There are times when each of us, young or old, encounters those internal voices that come from a sad scary place called “scarcity”—I’m not rich enough, pretty enough, my house and salary aren’t big enough, I don’t have enough______ (you fill in the blank). In Buddhism it is called “The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts” and it is not a pretty place to be. I’ve been doing some reflection about this in my own life recently. And I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve had several parents report to me this week that their kids simply cannot get enough: “Can we buy this?” “Will you buy me that?” “When can we go to the store?” “You said you’d get it for me if I was good.” Hungry little ghosts with persistent, insistent requests, often more like demands, that leave parents feeling empty, exasperated, helpless and often like there is no other choice than to give in.
Children have a right to ask for what they want. It’s ok for them to want and it is ok for us to validate their desire. “I hear you honey, I get that you want that Star Wars lego set.” We can validate children’s desires, appreciate them for asking kindly and we can say no. It’s ok to say no. It is up to parents to teach children that they are safe by maintaining boundaries, staying consistent and true to our word. Sometimes a child is pushing a parent because they are actually seeking a boundary. Children feel unsafe when they experience mom or dad as being inconsistent and not having the control in the situation. By modeling healthy ways of saying “no” we are setting a vital example for little ones who will, soon enough, be teenagers. For hungry teenage ghosts, it’s no longer just about Legos and Pokemon cards.
It is also up to parents to understand the underlying need and message beneath this insatiable appetite for stuff. It is up to parents to teach children that material goods are not a substitute for love and connection. Our materialistic society teaches that stuff can be a substitute for love. This is a scary message that kids receive far too often through the media. If your child is constantly bombarding you with requests for stuff and for trips to the toy store, likely they are coming from a place of scarcity and they are struggling to feel their own self worth. It is up to us adults to help them feel loved and worthy by being willing to connect and redirect that feeling of emptiness.
Rather than hop in the car and head to Grandrabbits, let’s offer children connection, some special play time, an activity that you can do together. Offer them the love and connection that they are seeking, that can never be satisfied by another plastic toy. Make it a practice to redirect the requests and demands for stuff to an opportunity to experience your abundance as a family. “Honey, I hear that you want that Pokemon card, but we have so many toys already so we aren’t going to get it. Since we aren’t going to the toy store, we can have some special play time together instead.” Then make it a point to substitute undivided attention, connection and love for the ‘stuff’ in question.
Parenting coach Pantea Dunn gave me a fabulous practice for families to shift the focus from material goods to relational connection. You’ll need a jar, some pencils or markers and some paper or cardstock. Together with your child(ren) come up with special activities you would like to do together as a family. You can even color code the activities for things you do on a regular basis and special treat activities. Each week (bi-weekly, monthly—whatever works for you) your child picks one and you do it together. Do not buy gifts or toys for these special days. This is about connecting and spending time together without the interruption of material goods. The one rule is that each activity that goes into the jar needs to be something you are 100% willing and able to do when it is chosen. Activities can range from playing blocks together, going to the park, riding bikes, going out for pizza (more regular basis activities) to going to the zoo, going miniature golfing, swimming… I love this idea because you can get creative and have so much fun fantasizing about all the cool things you can do together as a family.
The change may not happen overnight. Your child may still ask for things for some time to come. But somewhere beyond the realm of the hungry ghosts lies nirvana. As you hold clear boundaries and offer consistent, undivided attention and connection doing things that your child loves to do, positive change will take place. And you will both be able to experience how abundant and blessed you are just simply because you get to be together.
Special thanks to parenting coach and guru mama Pantea Dunn for the invaluable input, creative ideas and hands on experience she offered to this article. Visit her website at www.myparentpartner.com.