Gwendolyn Mitchell Diaz
It was a late November afternoon. All four of my little boys were outside, taking turns playing with a radio-controlled car that they had been given several weeks earlier. The car was bright red with large yellow numbers. It could speed up and down the driveway, stop, turn on a dime, “pop a wheelie,” and jump the curb. It was attached to a control panel by a long black cord. Each little boy would run at full speed beside the car when it was his turn to be the “driver.”
For hours they played, as happily as could he—until George showed up, bringing along his huge, new, blue remote-controlled vehicle with spiky tires. It was bigger, brighter, faster, and could do many more tricks than the one my children shared. And best of all—it wasn’t attached to the control panel by a wire. It just flew down the driveway all by itself while George sat on a stump, making it spin and spiral with a flick of his fingers or thumb.
Suddenly the little, red machine that had occupied so much happy time and attention was not good enough. My four sons each wanted his own Big Blue Bulldog with spiky tires and remote operation, just like George’s. The whining and grumbling grew so great that I felt obligated to intervene. I sent George home and ordered all of my kids into the car. We headed across town—driving away from all the manicured suburban lawns, past the old high school, and beyond anything they recognized from our normal routine trips. Soon we were downtown, driving slowly by abandoned shops and rundown houses where the front steps were falling off the porches and trash filled the street gutters.
We spotted some children playing with a stick and some kind of homemade ball in a litter-strewn yard. I stopped, and asked my sons how many of these kids they thought had a Big Blue Bulldog with spiky tires and remote operation. They looked at me like I was nuts.
“Do you think they might be happy if they had a little red car with a wire attached to it that could speed up and down the sidewalk, stop, turn on a dime, `pop a wheelie.’ and jump the curb?” I asked. “Or do you think they would pout and complain and act ungrateful?”
My kids quickly got the point. Our little trip downtown helped to eradicate their feelings of being disadvantaged—at least for a while. Never again did they gripe about not having the latest remote controlled vehicle. As a matter of fact, that Christmas they decided to give most of their toys away to less fortunate children. There was one family in particular, with four or five children all crammed into a small blue trailer, that one of my children wanted to “adopt.” Matthew begged me over and over to take him back, to deliver more toys—gifts he had just unwrapped.
Unfortunately, children tend to have short memories. At least mine do! And experiences like these must be repeated many times in order to train our children in contentment. Contentment is definitely a learned habit. It doesn’t, come naturally. It has to be practiced and reviewed over and over. Trips to the Salvation Army headquarters to help with children’s Christmas parties; serving meals to the homeless who frequent the Talbot House (a local soup kitchen); collecting books for an orphanage; providing baseball equipment for a needy friend. These are just a few of the events that I have used in a process designed to teach my children how fortunate they really are.
A discontented child is a child who feels incarcerated—hemmed in by his circumstances. Whether their confinement be physical, “If only I was thinner or smarter or had smaller ears!” or social, “How come I’m never invited to dances at the Country Club?” … or financial, “Why couldn’t my father be a doctor, so I could have nice toys?” We must love our children enough to teach them that it is not the confines of the prison cell that determine the scope of one’s freedom; it’s the condition of the heart. They can be as free as they choose to be, regardless of the situation.
It is extremely difficult in our affluent society to get the concept across to our children that money, and the things it can buy, cannot create lasting happiness. It’s hard to convince them that financial freedom has nothing to do with net worth but rather is found in a willingness to be generous with what we have.
I’ll never forget the Christmas my children begged for a trampoline. They didn’t just beg—they pleaded and whined and cajoled. Somehow they convinced me that a trampoline would solve all our family problems. I think it was the line that went something like, “lf you buy us a trampoline, we’ll never, ever, ever ask for anything else for the rest of our lives,” that finally converted me. So, I purchased a big blue trampoline and perched it in the backyard. Of course, six weeks later they were begging for a puppy to play with on the trampoline.
Undoubtedly, at some point, your child will inform you that he might as well go live in an orphanage, where he can be treated like a decent human being. Yep. This happened several times as well!
These are the times when we need to, once again, wrench our children away from their grievances and drag them out of the house and deliver some food to a shut-in or take them to the pediatric unit at the hospital to visit a child with leukemia. Such experiences can afford them the opportunity to encounter a new kind of fulfillment based on inner character rather than outward appearance. It’s the only way they will ever conquer discontentment.
If we want our children to learn true contentment, we must allow them to take significant responsibility for the things they desire in life. We need to let them demonstrate a desire to earn them and maintain them. For instance, if a child wants a puppy, he should help pay for it, care for it, buy its food, and take it to the vet. If he wants a car, he should help pay for the gas and be responsible for its upkeep. Or if a child wants to attend college, he must earn that right by applying himself to his studies and getting good grades while he’s in high school.
I figure that it goes without saying that if we are not content with the lot God has given us as moms, our children will never be content with theirs. But just in case you’re struggling a little with what God has provided in your life, let me ask a few questions:
1. What person, or persons, who made the headlines today would you really want to trade places with?
2. Compared to all the people who live on the earth today, how wealthy do you think you are? Remember, that includes all the zillions of people living in places like Calcutta and Sao Paulo.
3. Compared to all the people who have ever set foot on this planet, how fortunate are you? Think about the Great Depression and the time of the Bubonic Plague.
Do you get the point? Life is a whole lot more golden than we often view it when we forget to look outside our walls. When was the last time you reached outside of your family to help a needy person?
Yes, you and I have it pretty good. Our lives need to reflect a joy and contentment that is visible to our children. The way we react to our circumstances is the most important lesson that they can receive in the “contentment training process.” We need to demonstrate satisfaction and display a sense of fulfillment in order to help them develop an understanding of what is truly important.
Sharing and giving must be a part of our daily lives as we demonstrate contentment for our children. Most of us have far more than enough to live on, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt us to give away some of the edges of our abundance. These edges don’t always have to be monetary. We can and should give freely of our talents and abilities and time. We do this when we help a neighbor move, or mow a lawn without expecting compensation, or prepare a meal for a new mom.
A child who has successfully learned to be content, regardless of the circumstances, will be a relaxed child with an ability and freedom to enjoy the important things in life. That child will have a tremendous capacity to help others find pleasure as well.
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§ Are my children appreciative of the things that they have, or are they constantly wanting more?
§ When was the last time my child had to take responsibility or work for something he or she wanted?
§ Whom can we, as a family, reach out to and share the wealth that God has given us?
A Mother’s Prayer
God, teach me to understand how truly wealthy I am. Help me to convey a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to my children, and may we together experience the freedom that comes from being content. Help us to reach beyond our own lives to share with others what You have so generously shared with us. Give me a contented heart, dear God, one that is worthy of my children’s imitation.
Excerpt from Mighty Mom’s Secrets for Raising Super Kids: Guidelines for the Adventure Called Parenting, by Gwendolyn Mitchell Diaz, RiverOak Publishing (September 2001)