Depriving our children of common experience

Wisteria commented on yesterday’s post:

Yet, when the children are around other children, I sometimes have a tug of guilt about the things they don’t get. I still have that nagging sense of measuring up. Though I know we don’t need the stuff, or possibly even want it, I always wonder if the children are deprived of some sense of common experience.

I think she is not alone. And, of course, the manufacturers of all that stuff rely on us feeling that way to sell it to us. But knowing that doesn’t help with the deep emotions she speaks of here, and that many of us have experienced.

This is an important feeling. We all want to belong. And we also don’t want to mess up our children’s lives.  Those who hold strongly to principles of liberal individualism (which isn’t really me, but is many of you) also feel strongly that you shouldn’t impose your values on others. While we all want our children to take on our values, many of us want our children to choose those values freely for themselves. How we get there is obviously fraught.

First, I think we sometimes have to step back and really notice whether being deprived of what their peers seem to have is considered a deprivation by our children themselves. Sometimes it is. But often it is our own fear of being different, of being left out, of being teased, that is being projected onto our children. I am constantly amazed at how much my daughter and some of her friends really don’t care about some of the popular things.

An example: Last summer a friend’s child (also homeschooled and a friend of Tigger’s) was invited to the birthday party of a neighbour. It was a Hannah Montana themed party. Hannah Montana is extremely peripheral to the lives of my friend’s family. They have heard of her but that’s about it. Same in my house. So my friend worried a bit but they came up with an outfit and the daughter went to the party. My friend was really worried that she had done her daughter a disservice by not making sure she was knowledgeable about this particular piece of pop culture. She felt bad that her daughter could not join in the party as fully for this lack of knowledge. She wondered if she should do something to actively counter this lack of knowledge. But when she asked her daughter about it, the daughter really didn’t care. She had an okay time at the party. She had zero desire to know more about Hannah Montana.

Another example: Back in about 1998 when Tigger was in day care and I was working full time and the Teletubbies were at their peak, I noticed that lots of her peers had Teletubbie dolls. I also overheard parents talking about “having” to have them to be part of the group, etc. These kids were about 1 year old. The idea that the children themselves would desire these toys in order to belong seemed ludicrous to me. It alerted me to the fact that sometimes it is the parents, not the children, who are more concerned about being left out.

I have always avoided things like clothing with licensed images on it. I have all kinds of issues with Barbie. And I’m pretty open about my opposition to marriage. I have, however, both purchased a Barbie as a gift for Tigger and made her a wedding veil for the dress-up box. In discussions with a friend, we agreed that sometimes it is better to get one of these things and let the desire for it burn itself out rather than feed the desire by repeated refusal. This seemed to work both for Barbie (that one and all the ones she received as gifts from friends when she was in school were given away years ago on the grounds that she never really played with them) and the wedding veil.

The licensed images thing I talked to her about from a young age. And she accepted very early on that those were things that I just wasn’t going to buy. She was also well aware that I didn’t particularly like Barbie, though I don’t think I ever went into lots of detail or made a big deal of it. I do not support the idea of lying to our children about our values and our views on these things. But there is a place in the middle where we can still provide (some of) these things while making it clear that we are not keen, without making a big deal about it.

As our children get older, I think it is much more reasonable to have real discussions with them about our values and why we are not buying all of these things. Maybe we will compromise and indulge in some of them, particularly if they are identified as being particularly important for our children, even if we don’t understand or completely accept why. But those discussions might also reveal that our children don’t really care about some of the things that their peers care about and that we are worrying for nothing. And maybe some of these discussions will lead to us changing our minds about some things. Some popular culture really is worth knowing about and learning about it from our children is probably a really  good thing for our relationship with them.

In my case, I think that one of the reasons that I’m homeschooling is because my kid wasn’t very good at playing that fitting in game. She wasn’t happy to adapt to the system the way it was and get on. She asked to stay home and do harder work with me! She had friends at school. But she didn’t always like the same things. Her taste in movies runs more to documentary film than Disney animation. When she was in hospital age 6 one of her school friends bought her a doll. I remember the dad saying he had wondered if that was an appropriate gift and the daughter having reassured him that Tigger really liked dolls.

So, although she asked me to fill a stocking last year, there were no requests for things that I wouldn’t be comfortable getting for her. This year is similar. She wants a big set of coloured pencils with lots of colours, for example. Last year, her big request was for a watch. My biggest issue is Playmobil. She does play with it, with her friends, and there is a lot of very valuable imaginative play going on. However, there is also just a spirit of acquisition in her desires. I’ve talked to her a bit about this. And I think there are signals that we have to do a better job of communicating why we do things the way we do things.

And maybe that is the big thing we all need to think about. I think we all tend to think that our values are very obvious. But it is difficult to pass them on. They just become the way things are for our kids without a lot of understanding of why. For example, despite going to church weekly as a child I still have a very poor sense of my mother’s faith. In fact, what I learned from the practices I was involved in was that it was very important to dress well and attend regularly. It seemed to be more about social position and keeping up appearances than faith. I’m pretty sure that for my mother it is not that. The point is that just involving me in the activities that she thought expressed her values (in this case her faith) was not enough to pass on those values. Even when it is hard to articulate them, I think we have to do the hard work of trying.

That probably doesn’t help. But I think that this issue is an important one and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this difficult emotional terrain.

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5 thoughts on “Depriving our children of common experience

  1. We’ve been so pathetically tied to a stringent budget since the twins were born that Christmas generally IS a time of getting something WAY more exciting than shoes or new pants. And I love the Christmas season: baking, decorating, crafts, etc. Even lighting candles at dinner thrills me. I’m going all Waldorf in my old age.

    My kids know they have limits as to what they can ask for and what they will get. In terms of commercial “crap,” I think I’ve done a good job indoctrinating, err, educating my kids about what is healthy for them and what isn’t. We are pretty parochial in terms of electronic items, but that began life as a lack of funds before it became a philosophical attitude.

    I don’t notice them feeling deprived or left out. They never beg for anything, or grump about not being like their friends with Wiis and Blackberries and iPods. I have taken care to remind them how concerned I am with the growth of their imaginations and intellects (no agenda here, of course, lol), but also that that stuff comes at a price (me leaving the house to work, perhaps, or their dad not being around much because he will work more). And they are free to waste, err, spend all their pocket money on such things if they want. They’re all too cheap at the moment though…

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head here.. SO much of these feeling is parental guilt/second guessing and really cause a disservice. If the kids show an interest, follow it, but I rarely think there is a child who feels as if their childhood is flawed because they weren’t surrounded by pop culture!
    My kids are a bit older, but I remember dealing with a lot of the same issues. Interestingly, especially for a sociologist like yourself, I had two children being raised with very different attitudes toward toys and pop-culture, since Buzz then spent half his time with his mother. I was more about quality, traditional toys with some merit (Legos, kitchen sets, creative play stuff) while his Mom jumped on every new trend and bought until the point of glut (Thomas the Tank, Barney, Power Rangers, jump to mind). Honey has a very practical side, like Tigger. Even when she was young, she was selective. She certainly wanted a few frivolous toys, but didn’t have the collecting desire! (Unless we are talking about Sharpies…the girl can never get enough of those!)

    Buzz was always overwhelmed with toys, so much so that he was unable/disinterested in playing with most until they got donated a few years later. Yet he felt the need to have to accumulate each and every one. When he got older, this habit was aimed towards video games, etc. This early experience has really become a struggle for him as an adult in discerning between a need and a want.
    I’ve always wondered if this sort of advertising toward massive consumption on theme can have lasting effects.

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  3. I think I struggled with this a bit around the time that Marie was first diagnosed. She was having so much trouble fitting in and coping with school that I wanted her to have some of those trappings of normalcy — like nice clothes. (Yes, the preoccupation with the “right” clothes starts in Kindergarten) Of course, to me “nice clothes” and anything that doesn’t come from Goodwill. *LOL*

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  4. coming to parenting thing later, with kids who are older means that we have had less choices as they have already been exposed to so many thngs that we would not of choosen for them to know about at this age – that being said, christmas around here will be a low key affair, with the focus on friends, family and of course food! the gifts that the boys recieve will be things that add to toys they already have like playmobil and cars, stuff they enjoy as well as some new books.
    It is hard to move them away from the commercial stuff but around here there will be no letters to santa, no christmas lists and no I wants… instead they will be learning about giving things we make and sharing with those who have so much less then we do.

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