Holiday thoughts: Why the diaper bag is ruining our children

A few weeks ago I was at the park with my two-year-old son.  After about fifteen minutes of play, he came over to me and demanded, “Bar!”. What he was asking for was a Trader Joe’s cereal bar. For the parent who doesn’t know about these, they’re like an oversized Fig Newton filled with your choice of Apple, Blueberry, Strawberry, and now Cranberry, just in time for the holidays!

On most occasions (up until now), I’ve thought it cute or even marveled at his use of language. But this time, there was something about his tone that didn’t sit well with me. His tone was one of privilege, like a king demanding his wine or a prince his pony.  He expected that I’d give him that bar then and there.

What really gave me pause wasn’t just his expectation or his attitude. It was the idea that perhaps always having the bar available for him might send the wrong message and do him a disservice developmentally.  As we move into the holiday season, it’s a question that weighs on me (and most other parents I know) even more heavily then usual: should we be giving our kids everything they want, when they want it?

Need or want?

My son demanding instant gratification is not the problem. Doing so is his right as a two-year old. The problem is that I had not one but two fruit bars in the pocket of the diaper bag, ready and waiting for him should the “need” arise.

Need is not the right word here, since he certainly wouldn’t starve during playtime at the park. Does he really need anything for a 45-60 minute trip to the playground?

When I got home I took an inventory of the contents of the bag for this short trip to the park (a five minute walk from our house):

3 diapers
2 picture books
1 box of crayons
1 container of wipes (anti-bacterial)
1 container of wipes (sensitive skin)
1 bag of Annie’s cheddar bunnies
1 bag of grapes
1 sippy cup of water
2 TJ’s fruit bars (blueberry and strawberry)
2 bottles of hand sanitizer (pocket size)
3 matchbox cars
2 packages of squeeze apple sauce
To be fair, several items in the bag stay because they’re actually essential. In my opinion, the diapers, wipes, and one form of hand sanitizer fall into the “need” category. The rest are “wants” and I use them to pacify my son when he gets distressed.

Here’s a typical scene.  My son sees another boy who rides up to the playground and parks his scooter.  The boy walks away, and my son wants to take the scooter for a ride. I stop him from taking the scooter, but he begins to cry.  My attempts to redirect him to the swings or the slide don’t work.  I reach into the magic diaper bag to grab a strawberry fruit bar.  Problem solved!

His comfort or mine?

The playground example raises the question — who is the fruit bar really for?  Yes, my son is much happier while eating the bar than he was just moments before when he didn’t get his way.  Most parents, myself included, would admit that parenting is just easier when we give our young kids what they want, when they want it.

Television and video games are used in the same way.  The kids are driving me nuts, I say the magic word “show,” and I’ve just bought myself at least a half hour’s worth of peace. This peace and the peace I carry around in the diaper bag comes at a cost, though, which only gets more expensive as my son grows.

Many of the diaper bag’s contents offer instant gratification.  The more I reach into the bag to pull out what my son wants at that moment, the more I risk that he won’t be able to calm himself down when he inevitably doesn’t get what he wants.

You can’t always get what you want

I mentioned my diaper bag metaphor to a friend and fellow psychologist who has two kids (ten and five).  In speaking about her older son she said, “There are hurts he’s dealing with now that can’t be cured by a diaper bag.” My friend was lamenting the simpler days when the cure for her kids’ tears was as easy as reaching into the bag and pulling out a fruit bar.  Her take was that there’s no point in bursting their bubble before we have to.  While part of me understands the sentiment, another part of me knows it’s not so simple. We often give our kids what they want because we can; but just because we can, does that mean we should?

How often do you hear parents say that they want to give their kids all the things they never had as a kid? The parents I hear this from are often productive and accomplished people.  I think one of the big reasons they are as successful as they are is because they didn’t get everything they wanted.

The problem is that aside from my wife and myself (and doting grandparents) no one else is going to try to give my son exactly what he wants.  In reality, disappointment looms around every corner.  And the more I reach into that diaper bag, the more he’ll be unprepared emotionally to handle the inevitable losses he’ll suffer when he doesn’t get the things he wants.  He’ll also be unprepared for figuring out strategies to get what he wants through other creative means or by finding satisfaction in alternatives (a Plan B).

There’s been a lot of research and talk recently on the importance of having traits like grit and tenacity in order to tackle the increasing demands that our education system places on students.

While grit may be a proven recipe for success, many of our kids just aren’t learning the skills that foster these traits, in life and at school.

It’s the same at two as it is at fifteen

As much as this post seems to be about how to parent young children, I’m actually thinking more of the teenage boys I work with.  A majority of the kids I see are struggling with problems related to doing their school work.

Most of these boys are described by their parents as “naturally smart,” but “unmotivated” or “lazy” when it comes to doing homework and studying for tests.  Also, many of these boys have gone through a full battery of psycho-educational testing with few if any answers as to why they aren’t engaging in school as their capabilities would suggest.

Many have carried the diagnosis of ADD or ADHD for years; however, their parents have become frustrated with the diagnoses as their kids excel at the things they enjoy doing, like playing video games or spending hours chatting online with friends.  Conversations with these boys and their parents often leads me to the same conclusion:

These boys aren’t able to calm themselves and delay their gratification long enough to sit down and do their work.

I see the schoolwork struggle in the same light as I see my son’s struggle.  My son is feeling a sense of loss because he’s not getting to ride the scooter he covets on the playground.  When I take out the fruit bar to redirect him, I’m providing him a diversion from experiencing pain and loss.  By avoiding the pain, he misses out on the opportunity to begin to learn how to soothe himself.  This is not unlike the teenage boy who, when faced with a tough homework assignment, decides to divert his attention with YouTube or his Xbox rather than soothe his growing anxieties about the work he has to do.

So…deny and let them cry?

It may seem like I’m saying just don’t give them what they want and let them cry it out.  That is sort of true.  But with some important caveats.

Give them what they want…sometimes: As with most things that have to do with indulgence, the key is moderation. Often we give into our child’s demands because it’s just easier for us then having to deal with a tantrum.

There is no reason to completely stop giving in, but perhaps pick and choose times to stand your ground, and be sure to do it when you are feeling up to the task of weathering the storm. By picking and choosing our battles according to our own stamina, we can put ourselves in a much better position to help our kids work through the tough feelings they will undoubtedly experience.  Doing this also allows us to be a bit more mindful of the times when we do give in and the times we don’t, so that over time perhaps the split is more 50-50 then 80-20.

Supportive tears: Allowing our kids to simply cry it out may not produce well-adjusted children. Narration and validation of their feelings is key.

By narration I mean providing my son with a storyline or narrative about why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. This can help him recognize and identify these feelings as he grows. I can say to him “you’re really upset right now because you wanted to use that scooter and Daddy did not let you.”

Validating his feelings will allow him to identify and accept the feelings he’s having rather than trying to simply get rid of them.  For example, “you’re really angry at Daddy for not letting you ride that boy’s scooter” and “you’re really sad because it would be so fun to ride it.”  An acceptance of sadness and anger can help kids be more willing to face these emotions later rather than working hard to avoid them.

These techniques are especially important for young children like my two-year old, but kids of all ages can benefit from them.  And during the lead up to the holidays, these strategies are more important then ever, since the list of our kids “wants” undoubtedly outweighs their lists of “needs.”

What was in your mom’s diaper bag?

A PS here: I asked my mom what she would take with her on day trips to the park or other excursions. She said, “Oh, I took a bottle or drink and diapers, but I didn’t have that big bag that you lug around!”