The screams from the raging child were deafening. She had thrown herself on the tile floor of the discount house shaking her four-year old fists and even legs at her mother. The mother looked tired, overwrought, at the end of her tether. It had been one of those days.
"It's the rabbits. She wants one of those furry rabbits." The mother pointed to the display of cuddly Easter bunnies. ?She has at least three of them at home.? The kicking and screaming went on unabated. The mother looked as though wishing some genie would whisk her away, leaving the screaming child to fend for herself.
The women shoppers surrounding her understood. There were expressions about the unfairness of toy and candy displays placed at the eye level of children, of advertising that is specifically targeted to children. Nods of agreement endorsed the mother's voiced desperation:
?How to you deal with their wants when all the ads, all the television shows, everything around them tells them that they should want this, that they should demand that. It's ?gimme, me, me, gimme" all day long!?
How indeed do you deal with the gimmes? And how do you deal with those screeching or whiney demands during shopping trips? Do you just walk away, and leave the child to its own devices? But then you can't leave a child to fend for itself for even a few minutes in our dangerous and litigious world. Do you instead wallop the little monster followed by threats of further punishments? That makes you look both bad and incompetent. Besides, such power struggles have a nasty habit of backfiring, and teach something you don't want to teach. So what should the mother have done? Should she have yanked her child off the floor, left the store, and dealt with her pint-sized progeny in the car? And in the car - should she have hit, scolded or lectured, or given the silent treatment to a child who could make driving difficult if she had tried to drive back home?
None of these procedures works too well. They have the obvious drawback of responding with anger to anger, and in all likelihood will produce future escalations. Even if we assure ourselves that we are not angry, and therefore that the?just? punishment doesn't reflect anger, children frequently react as though we are angry - perhaps out of control. Nor will these procedures prevent future performances by our marvelously inventive human progeny. Besides these scenes interfere with limited shopping time. So what to do?
Of course one can leave the youngster at home, avoiding future shopping trips with the potential little demon. But that means having someone at home taking care of the child. For most parents that isn't a viable alternative. So what to do? How do you prevent the screaming or whiney spectacle from erupting? Is there a way of putting an end to the gimmes in even the whiney ones? Can they be prevented from starting in the first place?
My answer stems not from my research in child development or even from experiences with my own children. Rather it stems from an event long before that from my own childhood. Although my childhood was about half a century ago, stores had already discovered the technique of eye level displays of candies and toys for children. Even though television was still in its infancy, there were radio programs geared to children with commercials that told us what we should, what we had the right to demand. And being a typical child, I made my demand ' once. It never happened again.
What was it that my mother did that was so effective? What was it that inhibited me from ever making another such demand, or throwing a scene in front of an audience? What had she done that made both out of the question? Did she hit me? Did she scold or lecture? Was there time out? Nothing of the sort. Instead she reacted with amusement and said something that is seared into my memory. It became a part of me as a person; it helped define who I am. With a great deal of affection she laughingly said something like this:
?Darling, you're too proud to beg. We have so many things. It's not as though we're in need and therefore must plead to be given things. Never mind how attractive the displays of toys or candies, it'll make you look icky if you beg for them. From a distance you may enjoy looking at them, or enjoy how they smell. But big girls like us are too dignified to beg or whine. You are a splendid, competent girl, not a poor, tragic beggar.?
Although less than five, my mother's words resonated. They were more effective than any punishment would have been. She had spoken to the person I wanted to become. She had spoken to my self concept. Like all children I wanted to be competent, and to be respected. She had shown me one of the ways this could be accomplished, and that begging, whining, or throwing a scene was not the way. My mother had harnessed the desire that is in all children, which is to be admirable, to be praiseworthy. She had enlisted this desire as part of that most important of parental functions - character building.
The concept of character building has it roots in early 20th century German psychology. In German, when your say someone has a good character it means that they are ethical, that you can count on them to try to do the ?right thing? and that they will do their best to make this a better world. If on the other hand someone has a bad character, the reverse is true. Note that the concept of a good character doesn't imply anything about the intelligence of the person, how pretty or handsome they are, or their social status.
Much of the groundwork for character building takes place prior to age six and consequently is largely dependent on parental instruction. Despite its early beginnings, character building is a daunting task, requiring much personal attention, love and ingenuity. Its successful realization, however, means a lifetime of rewards for the child, her/his family, and ultimately society. Is it not the greatest of parental gifts?
Modern culture, however, has created special problems for parents in their character-building efforts - this despite our expanding knowledge of child development. Not just the commercials, but TV programs, the movies, even popular songs detail what a youngster has the right to demand, what he/she should insist that life deliver. These aspects of our popular culture create explicit as well as implicit entitlements which parents, and eventually society, are supposed, in fact are expected to fulfill. They are the pervasive demands of the?gimmes? that can become deafening screams for fulfillment. What starts out as shrieks and whines for toys and candies in childhood frequently becomes in adulthood an overwhelming craving for the latest in material goods - superceding what would be the more emotionally rewarding aspects of life. And so we have many of our adults, surrounded by a plethora of magnificent possessions, feeling curiously empty.
The obvious way for parents to rise to the challenge of the ?gimme? power of the media and eventually peer pressure would be to control TV access, restrict what movies are seen, say no rock concerts, and grill potential friends, etc. All of this requires a degree of physical control that at best can only work for a time. Before long it's a losing battle against the titans of our popular culture. So it's back to character building.
What my mother, and more and more parents want to achieve is a child who can resist responding to the appeal of unnecessary needs - a child who has developed a sense of values, and therefore knows when he/she is being manipulated to make inappropriate demands. That means teaching genuine values to our children who as a result can resist the exploitation of ?the media? and the power of peer pressure.
My mother's approach had the implicit suggestion that I was not to be manipulated. That I was ?too splendid a girl?, and therefore too assured about who I was, to let some radio program or peer group tell me what I should desire, what I should demand of life. Her first admonition that I was not a beggar had ramifications that went far beyond my throwing a scene about my wants. ?You are not a beggar,? was the beginning lesson, of many lessons to come, about genuine values and how to resist manipulations that are contrary to those values. She embedded many of these lessons in wonderful stories, in what we would now call tales of virtue, whose function was to build character. *
Almost every day I personally experience the effectiveness of my mother's technique in dealing with the gimmes. When I see an especially clever commercial or an object that is beautifully and artistically photographed something important happens within me. As I begin to feel the desire to possess the attractive object, a contrary feeling of resistance makes its appearance.
The child, who so many years ago was taught that she is not a beggar, has become the adult who is not that easily manipulated by the seductions of our savvy media world.
* Some of my motherís tales of virtue have been collected in a book under the title COME ALL YE CHILDREN.
Dr. Renee Fuller is the author and publisher of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading and language
arts series for children which emphasize character building stories and help children
clearly define healthy values, as well as teach them to read in a fun, motivational way.
Reach Dr. Fuller for more information on her programs visit her website: www.ballstickbird.com