR ELSE!
(I sometimes like to threaten myself when I make my lists… I find it quite motivating.)
But when a parent is asking for advice on the simplest minutiae, requesting help in situations which should be intuitive, it is possible that they are committing the error of over-analyzing. Let me cite a typical example:
This highly educated and very sweet first-time mom was nursing her six-month-old quite successfully and desired to continue, in spite of the fact that her daughter now had four teeth and had recently taken to giving the mother’s nipple an occasional painful nip during feedings.
“How should I respond when Julietta does this?” the mother asked.
“How should you respond?” I repeated, not fully understanding the nature of the question.
“Yes, what should I do and say when my baby bites me?”
“Well,” I began slowly, “if she is really hurting you, first of all I would suggest you pull her away from from the breast.”
“Yes,” I continued. “I would advise you pull her away from the breast and then say, ‘Ouch.’”
“Oh, yeah. I would definitely recommend saying, ‘Ouch.’”
“Okay. I can do that. Is there anything else?”
“Yes. I mean, anything else I should say besides ouch?”
“Well,” I mused thoughtfully, “I would probably add, ‘That hurts!’”
“All right,” nodded the mom. “Hold on for a second, Dr. Barrett, let me write that down,” she muttered under her breath as she made a notation.
“So,” she said, looking back up at me, “let me repeat this to make sure I understand. If I’m breast feeding Julietta and she bites me really hard with her teeth, the first thing I should do is to pull her away from my breast?”
“And then say, ‘Ouch, that hurts?’”
“Yes. I believe that is what I would do if I were you.”
“I see,” she said thoughtfully, nodding her head once more slowly as she silently mouthed the words. “Okay, I think I’ve got it. That makes sense. I just hope I can remember what to do at the time,” she chuckled. “And thanks again for your patience with me. I do seem to have a lot of questions today, don’t I, but I promise I only have a few more. So, where was I? Oh, yes, here we are. Number thirty-seven…”
There is no intent here to mock this young woman. Quite to the contrary, she was in almost every way an extremely bright and truly wonderful mother. What has happened to her, as is the case with so many parents in recent years, is that she has been traumatized by highly opinionated parenting literature, blogs, and media. The resulting loss of self-confidence leads to an irrational fear of making a mistake. Parents grow fearful of saying or doing something wrong which could lead to irrevocable harm to their child. And after a while they no longer trust their intuition, levelheadedness goes flying out the window, and paralysis ensues.
Some of the best parents with whom I have ever worked had only a minimum of formal education, but they more than made up for it with a great love for their children and good instincts. There is nothing wrong with academic achievement. If combined with common sense it is a fantastic asset. But, please, don’t over-think.
Beware of traps and shortcuts in parenting. Avoid taking the easy way out, the path of least resistance which money so often provides. Wealth is a trap. It can actually make the art of parenting infinitely trickier. Children don’t need to be rich. They only need to have the true necessities provided: to be taught, to be protected, and to be loved.
Children are very durable, much harder to break than one would think (thank goodness). So hey, moms and dads, don’t be so afraid of doing something wrong. Stop over-analyzing. Listen to and trust your instincts. Most of the time they won’t lead you astray.
There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret. We all make mistakes, as I am the living proof. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my kids. They’ll tell you!