Teaching What I Don’t Know

Only two more days until Christmas. Thank gawd. I don’t think my daughter and I can last any longer.

My daughter LOVES stuff, toys, books, jewelry, art supplies. She really loves NEW stuff. She sees something that she wants and she fixates on it. For her the phrase, “out of sigh, out of mind,” just doesn’t apply. If she decides she wants something, even if she only sees it for a second, she will remember for months and months and months.

For this reason (among others) it’s really hard to take her places. You don’t know how much shit is on display until you’re trying to avoid it. And even if you can avoid it, other kids are carrying around their shit (which I totally get, my kid is carrying around her shit too), so no place is really ever safe. The number one thing on her list for her last birthday was a mermaid doll she saw some girl walking around with at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. She was talking about it for three months.

It’d be one thing if she fixated on a thing and then, once she got it, she played with it like crazy. That is not, in fact, what happens. What does happen is she plays with it like crazy for a couple of days, and then it disappears into the ether. Except, it doesn’t disappear enough that I can get rid of it, because she will remember it again, randomly, months from when it was last seen, and have a total shit fit when she finds out it’s not around anymore.

That whole, take your kids’ toys away and they will be happier thing? That doesn’t seem to apply to my kid.

As you can imagine, this time of year is a nightmare for us. I quite literally can’t take her anywhere because every store, even ones that don’t usually sell kid stuff, have toys near the checkout. Even Safeway and Whole Foods have entire sections dedicated to toys right now. I can’t run a single errand with my daughter, lest she fixate on something and add it to her list.

She spent most of the Nutcracker sulking about a giant ($100+) wooden snow fairy statue that she saw at the gift shop that you needed to pass through to get to our balcony seats. On the way home she made up a song about we never get her anything she wants.

To say this is upsetting to me would be an understatement. I find her attitude absolutely devastating.

The reason it’s most devastating? I know I’ve played a big part in cultivating it. Her grandparents are definitely partly to blame, but I played my part too. When she was two and three and things were HARD with her, I definitely used “that shiny thing” to coax her out of her hours long meltdown or to just get us through another hour at the zoo with our friends. The offending object of distraction wasn’t always a toy–I actually have a firm policy of not buying things from gift shops–but it was someTHING that enticed her to stop being impossible so we could just get on with it. Of course now, when she’s jonsing for her “new thing fix,” she’s a total wreck until she gets it.

The thing is, I don’t know how to teach her to not want the things on which she’s fixated. How can I teach her something I never learned myself? I say all the things I assume I’m supposed to say: I validate her feeling of want, and how bad it feels, I remind her of all she has, I tell her that the feeling will pass and we can do something fun in the meantime (frequently I get fed up and yell at her to get over self already).

It’s the exact self talk I direct at myself. And it seems just as ineffective on her and it is on me.

How do I teach my daughter not to try to escape from her unhappiness in shiny new stuff, when that is exactly what I do when I feel shitty? I feel like I’m failing as a mother.

They say that the best teachers are the ones who struggled with something themselves. I think that’s true, but it’s only applicable when they’ve mastered the skill, not when they are still learning it. You can be a good math teacher if math was hard for you, but you eventually figured it out; you definitely have more empathy for struggling math students and you also probably have way more useful strategies that you perfected out of necessity for yourself. But if you still don’t really understand fractions, it’s going to be hard to teach some else how they work.

When my daughter is really struggling with vision therapy and just wants to give up, I know how to talk to her about doing things even though they are hard. I’m good at doing things even though they are hard, and the pep talk I give her usually bolsters me up. But when I’m telling my daughter to be grateful for what she has and to stop fixating on a toy that definitely won’t make her happier, my voice sounds hollow. I worry she can sense that I don’t actually believe those things are true.

The thing is I WANT them to be true, I want that self talk to work, for both her and for me. But it has never seemed to make me feel better when I’m fixating on something I want. How can I expect those platitudes to make it better for her?

I think eventually I will get it, and I will be able to tell my daughter what works for me. Or maybe I’ll be able to tell her that nothing really works but these tricks help make it better than it would be, and that will have to be enough. I’m definitely getting better, but I’m not there yet.

Last week I make the mistake of letting her go in the Swarkovski store downtown (I met her after care program at the ice skating rink), and we both found something we really wanted. If she hadn’t been with me, I might have bought mine. She’s still talking about the crystal Cinderella statue she saw, but I’ve mostly let go of the sparkly trinket that caught my eye. It took me a few days, but I eventually realized that I wanted something sparkly for my anniversary coming up, because I haven’t felt that great about my marriage and I wanted something to help me celebrate. But I realized that a shiny thing wouldn’t make me any happier in my relationship, and the object of my affection quickly lost its luster. I was pretty depressed for a few days afterward, but at least it was about a disillusionment with my marriage (something that actually matters) and not about denying myself something shiny (which does not).

So I’m getting there, taking baby steps in the right direction, and I think I might eventually arrive, but I’m worried I’ll get there too late, and the damage will already be done. I’m worried it has been done, and there’s no salvaging my daughter from this vicious cycle of obsessively wanting things an becoming miserable when she can’t have them.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and she’ll get to open one present. I already asked my mom to put the Ana and Elsa magnet set under the tree so she can fucking have it already because I can’t stand the thought of her tossing all her other presents aside because that one isn’t there (we spend the morning with my in-laws and the magnetic set will not be there). So yes, I’m giving in, I’m capitulating, it’s a Christmas present to myself, because I’m already having a hard enough time this Christmas, and I don’t need some dumb magnetic set ruining the rest of it.


  1. Maybe the real lesson isn’t how to give up wanting things … maybe it is understanding even wanting something terribly much doesn’t mean you get it. That it hurts to not get it. That you can cry for two weeks until your eyes are bright red and sore…and you still don’t get to have it. That life doesn’t work that way, that wanting doesn’t mean getting and you still have to move forward and keep going. Because people want material goods, freedoms, safety, love, kindness, health ……. but that doesn’t happen for everyone and it is still possible to behave and move forward.
    SO SORRY this is being a tough Christmas break for you all. I understand. We get images in our head about Happy Holidays….and then our eyes are red and sore because life is real not what we hoped for. Sending you hugs and caring.

    1. Agreed. We spend a lot of time reciting how we can put it on the Christmas/birthday list but we can’t have whatever it is right now. It took maybe 6 months or more until it clicked that we meant it for the older one who is a magpie too, gathering all the things and hoarding them. Now a few years later she mostly gets it. We also let her save up for things (she gets an allowance based on her job chart and staying in bed/going to bed without a fight is on it) and when we shop for presents for birthday parties, there is a firm budget. Actually we talk about that when shopping for any gift for anyone. It must have stuck some because she mentioned it a few weeks ago in the store.
      And many hugs in this overstimulated time of year when so many people demand things of us. May there be peace in the storm.

      1. We’ve started an allowance and after she’s put some away for saving and giving, she can spend it how she wants. But that is just another situation where she is coveting something and obsessing about it while she waits. It’s so miserable when she’s in one of those covetous cycles. She’s just relentless about it.

    2. It is a good lesson in disappointment, and if it didn’t mean a meltdown followed by DAYS of sulking, I’d be super into teaching that lesson. I guess I’m going to have to, even if the consequences are ugly.

  2. Yeah, you can’t have everything you want pretty much by definition (since once we get what we want we want more). For times outside of birthdays and Christmas, our oldest has to spend his allowance on things that he wants. That means he has to save up his allowance to get expensive things.

    So crank up the Rolling Stones (You can’t always get what you wa-ant) when the two of you get the gimmies and drown it out.

    And good for you not buying the svarkovski crystal, but why on earth would you go into a store like that when you’re having difficulty making ends meet? That’s a rhetorical question. But seriously, don’t make it difficult for yourself if you don’t have to.

    Have you switched to cash-only yet because from everything you’ve said about yourself, that is the way to go. Cash-only and the envelope system.

    1. I am not someone who gets things at a store like Swarkovski’s. I don’t have nice jewelry. I don’t even have an engagement ring and my wedding band is mostly silver. So walking into Swarkovski’s is like walking into Tiffany’s, it’s just to look at the shiny things. But they had some very reasonable bangles that were on sale, and it’s our anniversary in a week, and I’ve already had to forgo pretty much every thing that would’ve make celebrating it special, so I was tempted. But I didn’t do it, so there’s that.

      1. It doesn’t sound like you can afford anniversary presents from what you have been saying. I don’t have any jewelry either other than my wedding ring (bought online for cheap) and my husband made my engagement ring out of a slice of dowel rod.

        I don’t feel deprived.

        We didn’t buy jewelry because we couldn’t afford it. Now that we can afford it we would rather spend it on other things or save it for the future. Paying down debt is more satisfying than anything shiny. Not worrying about money for repairs is worth more than any luxury. Being ok in the event of a job loss is worth years of “deprivation”.

        It isn’t like sacrifice is fun or easy. But for most of us it is necessary in order to not have things get really bad in an emergency.

        1. We don’t give anniversary gifts. The only reason I even considered it, ever so briefly, is because we couldn’t do any of the other things I would have liked, like spending a weekend away or even just going to a nice dinner. But we can’t do those things this year. And I understand that those things don’t matter to you, and that is fine. But they do to me, and while I get that financial security is more important than doing something fun for one’s anniversary (which is why we aren’t doing something fun), I reserve the right to be disappointed, even if you personally don’t think I have adequate reason to feel that way.

          1. Everyone is different and you do have a right to like or want things and then be disappointed when you don’t get them.

          2. That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m saying though. It’s not like most people enjoy sacrifice, but we almost all have to do it.

            And it’s not like everybody has everything they want. We all have to make trade-offs, and if you prefer security over shiny things, then that is the right trade-off to make. If you prefer shiny things to security, then by all means, get the shiny things and don’t feel disappointed (though with kids, that would hurt more than just yourself). From what you’ve been saying it sounds like you would prefer security.

  3. I occasionally break into that song when my 3 year old announces ” I want ice cream” etc….

    Anyway, I’m so sorry you are dealing with this along with everything else. We have the flip side of not having much family, and even less close by–very little excess present giving etc. One person was out of control but I basically threw several fits (plus returned almost everything, etc.) and now it’s under control. But I can see how a couple sets of spoiling grandparents could feed this.

    My kids still sometimes throw fits over “I want”–all must do this—but usually get over it after a while. I’m sorry that your daughter doesn’t.

    1. I have asked so many times for them to stop, and while they’ve gotten better, they’ll never be where I would like. My in-laws just get them shit throughout the year, but not really on the big days and my parents get them too much on their big days (bday and Xmas). I truly can’t win.

      1. Yikes that’s difficult. Have you tried asking if they would contribute to a 529 instead? My dad would do that (before he died)–just $50 on birthdays etc but it helps and that’s what he wanted to do.

      2. I think this issue would exist even if grandparents didn’t get her stuff. It seems like she directs this specifically at you and your husband. Although maybe grandparents put up an unfair expectation?

  4. I’m hesitant to chime in, but I agree with what has been said, and especially about the saving up for what you want. My mom started that with me younger than I can remember- I had age appropriate chores from the time I was 3 or 4 and while there were certainly presents at birthday and Christmas, in between it was expected that if I wanted something I’d save my allowance. And, I did. I vividly remember being about 8 or 9 and deliberating for weeks over buying or not buying a toy I wanted. I think that more than even taking the responsibility off my parents for all the “can I have this?” (something that simply would not occur to me to have asked) was that it trained me so that I still do that. I rarely make an impulse purchase. It’s taken over 15 years of marriage to feel “okay” when I buy something I don’t absolutely NEED. I think what it boils down to is it taught me a really good life lesson that I still use today, albeit a little less because husband has gotten me to loosen up a bit. Good luck! I’m sorry the break is being rough for you.

    1. I forgot to mention that she does earn money (primarily from vision therapy, which is really hard so we give her a dollar every time she does it) and we’re putting that money into save/give/spend envelopes. She has purchased one toy she really wanted with that money, but the two weeks she had to wait to save the money was dreadful. I’m hoping it will get better, and now that she has some saved up, I’ve told her she needs to wait at least a week between when she sees something and actually buys it, to make sure she really wants it. So I’m trying to instill in her some understand of what you do with money that I didn’t learn as a child. I hope it helps.

      1. Wow! Proud of you for teaching the delay lesson as well as the saving lesson. You really are doing such a good parenting job.

  5. I think this is a very insightful post and something a lot of families struggle with. E wants something new everywhere we go, and often someone buys it for her. Usually DH. Sometimes me. Grandparents every time we see them. Though we can usually talk her into something cheaper or more practical than the original thing she fixated on (I recently bought her a book instead of a giant plastic scorpion!), we rarely escape without buying something. She, too, has a lot of crap that she desperately wanted and doesn’t play with but we can’t get rid of. This is totally our fault. But we also find it so easy to justify… It’s just a couple dollars and we need to choose our battle at that moment. Or we can use it as a reward for something later. Tough habits to break.

      1. You are absolutely not the only ones dealing with this! I feel like my J is so much more materialistic than I ever was as a kid – he’s always asking why we can’t go out to eat or when we’re going to buy him an iPad or why he can’t have 3 cell phones like his friend has. (I think the friend’s parents gave him their old ones to play games on) I don’t remember ever being that way, and I really want to teach him that these things aren’t necessities and that financial stability is more important. But I get tired of saying it over and over. Especially when, like you, I want these things too.

  6. I think that you are probably the best person to be there for your daughter in this situation. You GET what she is going through and can offer her empathy and understanding.

  7. This is my first comment here but I wanted to thank you for this post. I have been going through a similar issue with my kids – I find they are watching too much TV. If it were up to them, they’d never stop. I know I need to set limits, and I do, but I have relaxed them lately because of the holidays and some sick days home from school/daycare. (I’m saying “I”, not “we” because this happens more when I am home alone with the 3 kids during the day.) I know that the best way to teach them these boundaries is to model them, but it’s difficult when I totally understand how they’re feeling; I LOVE watching TV. They can definitely see any cracks in my resolve! Anyway, thank you for sharing what you’re going through. It sounds like you know what you need to do, and you will slowly make progress as you work on it together. I agree, though, it’s so hard, and sometimes you just need to do what gets you through that moment.

  8. While my daughter doesn’t sulk she does fixate on stuff and I worry what life is going to be for her when she gets older. My in-laws used to buy so so many presents…but after a while, I told my in-laws, I would prefer books & educational stuff rather than a toy she can earn (like yours) She (my mother in law) doesn’t comply all the time but she’s trying. However, my living room looks like a small toy shop right now thanks to Christmas.

    And I hear you – I want nice things too. I want a shiny, diamond pendant to celebrate our 10 year anniversary in July…but I don’t think I’ll get it due to the fact that, I want to pay off the rest of my student loan and yes, I really don’t NEED it but it sucks and yeah I can sulk about it and can be upset about it and sue me, so I’m 5 again…I’m human.

    You’re doing a good job. Remember that.

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