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Heffner column: The self-centered nature of childhood

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Daily Comet

Do our children feel entitled to have all the things they see around them? These days children restricted to staying home often expect to have or use an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod, an electronic game, or something else in the world of technology, which parents often feel conflicted about providing.

Children are bombarded from all sides by alluring “toys.” They live in an electronic world in which it seems that exciting new gadgets appear daily. They are taught early on to use the computer in school. There is endless software of mixed value for children, and they play games on the computer at home. Preschool children have their own cell phones.

In many ways play has been commercialized to a new level. Since the early days of television, parents have been struggling with children’s exposure to all kinds of games and toys presented as exciting fun. But the conflict parents feel now is more intense for several reasons. One concern is that many of these new “toys” open a world to children that may be inappropriate for their age, or have content of which parents don’t approve. Many video games are violent. Children are drawn to the computer for instant messaging instead of homework. The result is many more areas of conflict between parents and children.

Another reason for parents’ concern is that these new “toys” are expensive. For parents who cannot afford to buy the things children want, the issue is much clearer. Those families have greater priorities. Often parents feel inadequate because of their inability to provide these things.

Yet many parents, those who have the financial means and those who don’t, are concerned about what they hear as children’s demands, that children seem to feel entitled to have what they want. But in one sense, children have always thought they should have whatever they want. That is the self-centered nature of childhood, and that is why there have always been conflicts between parents and children. Children want one thing and parents want something different - whether things or behavior.

What seems to be driving this now is the cost of many of these new things, the sense that they were not really intended for children, and children’s apparent lack of awareness of, or indifference to the expense involved. But sometimes I wonder if this is not our own conflict as parents, which we want our children to solve for us; we wish they wouldn’t ask so that we wouldn’t have to worry about whether it is right or wrong to say yes or no.

A big part of the problem lies in thinking there is a right answer. Children grow and mature, which changes the answer. Situations are different, and that changes the answer, particularly now during home confinement, which is stressful to both parents and children. Parents have different values, and that changes the answer from one parent to another.

What can help is to realize that these requests or demands are really no different than the ones children have always made. It always comes back to the same question: How do we help children learn to tolerate frustration, to accept not getting everything they want, to respect parental decisions even when they don’t like them? These are the things we have to start teaching from earliest childhood: making our own decisions based on our own values, about when and when not to gratify children’s wishes, and helping them deal with their disappointment or anger when they don’t get what they want.

This teaching and learning have to begin even before the technology question rears its head.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.