When John F. Kennedy spoke at his 1961 inaugural address the famous words: ‘My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”he captured an important human value – the duty to give, serve and work hard. It was a very different time socially, culturally, politically and economically than today. There was a growing sense of social and economic progress and stability. This in contrast to previous decades of war and economic depression. His speech about personal sacrifice, duty to give and a sense of obligation to others, hit a strong cord in a nation that understood what doing without really meant.
In our times, rarely does a politician call upon us to sacrifice. It would not resonate or inspire us. It would be out of sync with our culture that promotes convenience, instant access, materialism and wealth. As parents who want to develop character, self-discipline and willpower in our teens and young adults, it can seem like an uphill battle against the cultural forces and distractions that are around them.
The job of parenting and being able to say ‘no’ to your children seems a lot harder than it was a generation ago. Not only is there more affluence, but there’s more merchandise, options and advertising directed at kids and more peer pressure to have things to fit in. It’s not just the media’s fault, though. As parents, we need to look at how we have contributed to the problem ourselves.
Knowing when and where to draw the line and say ‘no’ is one of the more difficult responsibilities of parenting. The consequence of not being clear or firm is that our children learn that ‘no’ does not really mean “no”. When we give in to their whining as young children, ‘no’ means I must pester my mom or dad until they are worn down, give in and issue a reluctant ‘yes’.
When the child who is used to turning a parent’s “no” into a “yes”, becomes a teen, the pestering strategy gets more sophisticated and often more relentless. For example, one parent gets played against the other, sometimes clever, charming or humorous pleading seduces us to give in. In extreme cases, avoiding the angry temper tantrum that may ensure if we say “no”, leads some of us to say “yes” when we feel it is not worth the aggravation.
Indulging our kids when we know we should say no, undercuts some of the important character- building assets that our kids need. According to David Walsh, author of No – Why Kids of All Ages Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, saying no more often and not giving our kids everything they want:
- helps them learn to deal with disappointment and learn to comfort themselves.
- can help them put another person’s needs ahead of their own and develop empathy.
- teaches them to delay gratification, develop patience and willpower.
- teaches them to be satisfied with what they have, recognize their good fortune and appreciate the circumstances of others.
- helps them to grow up to be happy, healthy, self-sufficient, generous adults.
As part of your approach to teaching some sacrifice to your teen, consider the importance of sharing, saving, spending wisely and thanking, to help them learn important character-building values.
- Sharing: Why not help others through the donation of money or even better, your own time, at a food bank or any charity you think is important? This is great antidote to the ‘me first’ attitude. Developing a value of helping others and sharing can bring joy to others, as well as to the giver.
- Saving: If what they want is too expensive to afford right now, help your teenager to put a little bit of money away regularly into a bank account. Saving up for something valued teaches self-discipline. It also determines whether the item is really worth it. This practice counteracts the impulsive ‘I’ve got to have it now!’ attitude.
- Spending Wisely: Make sure that your adolescent knows there are limits on the amount spent. This helps them learn to be a more frugal and a wiser shopper by learning the good value of some things and the inflated prices of others.
- Thanking: When parents, relatives and friends receive an appropriate and sincere expression of appreciation and thanks, it gives parents the chance to see our child’s capacity to reciprocate the act of giving. Thanking is an extremely important activity and a good way to reduce the sense of entitlement that many young people have.
How to Learn More about Your Teen’s or Young Adult’s Values
- As a conversation starter around this topic, ask your teenager, ‘What would you do if someone gave you a thousand dollars?’
- Did they decide to use all the money for themselves or use some for someone else?
- Did they decide to save any of the money?
- Would they spend it on things they need or on things they want?
- Was one thousand dollars enough or did they want more?
- Pay off some of their debt?
As parents, we can set a good example of sharing, spending wisely, saving and thanking. Teens and young adults are more influenced by what we do than what we say, especially when it comes to values. When we show them our own choices and sacrifices, it makes it clear that we have developed the willpower and determination that they may still need to learn – and practice.
Perhaps you could adapt JFK’s words, and say to your teenager, “Ask not what your parents can do for you – ask what you can do for others.”