Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do Your Children Own Anything?

When I wrote about gifts the other day, in You Call That a Gift?, I was really only addressing the misuse of the word "gift" as it is applied to things that are clearly not given to children as gifts. The bottom line there is, if the thing given can be taken away whenever the parent feels like it, then it is not a gift.

Then a few commenters on that post (on my Facebook page) pointed out that there is a much bigger issue here than deciding on a new word for the things given to children with all kinds of strings attached. I'll explain with a fictional but very believable story:
Mark was 15 when his parents gave him a shiny new laptop for Christmas. They were so excited to give it to him because they knew how much he loved to play games on the computer. It was a joyful moment as he tore open the wrapping and his eyes lit up. He was surprised and delighted and gratitude poured out from his mouth. It was his own. Or so he thought.
Fast forward only one month. His grades arrive in the mail. He's not doing so well in math. He hates math. He tries really hard, but doesn't understand the material, or his teacher. He has given up on ever doing well. So he's fine with getting a C, but his parents are not fine with it. They come into his room holding the report card, angry and disappointed apparently because he has not invented the kind of magic it would take for him to suddenly start excelling in math. "We're taking away your laptop until you start getting a B or better," they say. They are hoping it will motivate him to try harder. They don't understand that it's not about trying harder. He's doing his best. "But you said it was mine. You gave it to me. Please don't take it away," Mark begs. "We gave it to you, and we can take it away," his parents bluntly explain.

This logic gives Mark an idea. He has worked hard for a couple of years to save up some money, and he decides it it important enough to him to have his own laptop, that he will buy one for himself with his own money. This way, his parents can't take it away, right? Wrong. When his new laptop arrives in the mail, his laptop, his parents are furious. They chide him for wasting his money on a new computer when they have just bought him one for Christmas. "But I'm not allowed to use that one!" he reminds them. "And you're not allowed to use this one either. You are sending it back," they say. He knows he has no choice but to follow their orders.
What did Mark learn from this experience? He learned that he did not have the right to own things. His parents owned everything. He learned that money is power, until he tried to use that power by buying his own computer. Then he learned that age is power. He learned that he has no power until he gets older. He learned to look forward to the day when he could get away from his parents. When people couldn't just take away the things that were his.

When I wrote my last post, I was upset by the thought of parents giving their children "gifts" with strings attached. I was upset that these parents didn't seem to understand the concept of a gift. But the more I think about it, I understand that it's not about gifts. It's about power and control. It's about rights. Many adults seem to be fine with the idea that children do not have the right to own things. I imagine it's requires a similar justification that was used in the not-so-distant past to justify why women could not own property.

This one needed a trim anyway.
In our house, our children own their own things. They are free to use them as they please, as long as they are not hurting anyone or damaging someone else's things, of course. Our children can cut their Barbies' hair, write in their books, cut up their playing cards. They can watch their movies and use pieces from their games for purposes other than those intended. They can eat their candy and wear their clothes in whatever ways they want. They can share or not share their things. They know what it feels like to own something, and to share it willingly. They are learning about ownership, responsibility, and generosity. They are learning that our home is a safe place for them to keep their possessions, and that their father and I are trustworthy protectors of them and their possessions, and their rights.

What lessons do you want your children to learn about ownership and their rights? About you and how much to trust you?

Do your children own anything?

Monday, December 12, 2011

You Call That a Gift?

You know that thing you plan to wrap and give to your child this holiday season? What do you call that thing? Before you call it a gift, remember:
  • It's not a gift if you require a certain type or amount of appreciation in return. 
  • It's not a gift if you reserve or exercise the right to take it away at any moment, for any reason.
  • It's not a gift if you force your child to use it (or not use it) in a certain way.
  • It's not a gift if you use it as a tool to manipulate your child.
  • It's not a gift if you make your child feel guilty for using it too much or not using it enough.
If that thing you are giving is not a gift, please don't call it a gift. Find another word for the thing you are giving. Don't even wrap it. If you do insist on wrapping this non-gift, at least make sure your child knows the deal. Slap a warning label on that pretty wrapping paper:

This item is on loan to you under certain conditions.
It can and will be taken away from you at the will of your parents, for any reason, including but not limited to: your room is too messy, your grades are too low, you were grumpy one day, you made a mistake.

And don't forget to also label those things your child gets from "Santa" or anyone else, if you plan to use them in the same way. Those are not gifts either.

If you give your child something as a gift, remember that you are surrendering possession of that thing. You are permanently transferring ownership of that thing. It no longer belongs to you. It belongs to your child. If someone else gives your child something as a gift, remember that thing never belonged to you in the first place. Let your child own her own things.

A gift is something given freely and without strings attached. It's something you give because you want to give it. A giver of a gift does not expect anything in return. The giving of a gift is a happy transaction. If your gift is not like this, then it is not a gift at all. It is something else entirely.


The issue here is much larger than the meaning of the word "gift". See a follow-up post here: Do Your Children Own Anything?

There's a new post on Parent-Free By Choice today, Not Well Adjusted: The Day It Ended. The author explains that she is no longer speaking to her mother because she "couldn't take her constant judging, harassing, and demands anymore."