When I was around five years old, our country club, basically a glorified suburban swimming pool club, had its annual Fourth of July celebration and kids’ activities. The memory is hazy, but I remember that day was hazy too, and there was one activity called the “Peanut Hunt,” where we kids were invited to find and take as many peanuts as we possibly could hidden among the grassy lawn.
A bunch of us, kids and adults, then huddled underneath a large tent, since it had started to rain. I found out that I had missed the “Peanut Hunt,” which had ended once the rain started going. It seems that for most kids, five years-old or under, missing something is a tragedy. There was a kid who said, as he munched on all his prize peanuts, that he was at the “Peanut Hunt” and had picked up plenty of peanuts. Even more upset and enraged, I grabbed his neck with both my hands and started strangling him. Some adults had to pull me away and tell me to calm down.
I’m still not proud of this event. However, someone I told this story to said I shouldn’t feel so ashamed with myself for my behavior on that day. After all, I was only five-years old.
However, I still understand and remember the feelings I had, even if I would not conduct myself in the same way. When Ben, our son who is 20 months old, cries about another kid’s toy he wants to have or something he can’t do, or has to stop doing, I can empathize–I can see myself in him, and at the same time feel sad for him when I see and hear that sad cry come, or sometimes burst out.
As a parent, I now have to sometimes be the bad guy. As someone who spent many times rebelling and fighting with every ounce against my own parents, it’s, some people would say, the karma coming back to me as I now have to be in the same position my parents stood in. I don’t like saying “no” to Ben, but I know I sometimes have to. Easy “no”s are things like “Noo!” when he is about to grab something sharp–I try to humor him at the same time, but make sure he doesn’t get whatever he’s grabbing.
The dilemmas, lately and most often, come with the playground where he finds other kids’ toys. Quite often, the parents are happy to share with us. Also, it seems that the kids who own whatever toys we discover are only marginally interested in the toy at this point. Still, when I, for example, push Ben in one of those plastic cars with the push stick for the parent or guardian, there is a point where we have to give the toy back.
The last time this happened was this past weekend. Ben spotted the car very quickly, when I was just beginning to catch a glance. The child sat in the car, but the mother, who seemed to think Ben was cute, asked her daughter to share it and let my child try it out. That was not a big deal to this girl, who went on to the monkey bars. Although, I was concerned that it might be hard to get Ben out of this car when one of us had to go home. Also, I wanted Ben to run around and keep developing his motor skills.
But it was hard to turn Ben down. He looked so happy once he stepped into this car. I almost felt that it was too much and I should not accept such a favor from a stranger. But then I reminded myself that is was more about Ben. As I pushed the car past this mother, she looked at Ben and said “Hi, handsome!”
After I told Ben “One more time around,” I stopped the ride and encouraged Ben to do something else. He rocked his body back and forth in a way to tell me I had to keep pushing. Then he somehow managed to strap the plastic safety belt I had just un-done–I had never seen him manage something like that before. I gave in and went around one more time. Then I stopped. I held him and spoke to him gently, then I finally pulled him out, and he was kicking and screaming. Still, I managed to quickly get him to the slide and after being upset for a few moments, he calmed down.
I actually had an event a few months prior, where things did not go as well. When I told him he had to share with another kid who was waiting to go for a ride, he lost control. He moved his head all over the place, and I had to struggle to strap him in his stroller, since I was afraid he would hit his head against the pavement. I had to start going home, give him his pacifier and something to snack on as we made our way back, to help calm him down.
As parents, we find ourselves as the ones who are deciding what they can or can’t have. From Ancient Greece to Judeo-Christian practices and laws to Buddhism to Dr. Freud, and beyond, they all have something to say about our desires, how to deal with them, whether to resist them, curb them, free ourselves from them or enjoy them, the way we were truly meant to. This very issue is what we find ourselves dealing with as parents.
Give your kid everything he or she desires and the results, as I have observed, aren’t pretty. You end up with an adult with no self-control, susceptible to addictions, self indulgent and un-happy. Deny your child, and you deny your child from the banquet that is life–your child grows up unhappy, missing out on life, lacking confidence in the world. We are forced to find the balance that Aristotle talked about.
We find ourselves staring at these philosophical, and very big issues, being forced to make decisions, sometimes very quickly, in our jobs as parents. My approach is to try to humor Ben when I can. I try to let him know that I understand the pain of not getting what you want, and I try to explain why it’s important that he can’t have something–at his age, he might not understand what I’m saying, and maybe, at this point, it’s just my tone of voice that assures him.
Plato said the just life is better, and that sensual pleasures keep us from being just. Freud talked about the harm people were doing to themselves by pretending they didn’t have animal desires that needed to be fulfilled. I hope I can help my son find a balance between these two, the Apollonian and Dionysian worlds Nietszche spoke of. I believe happiness comes when these two forces are in balance with each other.
Not always getting what you want is better than getting everything you think you want and still finding yourself looking for happiness.