My father just sent my 8-year-old son a terrific book on "The World's Greatest Buildings," an interest which my little guy has long had. It wasn't his birthday, it wasn't a belated Christmas present, and there was nothing included in the package for my son's three younger sisters.
Ouch, right? A lot of parents would be horrified. They might rush to get something for the other children, they'd probably ask the grandparents to PLEASE never to single out one child again, maybe they wouldn't even give the little one the book until a birthday or similar occasion. Anyway they'd likely explain to the other children how Papa just wasn't thinking, and surely there would be something for them the next time.
Well, no "ouch" here. I thought it was great because it helped me to reinforce with my children the lesson of being joyful for another's good fortune, even when we have no expectation we'll receive something similar.
How at odds with our culture today.
When a child maintains "it's not fair," he's not, of course, really interested in matters of justice. What he means is, "I didn't get what he did, and it had better be made up to me." And why shouldn't he think that way?
Today from a child's earliest moments he is taught to expect that another's good fortune, particularly a sibling's, it seems, means he is somehow "owed" the same. A birthday party invitation, a toy, an outing to the zoo becomes his "right," too. Later on, of course, that can lead to believing that the job, the financial success, or the other good fortune of another means somehow we have the right to think we are "owed" those things as well — and that can lead to a life of unhappiness and resentment.
Conversely, it's not enough just to teach a child to be thankful for his own blessings, though that's important. Instead, we need to help our children begin to find joy in the blessings that come to someone ELSE, no matter what comes to us.
Not only is it the right thing to do — but it will naturally magnify our children's lifelong joy exponentially.
That lesson rarely comes easy to any of us, yet today's parents consistently deny their children any opportunity to begin to learn it. Again and again I hear, "oh honey, I'm sure you'll be invited to a birthday party soon," "you'll get to go to the zoo next time," or "of course I'll make sure you get one, too." Today's moms and dad are zealous that no little darling is left feeling he didn't get his "due."
But when my son's book came, I encouraged my girls to enjoy looking at it and to reflect on the happiness their grandfather had given their brother — and wasn't that joy in which we could all share? Another time, one of the girls but not her sisters was invited to a birthday party. I didn't bother to assure one disgruntled little one that she would be invited to many parties in her lifetime. Instead, we talked about how knowing her sister was having fun could bring us happiness too. Sometimes I'll be out with one child, and I'll pick out a little inexpensive bauble for another — "honey, wouldn't your sister love a big pad of paper? She likes drawing so much — won't that be fun to get it for her?" And so on.
Yes, this is a habit of mind and heart that will likely take a lifetime to build — but I'm thankful I can say my kids have at least begun to catch on now.
The point is not, of course, to gratuitously withhold a good thing from a child, nor to favor one so that another is genuinely hurt.
My goal is not to make it clear that "life is not fair," though of course it isn't.
My hope is simply to find opportunities to help my little ones begin to share in the delight that good things, or circumstances, or achievements, bring others, even if they have no expectation of the same, knowing that that habit of thinking will bring my children joy throughout their lives.
Sure, we rightly hope and work for good things of our own and we may feel appropriate indignation at another's ill-gotten gain. But the human misery that is, and has been, wrought by simply resenting the good fortune of others truly cannot be calculated.
In other words, maybe it's time for parents to reconsider, "honey you'll get one too, I promise."
Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com.