Last time, I promised to talk about some of the doubts and difficulties I faced after committing to trusting my son to figure out and decide what was best for himself.
One cringe-worthy example: I enforced tooth brushing when he was only three years old—meaning I brushed his teeth even though he hated it and resisted by squirming, crying and yelling. I remember how righteous and right I felt, even as I also felt profoundly uncomfortable about using physical force on my son. I had outside authority on my side: the dentist said it was time to start brushing his teeth to create a beneficial routine. My son was not persuaded by rational arguments, threats, or dire warnings about the future condition of his teeth. I don’t remember how long the forced brushing continued, although from this vantage point, not only was it too long, it was completely unnecessary.
Ironically, he’s had lots dental work in the intervening years (extraction of baby teeth to ease crowding, braces, wisdom teeth removal, jaw bone cyst surgery), but none of it had any relationship to dental hygiene. He’s never had a cavity, although that has more to do with genetics than tooth brushing. All the energy I put into forcing—and that he put into resisting—tooth brushing, could have gone into enjoying creative and fun activities together. It really would have been okay to encourage and wait until he decided brushing his teeth was a good idea.
When my son was young he loved for us to read him Tintin comics. If you haven’t ever read them, I encourage you to check them out from your public library. As someone who abhors violence and guns, I found myself feeling really uncomfortable with the presence of guns in the comics. Tintin, an intrepid boy reporter, his allies, and adversaries, frequently fired guns at each other, although no one was ever shot nor did anyone die. The stories were entertaining, but I was afraid my four-year-old son would think guns were harmless—or worse, that their routine use was acceptable and justified.
I brought up my fear to him and my husband. My husband talked about his own toy gun play as a child in cowboy and army games with friends. He pointed out that he is a pacifist. Even more convincingly, at the tender age of four, our son adamantly and clearly explained that he knew the books were stories and that real guns were dangerous. Although I still had some trepidation, I put aside my anxiety and kept reading the comics to him. Some of my most cherished memories are of the many hours I spent enjoying Tintin stories with my son.
Then, there was the issue of how our preschool-aged son handled money. To avoid his constant requests to buy him something every time we were in a store, we began giving him a dollar each week which he could spend on anything he wanted. In the beginning, he spent it quickly on small trinkets. It was really difficult to watch him spend money on what, to me, felt like junk. At first, I tried to dissuade him from buying things that I was certain would break or quickly become boring. (I fooled myself into believing I was protecting him from disappointment, but what I was really doing was anticipating his disappointment and protecting myself from feeling helpless and sad in the face of it.) My son was not easily dissuaded and bought cheap stuff anyway, for which I’m profoundly grateful.
Why? Because my predictions about which toys were junk were often wrong. Many toys lasted a long time, even though a few broke or weren’t much fun. Because one day, my son commented that some things weren’t worth the money—they broke quickly or weren’t as good as he thought they’d be. Because with even more time, he learned that if he saved the dollars over several weeks, he could buy more expensive things that were even more satisfying for him.
Those dollars bought a lot more than trinkets. They bought life experience for my son and me, and hours of fun, creativity, and joy. It was my son’s lived experience that shaped his attitude toward money. For years, he has been a responsible money manager, who views money as a useful tool for paying bills, buying stuff he wants, and participating in experiences that he enjoys. He lives well within his means.
Stay tuned for more stories in the next post.