Question: My five-year-old gets very upset when she gives gifts to her friends and they do not reciprocate in the same way. Any thoughts how to handle this?
Response: To begin with, I am neither a parenting expert nor a child psychologist. I can give you my thoughts based on how my child’s behavior opens the door for deeper exploration of my own motives and actions.
It does not seem wise to reason with a 5-year old who is crying or throwing a tantrum! It might be best to distract her with a favorite toy or activity. Avoid the temptation to buy her something, since the longer-term goal is to teach her how to give without expecting something in return.
Incidents like these are beautiful pointers to our own minds and actions. Our children are much more likely to do what we do, rather than we say. Thus, if my child has the concept that giving a gift must result in a similar gesture from her friends, I need to look at how this I might be contributing to this behavior modeling. It is true that children are like sponges, soaking our ways of thinking and acting even when we think that they are not watching! It is in the tone of our voices, our criticism of others (or ourselves), our behavior with people in front of and behind their backs, our response to the world’s (and our own) shortcomings, what we really value and so on. It is also in the countless non-verbal ways we employ to express our approval and distaste of the world around us – the smiles and the smirks, the gestures of love and contempt, the laughter and the jaw tightening and the myriad reflections in the eyes. They mirror our behaviors perfectly.
Thus, in a situation where my child has the mindset that giving is an activity that results in a similar gain, I might be prompted to inquire deeply into my own patterns of giving – do I give with reservations and expectations, or do I give freely as an expression of joy and love? Giving does not refer to giving of gifts alone, but the giving of myself on a daily basis.
For example, do I really give unreservedly to my spouse? If my concept of a strong intimate relationship is one of “give and take”, I can never teach my children to give. Give and take implies a barter more than an intensely intimate connection with my partner. Yet, this is the current popular psychology regarding marriage and partnerships. Magazine and newspaper columns pour out advice on “how to make your man do XYZ for you”, or “how to make the girl fall for you”. Notice how these strategies are more about taking than giving. Even when we do not overtly agree with such advice, the subtle undercurrent in intimate relationships can be one of expectation of the other or meeting the other’s expectation to keep the peace. Often, we manipulate each other in subtle ways to get things our way. Giving in this context is always with the intent to bring about the desired outcome (which is sometimes innocently thought to be the “better” outcome for all concerned). This way of manipulating in the act of giving is picked up by our children even at subtle levels.
This behavior does not end at home, of course. It permeates all our interactions. At work and in the community, we give only when there is “something in it” for us. If there is no promise of a personal gain with our efforts, we are less likely to be interested in giving our time or resources. And this behavior is not only acceptable but expected in modern living! We are molded from an early age to focus on our own gains, albeit in civilized ways. Even service-oriented activities are performed to collect credit, earn praise or as material for college applications.
Question: Very true. So how can I teach my child to give?
Response: By learning how to give yourself. You cannot teach her this if it is not your way of being. Your child will smell you out if this is contrived, trust me!
Question: How do I learn to give?
Response: By digging into the cause of the behavior of “giving with wanting”. This behavior arises from a deep sense of insecurity and incompleteness, needing constant validation in exchange for every act of giving. Insecurity and incompleteness are the hallmarks of the ego (false identification of the “I” to be the body-mind). The ego is fragile by nature and employs every tactic in the book to feel more secure and complete. For the ego, giving is a disaster because it feels threatened by someone else having more. The natural reaction then is to expect something back in order to feel complete or good. But since this security is temporary and can never satisfy the ego’s desires, the feeling of having gained something feeds into the loop of fear of loss or craving for more. Fear and craving lead to further grasping and neediness. There is absolutely no way for the ego to curb its own desires, for craving is its very nature. The only way “out” is to step out of the false identification with it, and to discover who or what the “I” is. In reality, our true nature is of eternal-consciousness-contentment (sat-chit-ananda). When we discover this absolute completeness, expectations fall away and giving becomes an outpouring of this contentment.
Question: How can I learn to not expect?
Response: By minding your own business. In the context of giving, this means that your only job is to give as fully as possible. The moment your mind begins to expect something in return, ask yourself if you are still in your own business. When we begin to think, “he or she should reciprocate in some way”, we are in their business over which we have no control. Our thinking that someone should or should not do something has no bearing on what they will or will not do. It is not their action but our thinking that their action should be different that causes us suffering. Suffering is the result of war with what is.* The only business we need to be concerned about is ours. As the wise old saying goes, “do good and throw it in the river”. When lived this way, giving becomes an extension of overflowing completeness.
As our children begin to see this new paradigm of living and giving, they can be confused for a while and wonder how they must model themselves. However, as our own authenticity pours through, they can relax that this way of being is non-threatening to their developing sense of self. Through our own example of giving, they might glean the truth of St. Francis’ words, “It is in giving that we receive”.
*This type of inquiry is called “The Work” by Byron Katie. A powerful method of questioning our thoughts, “The Work” is beautiful in its simplicity and its ability to transform one’s life.
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