This Mother’s Day may be a lost cause—but you can create thoughtful, caring kids who won’t give you generic greeting cards or “dumpster flowers” next year. Psychologist and author Madeline Levine, PhD, offers six tips for changing the message you’re sending your kids—and creating a better life for yourself in the process.
Be honest, mothers. Is that special Sunday in May really that special? Or is it a bitter disappointment? For too many mothers, at least those of us in a brutally honest mood, the answer is the latter. Once our kids get past the preschool-mandated handprint artwork—which back then moved us to tears—the gifts become less and less thoughtful. A generic card. A generic bouquet. Maybe just a halfhearted hug or even an obligatory phone call.
The problem isn’t the gift itself, of course. It’s the feeling (or lack thereof) behind the gift. Frankly, we deserve more from our kids. After all, we’ve selflessly devoted our entire lives to them, haven’t we? Yes, we have, says psychologist and author Madeline Levine, PhD—and that’s a big part of the problem.
“On a recent Mother’s Day my phone was ringing off the hook,” writes Levine in her new book, Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. “So many moms were feeling hurt and unappreciated. Thoughtful gifts were practically nonexistent, and the few kids who managed to bring flowers brought, in the words of one of these moms, ‘the tiredest flowers I’ve ever seen. I’d swear they came from a dumpster.’
“The moms who got late-in-the-day phone calls tried hard to feel content with ‘just hearing my daughter’s voice,’” she adds. “These kids have been shown that we expect so little, are entitled to so little, that the mere sound of their voice is enough.”
Who showed them that? Why, that would be us mothers! When we devote everything to our kids—all our free time, all our energy, all our disposable income—we shouldn’t be surprised when they come to believe the moon and stars revolve around them. As Levine phrases it, “Entitled children are the inevitable outcome of time and resources that are wildly and disproportionately assigned to the children and not the adults in the family.”
If this all hits painfully close to home—and if you’re reading it two days before Mother’s Day—you probably don’t have high hopes for the big day. And you’re right, admits Levine. You might as well brace yourself for a disappointing May 12th.
But here’s the good news: It’s not too late for Mother’s Day next year. The change in your kids won’t happen overnight, but you can start to slowly turn this (unsatisfying) ship around.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
• All year long, seize opportunities to teach empathy. Ask your kids, “How would you feel if it was your birthday and no one noticed?” But also ask them, “How do you feel when somebody remembers something special?” For younger kids, have them consider their own feelings. (That’s what they’re best at!) For older kids, ask them to put themselves in the shoes of someone else. “How do you think Grandma felt when we all came over for Thanksgiving? What would it have been like for her if no one showed up?”
“Kids are naturally self-centered, but you can counter that tendency by frequently reminding them to consider the feelings of others. “Do this and you’ll end up with nicer, more empathetic kids. And as a bonus, they’ll be more sensitive to making sure you have a happy Mother’s Day in the future.”
• Use teachable moments to make your Mother’s Day expectations known. We have this magical idea that if our spouse and kids love us they should “know” what we want for Mother’s Day. They don’t. We have to teach them. It’s not necessary to boldly state, “This is the kind of gift I want…and oh by the way, I want it wrapped and festooned with ribbons.” But you can couch the lessons inside casual conversations about how to buy gifts for people for occasions that happen all year—birthdays, graduations, Christmas, and so forth.
“Teach kids to think a little more deeply about their friends and family,” advises Levine. “When you buy a gift for someone, narrate your thought process: ‘I’m getting these purple gardening gloves for Grandma because she loves working in her flower bed and also because purple is her favorite color. And have you noticed that her gifts to you are nicely wrapped? That’s why I wrap hers so carefully in beautiful paper.’”
Also, urge them to notice what works and what doesn’t—Aunt May has never been seen wearing the blouse they bought, but she never comes over without the earrings that were a gift.
• Ask a spouse or someone else to remind kids next year that the big day is coming. You want kids to see and feel gratified by your delight when they present the big gift. It’s the good feelings they get that will reinforce their newfound consideration for others. They won’t get to have that experience if they forget the day altogether.
• Own your part of the problem. By giving up your life and your interests to be fully child-centric at all times, you’ve taught kids that nothing matters as much as their needs. Girlfriends and even spouses fall by the wayside as you spend weekend after weekend sitting in the bleachers watching your kids play endless soccer games (endless for you because you don’t participate; exciting for them because they do!). If you teach them that their needs always trump yours (the movies you see, the vacations you take, the allocation of family resources), then don’t be shocked when they learn the lesson well.
• Start making adulthood attractive. (Mother’s Day is a great starting point!) One of the most important things we do in encouraging our children’s growth is to make adulthood look like something to be excited about. If your child gets an Xbox for his birthday and you’re content with carnations sprayed some awful neon color, grabbed from the neighborhood supermarket bin, well, who in their right mind would want to grow up? Levine suggests that you bring your spouse or significant other in on Mother’s Day plans (and be sure you do the same for Father’s Day).
“Make Mother’s Day exciting and about you. It’s time to stand up for yourself. Let your husband know that the 10K race he’s wanted to run—while you monitor the kids—is not your idea of a Mother’s Day present. Your delight at being really ‘tuned into’ helps your kids learn the pleasure of really ‘getting’ another person and assures them that all fun doesn’t end at age 12.”
• Don’t expect the change to be easy. Our whole culture is centered on advancing and promoting our kids. Opting out is literally a countercultural move. It will feel uncomfortable at first—even wrong. Parenting habits are hard to break, especially when they’re supported by advertising and neighborhood values that make it seem like it’s the most natural thing in the world to be overly involved in our children’s every move. But you’re not doing kids any favors when you buy into this mindset, insists Levine.
“Remember that the science says we’ve got it all backwards—that kids thrive when they’re challenged and not micro-managed,” she says. “Have a family discussion about the changes you’d like to make and institute them slowly. It’s much better to have a slow rearranging of priorities that is successful than a radical change that falls on its face.”
So starting May 12th, why not give yourself the best Mother’s Day gift of all: Vow to make this the year you finally get a well-rounded life.
“You might be surprised by what you can do over the course of a year. Let me know how next year’s Mother’s Day turns out.”
Madeline Levine, PhD, is a clinician, consultant, and educator; the author of The Price of Privilege; and a cofounder of Challenge Success, a program founded at the Stanford School of Education that addresses education reform and student well-being. She lives outside San Francisco with her husband and is the proud mother of three newly minted adult sons.