Friday, May 30, 2008

Killing Special

Do you remember special things from childhood? I remember the excitement of a birthday cake, the rare treat of a trip to Champaign to see a movie, or the ice cream treats in the shape of snowmen and reindeer that my grandmother could buy only at Christmastime. I loved visits with a certain friend because her mother served us white bread bologna and processed cheese sandwiches smothered in Miracle Whip, cherry Kool-Aid to drink and Twinkies. Haute cuisine for 7 year olds. All of those delicious food items were strictly forbidden in my “whole wheat bread and water is good for you” home.

I remember the anticipation of Saturday morning cartoons- kid shows that in no way resembled the psychedelic frenzy of action and insanity that are many modern cartoons. I think of the weekend ritual that included rising at dawn on Saturday, watching the blank set until the station finally came on, and savoring every moment until they ended promptly at 12:00 on Saturday- never to return until next weekend.

Some friends and I were talking this week about special things from our own childhoods and we realized that most of what we really loved and remembered was not toys, or possessions, but experiences. I enjoyed trick or treating, but I loved when my mom painted the giant pumpkin on our huge round window each Halloween. I enjoyed Christmas and my favorite present of all time was my Big Wheel (with handbrake), but what was really exciting, what was special, was the playing with so many children and listening to family stories. One friend remembered that some of the best memories she had involved taking family hikes.

We tend to idealize our childhoods, but I think most adults would agree that events and special times seemed to resonate more in our past in part, because of the regular, steady amount of calm and uneventful space that surrounded our lives as children. We existed in what felt like a slower, more cohesive world and our indulgences were only occasional.

I wonder about modern children and what they will remember as special. Is special fading? Are the emotions of joy, wonder, anticipation all dying under the crushing weight of our “have everything instantly” culture?

Amy Dacyczyn, a wonderful writer told the story of taking her five young children to the ice cream store- a very rare occurrence for a family on a tight budget. Her children quietly debated their flavor choice and then sat in wide-eyed silence-blissfully savoring their junior-sized cones. Other parents, seeing the same enjoyment level from a junior cone and wishing to create more happiness would opt to visit the ice cream shop more. But with frequency specialness begins to die, and sooner or later the parent finds themselves buying the triple scoop, brownie deluxe sundae with flakes of candied gold leaf in order to elicit the same oohs and ahhs from the child. Eventually, with regular trips to get ice cream, even the most deluxe treat become blasé and you wind up with an ice cream jaded 8 year old. To keep specialness, some time and space are necessary between cones.

This principle applies not only to ice cream. We are all familiar with over-indulged children. They seem to be everywhere-including my own home. Remember the television ad for a credit card that told parents, “You want to give them everything…” not so subtly conveying you must give your children any item they desire to be a good parent, and that they had just the card to help you succeed? One of the ads even showed a misty eyed dad handing an elephant off to his small daughter. The image isn’t as far fetched as it may seem. Granted, we aren’t legally allowed to dole out elephants, but we are extravagant in so many equally exorbitant ways: we provide limo service for children’s’ birthday parties where children are entertained by acts worthy of Las Vegas. We hand out stuffed goodie bags filled not with the trinkets and piece of candy from our own childhoods- but more reminiscent of the Christmas stockings of our childhoods. We have only to watch television to see the popular reality show where witless parents spend tens of thousands on Sweet 16 parties where their children, all in dire need of immediate Oompa-Loompa intervention, arrive in Cinderella carriages and aim to inspire envy among their peers. We hand teens credit cards to use carte blanche. Instead of allowing children to build a playhouse made of chairs and sheets we kill their imaginations by giving them $5,000 custom built playhouses.

A recent CNN/TIME poll showed that 68% of parents indicated that their children were “very spoiled”. Yet, we parents behave as if we had no choice or control.

Parenting is certainly a difficult job- perhaps more difficult now than ever before. Our children are bombarded with advertising and images urging them to buy and spend. At our house we have long struggled with basketball shoe addictions. Often, the answer has to be “no” because at $125.00 or more per pair, we simply can’t afford them, but also because in our culture teens have become driven consumers with a combined purchasing power of $150 billion per year. I would like my boys to develop some skills to fight affluenza. I don’t want to raise spoiled brats.

I often feel that the culture is a huge, fast moving vehicle and we are being swept along within. We are bombarded with images and shaped by messages over which we feel we have little control. As we are carried along together, we can at least discuss the scenery.

What happens to children who are over-indulged? Over-indulged children grow into over-indulged young people and later into adults who are difficult to deal with. They believe rules only apply to others because they are privileged. Over-indulged young people exhibit obnoxious behaviors with superior attitudes, are often unmotivated and appear jaded. What is left when you have seen it all, done it all, and had it all by 16? Not many things will be special for Generation G. G for gimme.

As adults these kids probably won’t be able to tell the difference between needs and wants, will need constant stimulation and entertainment from others, might be deficient in basic life skills, be unable to take responsibility for their own actions, and lack empathy for others.

Education specialist Ada Alden, who helps teachers learn to handle over-indulged students, recently noted, “If you water a plant too much it dies. Even if you are watering it out of too much love, it still dies.” Did you miss that? Nationally, teachers are being trained how to handle overindulged children (and parents).

So what can we, as parents and people who care about families and children do to cope with the prevailing gimme culture? First, we can give of ourselves and our time. The prevailing notion of quality time has not benefited children and families. Children need quantity time. Simply sitting with your child while he or she draws or builds with blocks is so meaningful to children.

We can make family rituals- celebrations of events and holidays that don’t involve the giving of things, but sharing of experiences and family stories. We can work together to form a stronger community, building ties with neighbors and friends. We can help our children most by slowing down and finding more quiet time, without rushing, television, or electronics in our hectic lives. We need to allow time and space for special. Simply by slowing down and talking with one another we can change our culture.

Christina Sanantonio can be reached at


Lisa said...

wow. amazing entry. i, too, remember the pumpkin painted on your front window:) My aunt lives next to that house and i remember it being painted. Always a joy to see. i look forward to any suggestions you have in the future about raising our children in today's fast paced, hectic, gimmee world!

Christina said...

Thanks for the kind words Lisa. I truly appreciate them.