Giving up vs. wanting

When push comes to shove, I would rather have a difficult child who is good at wanting than an easy child who is good at giving up.

One of the most exasperating qualities about young children is that they don't give up. They don't give up the toys that they want when other children want them too. The don't give up the ideas that they have when those ideas are simply not workable. They are not easily distracted or satisfied by alternatives, even when the alternative would seem to have comparable value. They just know what they want, and keep wanting it--loudly, insistently, passionately.

It drives us crazy. Many parents focus an incredible amount of energy during these years on trying to "tone down" or “civilize” that wanting. We have a lot of adult ideas about how you're supposed to behave in these situations. You're supposed to share. You're supposed to think of the other person. You're supposed to compromise. You're supposed to take failure to get what you want quietly, and with good grace.

Yet there are several flaws in this approach. Sometimes we are righteously expecting our two-year-olds to do things that we are poor models of ourselves. (How good are we at sharing the things we are attached to--the TV during the football game, our money, our private stash of make-up or fishing lures, or whatever?) Other times we have indeed learned, and do model these qualities, but at a greater cost than we would want any child to incur. (I, for one, am a great compromiser--so good that I have incredible difficulty even putting out what I want, much less holding out for it.) And requiring a small child to stuff their feelings--not only to not get what they want, but to not show that they care--is just a recipe for trouble. Either you fail abysmally and everybody is mad, or you succeed beyond your expectations and get a child whose emotional life goes underground.

This has not been an easy area for me. All my inclination and training set me up to expect children's pleasant cooperation with my benign authority, along with unceasing awareness of the needs and desires of others. But the qualities of passion and determination in children have grown on me steadily over the years.

When push comes to shove, I would rather have a child who is good at wanting, than a child who is good at giving up. I would rather have a child who screams for his mom when she leaves than one who doesn't even notice or seem to care. I would rather encourage two little ones to want the same toy loudly and passionately at the same time, with no rush to a tidy solution, than to immediately cut off that process with an edict from above that they take turns. They won't always get what they want, but at least they get to want it.

I don't think children who are allowed this space will grow up rigid and selfish or totally uncontrolled. They still seem to learn about flexibility, real limits, and the legitimate needs of others. In the longer term perhaps they learn it better than those who are hemmed in by moral requirements to do so. Even more important, we get to learn. Watching our children, we get to learn again about wanting, and passion, and not giving up on ourselves or the things we hold dear.