Rebecca knows that she spoils her kids. As a divorced mother of two who works a full-time job, she cannot spend as much time with her son and daughter as she would like. "A lot of times I feel like I am mom and dad to both of my children," she says.
Because she feels guilty about not spending enough time with them, Rebecca says she tends to "overcompensate when they ask me for things...so I overindulge."
Rebecca's children have developed certain techniques to get the things they want. Her 5-year-old son, Brandon, uses "sad eyes." Her daughter, Stephanie, uses peer pressure. "If I really want to get something from my mom," Stephanie says, "I'll come home and I'll be like, 'Mom, all my friends have [it].'"
Rebecca says her inability to deny her children's every want is getting out of control. "I want to say no, but it comes out yes," she says.
Dr. Robin says that Rebecca is trying to make up for her perceived inadequacy as a single working mom by showering Brandon and Stephanie with gifts. This places so much emphasis on material goods that the children are learning to define themselves by material things.
"If they were to lose everything—if the rug gets pulled from underneath us—you've got to be able to still know that you are good enough," Dr. Robin says. "Right now, if they lose things, they're going to feel empty."
The solution to guilt, Dr. Robin says, won't come from stuff. "I want you to really recognize that what you're trying to do, which is to love them, to make up for your not being there, you can't do it with things. Things will never satisfy and never fill the sacred hole that only a mom and dad can do."
As for Rebecca's struggles as a single mom, Dr. Robin says, "You can't be dad, just be a good mom. Or if you're a dad, just be a good dad. Fill your own sense of being good enough and satisfied and that it's not about what you have...and then you can feel good about yourself."
Do you think your inability to say no is harming your kids? These are three questions you need to ask yourself.
Do your children "earn" the things they get?
Some parents "reward" children who aren't actually doing anything to earn a reward. Dr. Robin says chores are a good way to instill a reward system, even in a 5-year-old. "He could pick up his toys in his room; he could pick up his clothing; he could help his mother take the trash out," she says. "Not because you need [the help], but because it's cultivating being competent and thoughtful."
Does your child value "things" more than people?
Unchecked, a craving for possessions will become insatiable, Dr. Robin says. When this happens, it can stifle real emotional development. "I'm not really interested in whether or not I'm building great, healthy relationships," Dr. Robin says. "I'm interested in how many more gadgets I get."
Are you trying to soothe your child with things?
While new clothes and toys might make your child happy temporarily, that happiness will not last. "I don't want them to be just happy now. I want them to become whole individuals," Dr. Robin says.
Like Rebecca, Jeri can't seem to say no to her kids. Not only do Jeri's two teenaged daughters manipulate her, so does her married 23-year-old daughter.
Four and half months ago, Jennifer and her husband moved into a second home her parents own, under the agreement that she would pay rent. So far she hasn't paid anything. When Ashley turned 16, she wanted a sporty car. Though Jeri told Ashley she needed to get a job to pay for it, after a year and a half Jeri still pays for the insurance and the gas. Jaime sticks to asking her mom for "important stuff—like shoes," she says.
Jeri says she wants to put her foot down, but she just can't say no. And at the end of every month, she says she finds herself strapped for cash.
Dr. Robin says Jeri must consider the lessons her daughters are learning. They're completely unable to fend for themselves, and their ability to feel a sense of personal accomplishment has been removed. "You're teaching them, in some ways, how to be victims of you."
At the core, Dr. Robin says, the problem is that Jeri spoils Jennifer, Ashley and Jaime in order to avoid something. "And I want to know, what are you trying to avoid?" Dr. Robin asks.
"I wonder sometimes maybe if I don't do what they want me to do, maybe they won't love me as much," Jeri says.
"I know that's a strong concept, but we need to talk strong because their lives are at stake," Dr. Robin says. "You could actually, although you want to help them, create cripples."
Dr. Robin wants to redefine what it means to love a child. "Part of loving your children is to give them boundaries," she says. "What we've seen today is what creates failure." Instead of giving your children everything they want, Dr. Robin wants parents to start living by a "golden rule."
"When you say no, you must mean it and stick to it—period," she says. "If [a parent's] word means nothing, it means that there's no respect. If I'm not respecting you, then I'm disrespecting you.... If you can't live it, your kids can sniff it out."
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