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Rights vs. Privileges: What Do Our Kids Deserve from Us?

Posted by Elisabeth Wilkins

No doubt you heard or read about the Rachael Canning case — the NJ teen who moved out and tried to sue her parents for living expenses, money to pay for her private high school, and future college expenses. (She has now moved home and dismissed her complaint.) No one knows all the details of the case except the Cannings themselves, but it does beg the question: What are we responsible for as parents, and what should we — and our kids –consider to be privileges? And why have the two gotten so confused?

It does seem like somewhere along the way, kids have gotten more entitled in their thinking. It’s not enough just to have the basics, they say they need it all, now, fast!? In many ways, it’s not their fault — it’s just what they see their friends doing, and they’re trying to fit in. They don’t know the truth unless we teach them, after all. I think part of the problem is that “needs” and “wants” have gotten confused. Here are some things I think we really need to give our kids:

1. Kids deserve food, love and shelter. We are responsible for the basics, like food and shelter, clothes to wear, sending our kids to school, and raising them in as healthy a way as we can. I think love and affection are the biggest part of the equation. My great aunt Millie (they don’t make names like that anymore!) grew up poor in Chicago. Her father died young, and her mother took washing in to pay the bills. She told me that she and her seven siblings ate porridge from a big wooden platter every night “with one pat of butter in the middle.” I was very young, so this story made a big impression on me. I would have felt sad to hear her story, but she always told me about it with a big smile on her face. Seeing my confusion, she’d say, “We never knew we were poor, though, because we had so much fun together and because my mother was such a loving person.” Tales from her childhood taught me at a young age that love goes a long way in nourishing our kids’ hearts and minds. It’s not the only thing, but it’s the most important thing we can do for them.

2. Kids don’t “need” extras. On the flip side of the coin, kids don’t “need” extras like video games, brand name clothing and the latest gym shoes. Providing them with these kinds of things is a “treat” for our kids, and not a given.

And by the way, in my mind, sending my child to college is something I’d like to do; I consider this a privilege, and not a right my son has. Of course we want to help him as much as we can, but whatever we give him toward college some day is really a gift we’re giving him, in my opinion. (Some of this thinking probably stems from the fact that my husband and I put ourselves through college, with a little help from our parents. And believe me, I was grateful for that help!)

3. Kids deserve guidance. Trying to be a good teacher and guide for our children is another important part of being a parent. Talking about choices and letting our kids face natural consequences all falls under this umbrella. Teaching them how to solve problems more effectively does, too. Kids also deserve a parent who keeps trying their best, even if they don’t always get it right. (Like yours truly!)

4. Kids deserve a parent, not a friend. Setting limits on our kids’ behavior is a responsibility every parent holds in his or her hands. When you get right down to it, we say no and set limits because we love our children. We’re not our kids’ friends, we’re their parents — and that’s what they most want us to be, when you come right down to it.

5. Kids deserve good memories. I don’t know about you, but I want my kid to look back and remember some good times he had growing up. I think we are responsible to provide our kids with some space to dream, have fun, and enjoy each other. Otherwise, what’s life all about? Some of my best memories from childhood are very simple — going swimming at the lake, going on walks with my family after dinner, playing cards with my mom at night, having sleepovers with my best friend. these memories have sustained me and cheered me my whole life. (It really is the little things that matter, and that you remember most, don’t you think?)

A final note: One of my personal rules of thumb for my responsibilities as a parent comes from this quote from James and Janet Lehman: “Instead of being worried about whether you’re a ‘good parent,’ I tell people that it’s more important to try and be a ‘good enough parent.’ Good enough parents provide for their children and try their best to keep their kids safe. They’re trying to raise their children the best they can, and they deserve credit for that.”


About Elisabeth Wilkins

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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