Monday, November 09, 2009
I don't suppose most of us would pair up Sesame Street and The Rolling Stones in the same thought. But I did. This week is the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Our oldest daughter was born just weeks after Sesame Street began, so you could say we grew up there together. In 1981 they added a brief character called Mick Swagger and the Cobblestones who sang their hit, "I Can't Get No Co-Operation." While I enjoyed the rendition, I had always thought there was a more appropriate Stones tune that reflected the moral lessons of growing up. And when the 40th anniversary was celebrated on the Today Show, I thought about it again. The chorus spoke perfectly to what I thought then and what I still think – "No you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need."
All too often we confuse want and need especially when it comes to our children. We wish they can have everything, and we do our best to make it happen which often leads to overspending or unreal expectations. Saying "no" to requests becomes so infrequent that our children can't comprehend that "no" exists. You've all been there in the store and witnessed a child (your child) having a complete meltdown at the checkout counter because she didn't get what she wanted. We have advertisers and peer pressure making things worse. When the boys turned sixteen, most of their friends got new cars that were fancier than mine. Of course, I guess anything is fancier than a car with 250,000 miles and a permanent check engine light. But the message was clear – what the boys wanted fell far outside of what they, even what I, needed.
For example we get told that what our kids wear can affect how they play. While that fancy pair of bright green or red cleats create flash on the pitch, they can't provide any assurance of skill. Most cleats are a case of want over need, otherwise why would manufacturers design and build new, outrageous options each year. At $200 a pair, cleats are an extravagance that can't be supported by outcome, although both our boys were adapt at making that argument. Lighter cleats, wider cleats, kangaroo leather cleats, side-tie, no tie, gel, and ad nausem became the rallying cry for needing a new pair every few months. If cleats provided as utilitarian a purpose as young players argue, then why aren't the boots all just black and functional? I think we all know the answer to that one. Function in a spanking new format is the name of the promotion game. You can't get a product out the door of a store before the new banner touting a faster, brighter, cleaner, streamlined version unfurls. Ask either of my boys how often I said, "the color doesn't matter," and they'll tell you how often they rolled their eyes. The same argument holds true for training devices, outerwear, bags, goalkeeper jerseys, and balls. "No" became very easy after I ordered with costs and duty a World Cup ball directly from Germany only to have it "disappear" less than four hours after arriving.
When it comes to being in youth sports, parents try their best to manipulate outcomes often with disastrous results. Parents become bullies to coaches and club administrators in order to get their kids on the "right" team, which often doesn't mean the team which is right for their child's abilities and interests, but the team that is perceived as the standout team. When I was a club administrator and later a US Youth Soccer Association Olympic Development Program assistant I fielded a huge share of these threats and ultimatums. But parents couldn't accept "no" on behalf of their kids. In the end they got a reputation as being difficult and burned bridges. And need flew out the window with want.
Right now my oldest son is looking to transfer colleges. We have been paying a huge premium for him to attend the school he's at so he could play soccer there. But the cow has run dry. Without a major bump in scholarship money, we can't afford to continue sending him there. That's a huge "no" and hard to swallow. But he's been very understanding. I credit that understanding to having heard "no" other times in his life when he achingly hoped he'd hear "yes." What he needs is a good education; what he wants is a good education while he plays soccer. It may not be possible to give him what he wants. We hope it can still happen. We're working on that goal, but in life wanting it will never fully justify getting it.
Sesame Street taught my kids and now my grandkids their numbers, the alphabet, and life lessons. But it also reminded me as a parent that an hour a day with some Muppets won't make a huge impact without the remaining twenty-three hours with me reinforcing the message. I know I was indulgent with my kids. I am definitely indulgent with my grandkids, but that's what grandparents were put on earth to do! But we all have to temper our desire to give our children everything they want because that's a bottomless pit of yearning. Soon it will be Hanukkah and Christmas, and we are already being inundated with the not so subtle message that love equals big gifts. I imagine Mick Jagger rarely denied himself or his children anything, but he still managed to get it right in a song. What we should be trying to do is to find what we need. What we want will always be around to tempt us, so there's no trouble finding that.