Some evenings, when the rains don't come, I walk my girl to the park. Together we mark our course by gothic trees, heavy with vines and colonial mansions guarded by walls of stone and iron. We pick our way along the path carefully navigating crumbling sidewalks, open sewers, and a feted, green canal when men sometimes crouch and wash their clothing.
As we walk, we pass a man and his daughter sitting together next to a hand cart piled with garbage. She's about six. The pair have a pigeon in a cage, a metal bowl for instant noodles, and not much else. This sidewalk, flanked on one side by houses to big for one family, and on the other by a green canal, this sidewalk is their home.
My girl and I, pass, exchange friendly hellos with the girl and her father; they’ve become familiar to us. We play at the park, and then go home to our five-star apartment with huge windows and crisp white sheets.
Over the years I’ve made some controversial parenting confessions.
That I don’t beat myself up over my lack of a fully-funded college savings plan, for example. That I let my kids go outside unsupervised and check my email or gab with friends instead of playing with them at the park. That I never really bothered with a sleep schedule and only “potty trained” when the kids were old enough to do all the work themselves.
Each time, I’ve heard from at least one person telling me that I “owe” my kids something I’m not giving them. More individual attention, more enrichment activities, more structure, more (or less)…something.
I don’t like the idea of not meeting my obligations, especially to my kids. And even when logically I believe that by “neglecting” one area I am making room for something else that’s just as important to me, the implication stings.
But the more I think about it, when it comes to what I “owe” my kids?
I keep thinking maybe the answer is “nothing.”
So what do I make of parents, children, obligation and entitlements?
To answer the question “what do I owe my child” is fairly straightforward, I think. Disagreeable though it may be to wrap up parent-child relationships in the language of commerce, we do, on a fundamental level, have an obligation to our children. We owe them love and kindness. But that's about it.
Ballet lessons, extended hours of floor play, even organic meals are not something that we can reasonably say we owe our children. Perhaps we want to give our kids these things. Maybe we like them. Maybe they are important to us, and providing them for our children is an expression of our values. And that’s totally cool.
But they’re not obligations. There’s no moral absolute attached to the provision of ballet or organic milk. So I don’t think that it’s right, or for that matter, particularly kind to tell ourselves, or other mothers that we owe these extras to our kids.
As for what they deserve, that question gets tricker. Does my child deserve her bevy of brightly coloured toys designed ? Does she deserve preschool? Enrichment activities? Her own room?
Nope. I don’t think so. And this is why.
To deserve a reward, one must first be worthy by either deed or, as some believe (either explicitly or implicitly) by origin. A shopkeeper deserves a thank-you because he helped you bag your groceries. A child might deserve an ice cream after a great report card.An athlete deserves a medal because she has trained tirelessly and earned her reward.
And so, then, a king deserves his riches because he was born worthy?
I don't think so. I do not believe that my child is any more worthy of life's great and wondrous rewards than is that girl on the way to the park. As adorable and sweet as both wee little ones are, neither has really achieved much to merit reward on that level. And so neither deserves the life that she has.
My girl has a room full of toys, more clothing than she can wear, and the foundations of a wonderful education. But these are privileges granted by an accident of birth, and a few lucky choices on the part of her parents.
She does not deserve them, and I want her to be clear about that.
For every lovely shoeless child that I encounter here in Indonesia, there's a counterpoint: a little girl who believes she deserves to be a princess when she grows up; an eight year old boy who hands his nanny a shopping bag and says, you have to carry this for me!; a young man with little acumen or skill, believes that he deserves to become the CEO of his father's company.
None of this is deserved. Or owed. These kids are real, and really entitled. And it’s troubling to see.
In the context of our own children, their prerogatives and what they are owed, we need to be careful. Entitlements are rewards that come from hard work. They are not inherited, nor bestowed upon someone because of the colour of his skin, or the socio-economic class into which he was born.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that in the spirit of the season, I’m thankful to my very core for the life that I have. I want to give my child extras like a good education, a peaceful and creative childhood, toys that spark imagination, ballet lessons, but I’m very aware that I don’t owe these things to her. Nor does she deserve them. I want to provide them for my girl because they’re reflective of my value system, and because I have h the means to do so. But they’re privileges. And though I’m thankful for them, and wouldn’t want to give them up, we do not deserve them any more than the girl on the street deserves to sleep in a handcart.
What about you? What do you think you owe your kids? What do you think they deserve?