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“Mommy I Need That!”: Protecting Our Kids from Media and Peer Pressure


“Mommy I Need That!”: Protecting Our Kids from Media and Peer Pressure

By Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D.

Teaching Our Children the Power of Self-Discipline

On the way home from school, Sara (age 10) pleads with her mother to stop and get an ice cream. Mom agrees, thinking it will be nice to share some time together. But no sooner has the ice cream arrived than Sara begins to plead for a CD she’s been wanting. This is followed by a request to be taken to a particular restaurant for dinner. The pleading becomes more intense until mother puts off an answer by saying she has to talk to Dad.

“Let me talk to him,” Sara replies, confident in her persuasive abilities. Finishing the ice cream, Sara announces that she desperately needs this really cool thing for a project at school. She absolutely must get it on the way home.

Exhausted, Mom pays the bill.

Whether it’s our 2 year old melting down because he wants gum at the check out counter or our pre-teen pitching for the latest fashion, our children are expending enormous amounts of energy getting us to satisfy their latest desires. Assessing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” is exhausting as we quickly quiz ourselves, “Is it age appropriate? Do they really want it? Is it good for them?” In the busyness of the moment we often do what will give us a moment’s peace—we buy.

Our children are flooded by an ocean of media stimulation and advertising, and we are flooded by their never ending demands for more. Advertisers, eager to tap the 300 billion dollars that is said that our children have some say in spending each year, are using sophisticated psychological strategies to manipulate our children’s minds and desires. The message is simple: “If you get this, you can be happy/popular/cool.” The effect on our children and our families is profound. In the case above, Sara has no real appreciation of the time she had with her mother, of the experience of enjoying each other or the thing that had been given. There was only the next desire and the challenge of trying to obtain it. The energy our children put into getting us to satisfy their desires can reach such a frenetic pitch that it seems as if their entire self-worth depends on it. And perhaps it does.

When we consider that children (ages 2 to 18) are averaging five and a half hours a day consuming some sort of media (mostly TV), it’s not hard to imagine that the selling strategies used to pitch toothpaste and cereal are becoming the yardsticks that our children use to measure their self-worth. If these impressionable kids aren’t yours (or mine), they are our neighbor’s kids or the kids on the bus. But in the end, they are all our children because they contribute to the enormous peer pressure on our kids to measure their self-worth by how fast they can get what they want.

Manipulating their environment—finding new and creative ways to get someone else to satisfy their desires—becomes the primary means of feeling good about themselves. But because we have the means, because it pleases us and because we are always busy, we deprive our children of the tools they need to develop the self-esteem we so passionately wish for them.

Learning to Control Desires

One of the most powerful tools for developing true self-esteem is self-discipline. In a society where any desire can be gratified, it’s critical to help children build the inner muscle to take control of their desires. As a clinical psychologist, there is nothing more heartbreaking that to sit across from an adolescent who has absolutely no control of her desires; who has come into her sexuality with no muscle to deny herself anything and is outraged when her desires aren’t met. We cannot indulge our children’s every desire in childhood and then in adolescence tell them to “just say no”.

Unfortunately, self-discipline doesn’t come easy to any of us and is seldom rewarded by immediate gratification. (Just remember your last attempt a dieting.) We think of self-discipline as denying ourselves pleasure—but wouldn’t a little more self-discipline give our lives more pleasure and freedom?

The first step in helping our children learn to control their desires is by not presenting desire as something bad. Desire is great! Learning to harness that energy is the true source of self-esteem.

The desire to hit someone when we’re angry is powerful and sometimes necessary for self-defense. But that same energy can be controlled and transformed into words or into physical exertion (karate, competitive sports, etc.). We help our children become aware of this energy by articulating the power of their desires. Then we subtly challenge them to be powerful enough to hold this energy, even for a few minutes.

Talking with our children about desire as a source of energy, and self-discipline as a way of harnessing that energy, allows both parent and child to find positive ways to deal the peer and media pressure.

Turning Energy into Action

Once children have the capacity to hold the energy of their desires (even a little), we can show them that they have choices about what to do with that energy.

One powerful choice is to transform their energy for wanting something into the energy of working for it. Even toddlers can understand that wanting something on the other side of the room means crawling over to get it. When we let them try—and verbalize the process and praise their effort—we are laying the ground work for self-esteem. Knowing when to let children work, and when they have exhausted their abilities, demands a watchful eye and a great deal of time and attention.

Older children need to be given real work that satisfies a real need. Having them help us prepare a meal when they are hungry or make something clean or beautiful in a way that is truly useful to themselves and their family, shows them that the energy of wanting can be the fuel for doing.

There are many ways to teach our children that they have choices in how they use the energy of their desires. Self-discipline can fuel our creative expression, build self-respect, sustain a friendship and give us real pleasure. For example:

  • Validate our 4 year old’s demand for sweets and ask him to turn the energy of his desire into a dance. Join the dance and watch the mood change.
  • Help an older child understand why some kids have such a hard time staying out of trouble by explaining what happens when desires are in control (much like a horse being in control of the carriage).
  • On a long car ride, show everyone how their desire to move can be converted into a song, poem or some really silly jokes. Talk about how the energy is changing from one thing into another—that gratifying a desire is not the only choice.
  • Allow the energy to ripen once in a while. Make a wonderful dinner. When appetites are strong, sit down together and take a few minutes to really smell the food and feel the presence of your family sitting with such abundance. When you’re ready to start eating, wait just a moment longer and feel, as a family, the energy building within you. Then, take the first bite as slowly as you can and look around at each other as you begin to really enjoy the food. Eating is so much more fun when we are hungry.

Guarding Our Senses

Desires come to us through our five senses and are constantly being manipulated by our environment. If our children are going to be intelligent media consumers, they need to know that the energy of their desires can be increased by what they see and hear. Even very young children can become allies in guarding their senses from inappropriate stimulation. A 3-year-old can tell you that his eyes want some chocolate cake but his belly says “no.” Children as young as 4 can recognize that hearing a scary story can make them have a bad dream. Older children can be empowered to become detectives of media manipulation.

Our children like to hear about our own struggles with self-discipline and how we have learned to protect our senses from things that would get us into trouble. Teaching them to be the guardians of their own senses protects them when we are not there to do the job.

When we look beneath the noise of their demands, we find that children are afraid of the strength of their desires and are looking for our assistance in finding positive ways of understanding and controlling them. They are eager to show us how competent and strong they are. When we take the time to help them develop the muscle of self-discipline, we give them the freedom and power to say “no” and the true pleasure of saying “yes.”