Hidden Messages Questions

Winter’s first snow promised more than a change in the weather: it heralded the fast approach of the holidays—and the annual gift-shopping ritual. Ken and Shelley decided that today was as good as any to hit the shopping mall and get the deed done. Shelley stuck her head in the family room and called to their kids, “Okay, Nathan and Anna—time to go!”

As the four of them headed out to the car, Nathan was chattering about his friend’s dad’s new van. “Man, you should see it! The seats swivel, and there’s even built in headphones in the back seat for the radio!”

“Sounds nice,” said Ken, squeezing in behind the wheel.

“So, Dad,” Nathan continued, “Why can’t we have a neat van like that?”

“We’d love to,” Shelley responded, “But those vans are really expensive, and it’s not something we can afford.”

“We could always trade in a kid,” Ken joked. Like most of his jokes, this one elicited a groan from the backseat.

In the front seat, Shelley was too busy to notice. She was reviewing their list of gift recipients, allotting price quotas for each. After a quick calculation, she told Ken to stop by the bank. The kids watched as the ATM spat cash out of the slot as easily as Ken had put his card in. Nathan’s voice popped up from the back seat. “Hey Dad! Why don’t you just get more money from the machine and stop at the van dealership, too!” This time, it was the front seat occupants who groaned.

The first stop was to MegaToy City, an enormously sprawling warehouse of material diversions—where even the carts were mega-sized, presumably to encourage mega purchases. Nathan and Anna, as always, were awed and wooed by the colorful and exciting displays. One in particular provoked Anna to put her hand over her heart dramatically and sigh—a gesture Shelley recognized as her own. “Mom! Dad!” she breathed, “Here’s the new Super City Electric Train Set that I saw on TV! And it’s on sale! Can I get one, please?”

“Anna, we’re supposed to be gift shopping today,” her mother reasoned. “Stuff for other people, not ourselves.”

“Oh, but Mom,” Anna moaned, “There’s only three left on the shelf! We might never be able to get one!”

“No, honey,” Mom answered, “We’re not buying it today.”

But Anna remained rooted to the spot, nearly drooling at the glistening train set and taking inventory of the realistic city parts and pieces. “Mom. Pleeeeze? I won’t ask for anything else for a whole year! I promise.”

“Anna!” Ken’s voice was firm, “You heard your mother. The answer is no. We have a lot to do today, so let’s get busy.” Anna’s whole body drooped and seemed to be but an appendage of the lower lip she ceremoniously extended from her stormy face.

She followed her lip down another aisle, where Nathan’s turn for pleading came next. “But I’ve always wanted an Alien Mask with Adjustable Voice Changer!” Predictably, the previous scene repeated itself, and soon Nathan also wore The Lip.

Doing their best to ignore it all, Ken and Shelley continued agonizing over gift choices for cousins and friends. After a few more pouts from both children over various New, Improved, and Wonderful toys (Batteries Not Included), Dad finally relented and let each of them choose a new video from a wall that extended the entire width of the store.

The videos, however, didn’t stop the whining that escalated with each new aisle they perused. The toy store became more and more of a punishment to the parents. Their cart was full of gifts, their limits for both cash outflow and patience reached. List or no list, Ken, Shelley and The Lips got in line for the cashier.

Once their packages were paid for and the trunk loaded, Shelley suggested a lunch break. They stopped at the first fast food restaurant they spied. They brought their order to the table, and faster than the parents could sort the little paper-wrapped parcels, Nathan reached across the table; splash! went his orange pop over his french fries…which then fell with a sodden plop to the floor. Neither Shelley nor Ken had the energy to complain. Luckily, a nearby restaurant employee graciously mopped up the mess and replaced the meal, gratis. Soon, the rest of the family was nearly finished. “I’m still hungry,” Nathan announced, as if the world owed him a tummy-full of french fries but fell woefully short. “Well?” he added, annoyed that his thickheaded parents didn’t get it. “Can I have some more fries?” With a second large bag of fries in hand, Nathan followed his family back into the car and out into the furiously shopping world.

After a long afternoon, and a fair amount of the list crossed off, Shelley wearily decreed that shopping be done for the day. “I second the motion!” Ken answered, his voice dripping with relief.

After she unloaded the car, she wandered into the kitchen for dinner ideas, only to stare, bleary-eyed, at the inside the refrigerator. “I’m too tired to cook,” she said, “Why don’t we just order pizza tonight?” She didn’t need to ask the kids that question twice; Nathan brought her the telephone before the sentence had fully emerged.

As they waited for the pizza, Shelley and Ken sorted the day’s purchases, and the kids ran off to play. A few minutes later, Anna came rushing into the room crying. “I lost Manny Monkey!”

“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” answered Ken.

“No, Daddy!” she wailed. “I took it with me when we went shopping. We HAVE to go back and find it—it was my favorite! And it’s a limited first edition retired premium one! It’s worth, like…a million dollars!”

“You have tons of those little bean bag animals, honey. Next time don’t bring toys along to the mall.”

Anna tears flooded her face. “Then you HAVE to get me another one!”

“Anna!” interrupted her mother. “We can’t just run out and replace everything you lose. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!”

The Hidden Message

“Money may not grow on trees, but it spits right out of the ATM machine. There’s an endless supply available for shopping, fast-food lunches, pizza for dinner, and a million of whatever constitutes the latest fad.”

Think About It

We are always teaching our children—even if we don’t realize a lesson is in progress. Every minute, every day we spend in our children’s company is a demonstration of what we believe, and children learn well by example. This is particularly true in the arena of family finances. As we go about our days, we don’t realize that our children are forming concepts about money based on what they see and hear. From a child’s viewpoint, things they need and want materialize out of nowhere. They have no opportunity to connect our purchases with the jobs we work, the taxes we pay, the mortgages and bills that worry our minds in quiet moments.

We pass up opportunities to teach our kids about money when we answer their requests for material goods by saying, “We can’t afford it,” or “We’re not buying it today,” without explaining the reasons behind our decisions. When we usher them off to a table at the fast food restaurant, they don’t see money changing hands and have no concept of the meal’s cost. And value being relative, can small children understand the difference between 20 cents and $20 without our putting it into perspective for them? To many kids, a shiny piece of copper is more appealing than a wrinkly green crumple of paper.

Money, value, cost, and the daily decisions we must make about all three: They’re a mystery to our kids, one they will not solve easily on their own. In the interest of forming healthy, productive ideas about material things, what they can and cannot do for us, and how we go about attaining them, it behooves us to reveal the realities to our kids in simple ways on a daily basis.

Changes You Can Make

There are many ways to teach children about money. Begin with a simple thought: “I need to teach my kids about money, and I’ll find opportunities every day to do it.” Once you start, you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities will appear!

When you’re paying for a product or service, take a minute to tell your child how much you are paying. To make the amount more realistic, put it in terms of your child’s allowance or a favorite toy. For example, “Our lunch today cost $20—that’s about the same as four months of your allowance.” Or, “The groceries I’m buying cost $100. That’s the same as we paid for your bike.” Can you see that your child may suddenly be more thoughtful when he asks for that second bag of fries? Imagine his shock when you explain that the new hot water tank you had to put in cost the equivalent of 100 months of his allowance! Suddenly these things don’t just “materialize” any more; they begin to have an understandable value in your child’s mind.

When your daughter is making her holiday wish list and asks for that deluxe new doll set with hand-sewn clothes and period furniture, resist the urge to say, “We can’t afford it.” This only implies that if you had $600 lying around, you’d be delighted to buy one for her! Instead, pull out a catalog and show her that you could purchase holiday gifts for your entire extended family for that same amount of money.

When you’ve emptied your pockets or purse of change, don’t just toss the change in a drawer. This gives your child the message that a little bit of money isn’t of value. Instead, save it in a jar and use it to take the family to the movies, showing that even small amounts of money can add up over time.

When your child makes a request for an item that you’d typically buy for him, make him think more about cost and value by giving him a choice. “Sure, I could rent that movie, like I do every week for you. Or, you could skip a movie this weekend and I could give you the three dollars towards that CD you’re saving for.” “We could stop for an ice cream cone and eat just one today, or we could get supplies at the grocery store and have enough for three ice cream cones each.” Suddenly, your kids may be a little more aware of the value of those many little things you purchase.

It’s also important to teach our children the joy of giving from a young age. If they see their own family purchasing all the things that they need and want, but never see money going towards helping others less fortunate they may assume that charity has no place in their lives. Simple lessons, such as letting a child put coins in a collection jar or including a few gifts on your shopping trip for your church or school’s holiday toy collection for needy children can give an important message to your children. Doing these things during the holiday season also helps your children understand that holidays are not just for making Wish Lists and gathering presents, but for sharing and caring about other human beings.

Give your children an allowance designated for specific purposes by giving them guidelines and restrictions. (For example, you may decide that allowances cannot be spent on candy or toys that you deem inappropriate.) Help the kids create a budget, but then let your children learn how to make money decisions. They will make some poor financial decisions, but over time those mistakes will lead to successes. For example, if your child chooses to spend his entire allowance on a new CD, then remembers that school tee shirts are available for purchase, resist the urge to just throw money at him. Instead, seize the opportunity to teach a lesson: “Well, sometimes we choose to spend our money on one thing—like your CD—which means there isn’t any for something else we’d like: the tee shirt. Those are money decisions we have to make.”

If your child has a desire for something special— a new bike, roller blades, a guitar—don’t whine about his always wanting something. Don’t run out and buy it for him. Instead, sit down with him and discuss the prospect of this new treasure. Validate his wish for new things; it’s normal and acceptable to want something special now and then. Tell him how much you will be willing to chip in (one half, one third) and help him formulate a plan to earn the rest. He’ll learn some of the valuable lessons we so need to teach: how to make a wise buying decision, how to save, how to want some material things without ‘want’ consuming one’s soul, how to choose which of those ‘wants’ to pursue and how to let the rest go. And after the purchase, because he’s been so personally involved, he’ll likely treat the item with respect.

All of these ideas will help your children learn the real value of money and give them a foundation for a stronger financial future.

Zoo Day

Melissa woke up after a perfect night’s sleep feeling refreshed and energetic. The sun shining through the window added yet more joy to this beautiful spring day. As she sprang out of bed, a thought hit her, and she began to giggle like a schoolgirl. “What a wonderful day to play hooky!” she said to herself. An idea began to take shape. She’d never done anything like this before, but, after all, what was life for? “Yes!” she thought, “I’ll take a personal day off of work, actually let the boys skip school, and the three of us will spend this glorious day at the zoo!” As she got dressed she added up her reasons to validate this slightly naughty endeavor: She’d get to spend some quality time with the boys, they’d get to enjoy a day with each other, they’d all have a respite from the rigors of their daily routine. She enjoyed her vision of the three of them laughing and strolling through the zoo, the boys chatting together and gushing their appreciation for their delightful day and their hip mom….
She headed off to wake up her kids and share her pleasant surprise. She bounded into Kevin’s room first and sat beside him on the bed. “Okay, sleepyhead! Time to get up.” The answer was a groan from under the covers.

Next was Luke’s room. She rolled his wheelchair beside the bed and suggested he choose shorts and a tee shirt for this fine warm day. She almost blurted out her plans, but thought better of it: she decided to get the kids up and dressed before telling them.

As the boys were eating breakfast, Melissa sat at the table across from them. Fairly bursting with her idea, she blurted, “How’d you guys like to skip school today? I thought we’d play hooky and head to the zoo!” Her eyes wide with excitement, she waited for their expressions of glee.

Luke looked mildly pleased, but not overly excited. Kevin scrunched up his face and wrinkled his nose. “The zoo? I don’t want to go to the zoo!” he moaned.

Melissa was a little disappointed, but she knew—just knew—they’d have a great time once they got there. “Oh come on!” She said, “We’ll have a ball!”

Kevin looked doubtful. “Who has fun at the zoo?”

She wasn’t about to give up on her wonderful plan, but her short-tempered response sounded like a bursting balloon. “We’re going to the zoo, and you’re going to have fun, it’s a sunny day, I’ve already called in for the day off, and this is quality time with your mother.”

Kevin and Luke just stared at their mom. “Yeah, yeah,” said Kevin, “Let’s go to the zoo. Whoopee.”

Determined not to let this little setback ruin her plans, Melissa gathered up their stuff and herded the boys into the van. Once she’d folded and loaded Luke’s chair, she hopped into the front seat with a broad smile on her face. “Here we go!” She didn’t see the looks her boys shot each other behind her.

They weren’t even out of the neighborhood when Luke’s voice pierced Melissa’s cheerful mood. “Mooommm! Kevin took my markers!”

“Did not!” Kevin retorted, “They’re mine!”

“Are not!” yelled Kevin, “Make him give ‘em back!”

“Boys!” growled Melissa. “You’re not even supposed to have markers in the van. Give them to me.” Melissa waved her hand backward over the seat, motioning for the markers.

“Well if they’re yours, then you give her the markers,” Kevin sneered at his brother.

“I can’t reach. You do it.”

“No. Figure it out.”

Melissa snapped her fingers. “Just give me the markers!” she growled.

They rode down the street in relative silence for the next fifteen minutes. Melissa turned on the radio and began to sing along. Her cheerful mood was returning.

Soon, they arrived at the zoo. Melissa found the handicapped spots full—with cars that didn’t belong there, of course—so she had to drive around the enormous lot twice before finding a spot. After unloading the chair, their gear, and themselves, they headed toward the zoo entrance. It wasn’t until they were nearly at the gate—and the steep flight of stone stairs—that she spied the “Wheelchair Access” sign, with its arrow pointing to the opposite side of the parking lot. In frustrated silence, they trudged back to the van and reloaded, only to repeat the process at the opposite side of the lot. As they approached the promised entrance, Luke piped up. “Kevin’s right. This isn’t gonna be any fun at all.”

Melissa didn’t even have the energy to answer. She paid for their tickets, posted her complaint about the inappropriately filled handicapped parking spots, and ushered the boys through the large iron gates. “Where do you want to go first?” she asked.

“Let’s go see the lions and tigers,” Kevin suggested.

“No way! I wanna see the elephants and giraffes,” protested Luke.

“Why do we always have to do what you want?” complained Kevin. “I vote for the lions and tigers.”

Melissa pulled the plug on the argument. “We’ll go to the reptile house.” She stated it firmly and stomped away, both boys groaning as they followed.

Melissa was enjoying the reptile house until she turned to see Kevin racing with Luke through the halls, nearly knocking over a woman and her baby as they popped wheelchair wheelies along the way. Her tightly clenched teeth were all that stood between a controlled but angry reprimand and a loud, angry outburst.

The disgruntled trio headed to the African Jungle. On the way, they passed a cotton candy stand. “Oh, what the heck,” Melissa thought. “Cotton candy before lunch—why not?” “Wait here a sec,” she said to the boys. But her big sweet surprise brought nothing but more complaints.

“Why’d you get pink?” complained Luke.

“How come only one?” Kevin whined. “I suppose Luke gets to hold it!”

“Well, if you hold it, nobody else will get to eat any since you’re such a PIG!”

“KNOCK IT OFF!” yelled Melissa, on the verge of tears. “This is supposed to be FUN!”

Kevin rolled his eyes at her. “Well, I told you the zoo wasn’t any fun!”

Melissa whirled Luke around so fast, he lost his balance. “Come on,” she growled at Kevin. She walked away so quickly, he had to run to catch up.

“What are you doing?” Luke asked.

“I have a headache,” Melissa responded. “We’re going home.”

The boys cried all the way home, while Melissa held her aching head and fumed over a totally wasted day.

The Hidden Message

“My expectations are so far from reality that the only possible result is my disappointment and anger.”

Think About It

Expectations: Our lives are full of them. On the day the pregnancy test is positive, we begin painting beautiful rosy pictures of what our lives as parents will be like; it’s Mother Nature’s way of fostering parent/child bonds and the hope that keeps us going. As our children grow, we continue to envision how we hope things will turn out. We set up ideals, some realistic, some not. Eventually, the former delight us, and the latter…sometimes they break our hearts.

A mother discovers her robust newborn will never run on a baseball field, or even walk to school, and that they will face problems that she never even knew existed. The parents of four girls hope the birth of number five will add some variety to the family makeup, only to discover they will have plenty of use for the pink frilly dresses packed in the attic. A father, himself an only child, envisions a close and loving relationship between the twins his wife is expecting—only to find years later that daily bickering and fighting are more common than friendship between them. A mother with a close and loving relationship with her daughter turns around one day to ask who this sullen, selfish, moody, and demanding teenager living with her is.

Our great expectations frame the big picture as well as the small innumerable closeups of our daily lives. We set up countless ideal scenarios for our every day: the little one will behave in church; the painstakingly planned birthday party will be a smash hit; the new puppy will fit into the family perfectly. It’s a fact of life: Many of these small expectations are destined for failure.

The difference between expectation and reality equals unhappiness. The more specific and lofty our expectations, the harder we fall when reality crashes down on us.

Changes You Can Make

Take a good look at your own expectations for your children and your life. Examine these expectations and determine if they are realistic and likely. Don’t be afraid to make an honest assessment of where you are, how this compares to what you know to be ‘typical’ and where you think you may be headed.

One important way of making this exercise work is to become more knowledgeable about the stages of child development. When you are familiar with typical patterns of childhood—and there are many—you have a benchmark against which to measure the issues that arise daily. The vast bodies of research and observation available to you can help you see when your child’s behavior is usual for his age and situation, and when it is outside the norm and requires more attention. For example, if the Mom with the selfish and demanding teenage daughter were well read about what to expect in adolescence, she wouldn’t feel responsible for her daughter’s behavioral changes. She would have known that, no matter how close and loving the relationship with parents, nearly all teenagers endure hormonal and emotional upheaval at this time in their lives.

I am by no means suggesting pessimism, and actually, realistic expectations prevent pessimism. The more realistic your expectations the more possible it is to raise your children with optimism. In other words, when your expectations are realistic enough your children’s success is at least possible, and you will feel success as a parent. When expectations are extreme and unrealistic then failure is the most likely result. As an example, if you have more than one child, and you expect that they will NEVER bicker, NEVER fight, and that they will ALWAYS be cheerful-best-of-friends, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and anger.

On the flip side, I’m not suggesting that you passively accept “typical” misbehavior just because you expected it! Understanding and accepting your child’s behavior in a realistic way can help you see areas that may require your attention or may act as a warning light telling you that the situation requires taking the time to explore various solutions. So, when you understand that siblings WILL bicker and fight, sometimes just as often as they are cheerful-best-of-friends (and sometimes, more!), then you can relax and know that they are behaving normally—and then—explore the many ways you can encourage a more positive relationship between them. As another example, if your child doesn’t handle transitions well it doesn’t mean that you have to live your life on a rigid routine schedule—it means that you need to find ways to help your child learn to cope with life’s transitions in a more positive way.

When you have realistic expectations, you can calmly approach this momentous job we call parenting with a calm demeanor and a level head.

Excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill Publishing from Hidden Messages (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

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