Does Flexibility Breed Spoiled Behavior?

Spoiled behavior has always been a major nerve tweaker for me, undoubtedly because my own childhood was so painfully inflexible. We were an immediate family of nine (plus, we usually had additional relatives living with us) so resources were scarce. Food was consumed without complaint or question because we were lucky to have it. Toys or other material goods were never begged for or negotiated over because it never seemed realistic to ask for or negotiate over them. And in general, behaviorally, my siblings and I stayed in line (sometimes literally -- imagine the kids lining up to whistle tones in the Sound of Music) until hormones/emotions got the best of us in our teen years -- because we knew there were grave consequences otherwise. And now as a parent, coping with anything that smells remotely of spoiled behavior is extremely challenging for me. Laurel clearly lives a more privileged life than I did, but Jon and I are mindful to raise her to think about others, know that many in the world have so little, and understand that things cost money (e.g., she knows that there are things she must chip in for or buy altogether if she wants them). But still, she asks for stuff. And sometimes complains about the food we provide. And sometimes freaks out when she doesn’t get her way. And it is those moments where I wonder whether our flexibility -- both materially and socially/emotionally -- has bred spoiled behavior.

And it terrifies me.

So why am I writing about this? The catalyst was today -- one of the crappiest mornings in recent memory.

This weekend I’ve been batting around emails, trying to sort out a pick up solution for this coming Friday, when a (lucrative) project is conflicting with pick up time. As of this morning, I hadn’t yet sorted out pick up when the perfect solution rolled into my inbox: the mom of one of Laurel’s classmates asked if Laurel would like to come over after school on Friday for a Valentine’s tea party. I was thrilled!

I asked Laurel about it. She asked if I would be there and I said not right away, but that I would have another mom pick her up (one she knows well) and take her to the tea party and then I would be there not too long after. Granted, she has never had a play date at this classmate’s house but she sees this girl every day at school, knows the mom, and would attend with a good friend. She immediately said no. I tried to explain that it would literally be 10 minutes where I wasn't there. She wouldn’t budge.

And then five minutes later, as I was stewing over the scheduling thing and spooning her macaroni and cheese into a Thermos, she stated that she refused to eat that kind of macaroni and cheese (the yellow cheddar elbows she ate religiously for lunch until a few weeks ago when Jon introduced her to white cheddar shells…and which she had just consumed over the weekend) and wanted the white cheddar shells. I said, “It’s just one day Laurel and this is already made. Eat this today and I’ll make you shells tomorrow.” And she proceeded to flip out and storm off.

I was pissed. And it didn’t help that Jon didn’t back me up and agreed to take her yellow cheddar elbows to work and made her the shells. (To his credit, he apologized for this and said he just couldn’t deal with a freak out first thing in the morning. He also said that maybe I could find solace and humor in the fact that he was taking Laurel’s pink flower thermos to work.)

But I couldn’t shake my anger. It’s still lingering as I write this post. Laurel asked me for a truce and I refused the first time because my spoiled brat alert nerves were on fire. The second time she asked I accepted the truce (even though I was still mad) just to get it over with so she could start her school day on a better foot.

In the grand scheme of things, these two incidents probably seem (and may very well be) minor, but the reality is that the emotion is still very real to me. And I also feel guilty about potentially sending mixed messages to Laurel. The macaroni and cheese incident ultimately probably isn’t that big a deal (though again, in my house growing up, that behavior would not be tolerated), but the play date issue is more complicated. Based on all the work I have done with the enneagram personality system, I know that my type (#1) has major issues with feelings of unjustness. And one of my biggest challenges in the last several years is that, while I truly love that my current work lifestyle allows me to call the professional shots, it also means that because my work hours are “flexible,” I’m often the last one in the priority queue (perhaps this is an issue of enabling, but that’s a topic for another day). I work intensely during school hours and after Laurel's bedtime so I can be there for Laurel after school and she doesn’t have to go to extended care. I’m the default snow/sick day parent. I take Laurel to all the birthday parties and play dates pretty much without question. And so forth.

And so, when I asked Laurel to be flexible for me this Friday and she refused, it felt hugely unjust to me. And I also felt extremely conflicted, because one of the other things that is really, really important to Jon and me is that Laurel -- who tends to be more timid -- speaks her mind and stands up for herself, particularly in situations where she feels emotionally/physically uncomfortable or unsafe (there is a whole other reason for this, which I can’t go into here). So to her credit, she was being honest with me.

I’ve talked to Jon about the spoiled thing in the past (following other incidents with Laurel that have tweaked the nerve for me). He hasn’t shared my reaction and doesn’t think Laurel is spoiled (nor do I most of the time). I suspect my therapist would tell me that this is more about me and my issues than about Laurel. And at an intellectual level I understand this, but it doesn’t ease the visceral reactions I have around Laurel’s periodic bouts of inflexibility and my subsequent fears that she's becoming a spoiled kid.

So what do you think? Have you experienced episodes like this with your kids? Does it seem age appropriate or do you also fret about spoiled behavior?

Ultimately, I think the best thing for me to do in the now is probably meditate on the issue and do what I can to let it go, but my reaction was so (painfully) strong this morning that I probably need to do more work on it (cue me speed dialing my therapist). It pretty much took all of my will to squelch the urge to spout clichés to Laurel, such as “When I was a kid, I never…”

But man, it was tempting to go there.