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The case of the screaming nephew

He'd have shut up if I'd bought him the treat. Here's why I didn't.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 12, 2010 1:47PM
For the past week I've been hosting my niece and her two boys in my Seattle apartment. Two adults and two kids under age 8 in a two-room apartment with no yard -- good thinking, huh?

During a trip to the Burke Museum I informed the kids that I would not be buying anything at the gift shop. However, the older boy had a tiny amount of cash and purchased a small souvenir. Little bro decided he should have something, too, and came at me with a stuffed animal.

What happened next wasn't pretty.

"No, put it back," I said. "I told you I wasn't buying anything today."

"Brudder's getting something!" he protested.

"Brudder is spending his own money," I said.

The little man didn't take that well at all.

Life isn't fair
First he assumed his "I'm about to melt down" position: kneeling and frowning, arms folded across his chest. When told to put on his coat and come along, he said, "I don't want to!"

I replied, "Well, you have to. Let's go."

His face crumpled and he let out a fire-siren wail. So I did what any doting great-aunt would do.

Bought him something?

Nope. I scooped him up and carried him outside as he struggled and shrieked. Then I let him scream for about 15 minutes.
Yes, it was hard to see him so unhappy. Yes, it was a little embarrassing to be out in public with a wailing 3½-year-old. And yes, it wasn't surprising that he flipped out: He thought it wasn't fair, that he deserved to get something, too.

But here's the thing: Life isn't fair. He didn't "deserve" a treat. None of us do. It's that kind of thinking that has gotten us into trouble in this country.

Not an easy lesson
The entitlement mentality is mighty dangerous stuff. People who think that if they want it they should instantly have it also wind up thinking that debt is not only normal, but inevitable.

For quite a while people have thought they "should" have shopping sprees, big homes, elaborate vacations, new cars every two years. It didn't matter whether they could actually afford these things -- they deserved them.

Thanks to credit cards they could hit the malls or shop online anytime they felt like it. Thanks to subprime mortgages they could buy McMansions way out of their price ranges. Thanks to HELOCs they could remodel their kitchens or have boats before they were 30.

Never mind what it actually cost. It wasn't real money because they didn't have to earn it, save it and plan for it.

No, I don't expect a 3½-year-old to understand that. (Apparently it's too abstract for some boat-owning 30-year-olds to understand.) But the little man needs to grow up knowing that he doesn't get everything he wants the moment he wants it. This is not an easy lesson, which means it has to be demonstrated consistently.

So, yeah, I let him scream.

Worms to the rescue!
The screaming finally stopped when I cautioned him not to step on that worm. He looked down and the sight of an earthworm slinking along the ground was so fascinating that he forgot how irritated he was with me. I carefully lifted the worm with a twig so he could get a closer look.

And that was that. I wiped his nose, offered him a bit of the snack his brother and I were sharing, and herded the two off to meet up with their mom.
Lest you think I'm an impossible meanie, let me say that my niece agreed with the way I handled the situation. It's the way she's raising her boys: Life is not fair and sometimes it's upsetting, but that's the way it goes.

I'd seen her model that kind of parenting in the past week, and I was impressed by her fortitude. My rewriting the rules would not only have undermined her authority but would also have confused the little guy: How come Mom says one thing and Aunt Donna says another? (And how could I make this work to my advantage?)

Raising kids is not easy. Letting them have whatever they ask for would certainly cut down on the screaming. But it would lead them to think that they will never have to wait to satisfy a desire. It would give them the idea that the world owes them something.

The world doesn't much care about whether or not you get your stuffed animal, or your boat. However, plenty of people in that world will be happy to sell these things at a high rate of interest.

And once you get them, you may find that they don't matter much anymore. That stuffed animal looked awfully desirable to my great-nephew. A quarter of an hour later he was more interested in a worm on a stick.

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