"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 13, 2014
In Defense of Being a Generous Parent
by Emily S. Jorgensen

Today we made cupcakes for my toddler’s birthday party. I had in mind exactly how I wanted them to look. I had plans. I had lemon frosting, and candy butterflies, and fancy cupcake liners.

My son wanted to help. He is six. He has not yet developed the necessary skill set to decorate cupcakes up to my expectations when I know they will be served to other adults.

This is the type of quandary parents face every day. Do I do what would make me happy, or what would make him happy? Do I compromise my idealist goals of cupcake beauty and let him help, or make some excuse why he can’t help this time?

I feel inundated by all online messages to parents that we can’t forget to take time for ourselves. I read of parents being eschewed because their Facebook posts are all about their children instead of themselves. I hear judgments about parents who put their children’s needs first too often, or are too involved in their children’s life.

Yes, I have seen my fair share of helicopter parents — the type in piano lessons who want to attend every single lesson though my teaching format does not require it, and constantly jump in to answer the questions I pose to their child instead of watching their child struggle to answer.

And I too feel tempted to “save” my child from feelings of disappointment and failure. I understand how parents want to protect their children to the point of protecting them into helplessness.

I feel we parents walk a line. We walk many lines, in fact.

One of those lines is balancing our needs with those of our child.

When I am enjoying my last piece of birthday cake and my son really, really, wants some of my frosting because he has eaten all his and that is the only part of cake he likes anyway, I smile and give him some. Not because he is entitled to it, but because I am generous and I love him.

The key is whether he knows this is why I gave it to him. So, I tell him. “Hmmm. You want me to give you some of my frosting? I see you ate all of yours. Well, I love you, so yes, I will share some with you.”

I have always made it a policy to be generous with my children. This does not mean they always get what they want. I give them more than is convenient for me to give; I say no, but I also try to say yes, when what they ask for is good for them or comes at a modest cost to me.

I firmly believe this teaches them to be generous with each other. I see it all the time in their interaction with each other. When we label our generosity — “I give you this because I love you,” rather than, “you deserve this,” I don’t think they learn entitlement. I think they learn sharing, kindness, and how to express love.

My cousin recently noted that her father (my uncle) used to tell them that all children need a good dose of vitamin N once in a while — meaning the word No. I think the comparison between “No” and vitamins is perfect — too little is damaging, just as an overdose is equally so.

The litmus test I use to help me know the proper dosage is this: If I am saying no because it is the best thing for my child (no, you can’t eat that donut right before dinner, no you can’t stay up all night when you have school tomorrow, no you can’t go play in the snow without a coat on), then no is a go.

However, if I am saying no just because it is easier for me, (no you can’t have an apple because I don’t feel like cutting one right now and you wear braces so it is the only way you can eat them, or no you can’t go play at your best friend’s house because I am sick of driving around today and she lives 10 minutes away, or no you can’t play that board game because you can’t read and I don’t want to be roped into playing it with you), then I think that is a selfish no, and should be avoided.

If I constantly show my child that my primary concern is myself and what is easiest or most convenient for me, they will learn that lesson well.

How can I expect them to share their toys with other children when I won’t let them touch my “toys?” How can I expect them to divide the last piece of cake evenly if I always take the biggest piece when I get the chance? If I don’t model generous behavior to them, who will?

Many, many nights, when my first child was very young, she wanted me to stay and sing to her an extra song or just sit with her on her bed while she fell asleep. At this time I was working 30 hours a week and writing a Master’s thesis.

Saying no to this request would make my life easier; it wasn’t something she truly needed, but I think it helped her feel cared for. Most nights I really wanted to make my escape, but then I would think to myself, “Someday she won’t want you here. Someday she’ll outgrow wanting Primary songs in the dark.” And I would stay.

I look back now at those times, as she will enter Young Women soon, and I don’t regret a single one of those “wasted” evenings.

Of course, being generous is not the same as throwing out structure and family rules and being over-lenient. Even in those early years, she had a hard-and-fast bedtime. And, if she wasn’t relaxing and trying to sleep, but rather trying to find a way to stay up past her bedtime when she asked me to stay, I would leave.

Most parents who really listen to their children can tell when a child has an emotional need versus when they are trying to test the boundaries.

There are three areas in which I think we parents should be generous:

We should be generous with our trust. So much poor parenting I observe stems from a lack of trust in our children. We don’t trust them to do their homework properly. We don’t trust them to turn it in on time. We don’t trust them to make the right choice, so we swoop in and do it for them. In the long run, of course, this harms rather than helps them.

Now, I am aware that children all develop at difference speeds, and some even have developmental issues that put them on an entirely different playing field. Parents must decide what their children are capable of at their best and help when something is really beyond their ability.

But, too often we rush in instead of waiting for them to try. If our priority is really what is best for our child, and we watch and listen and observe, and ask the Lord for help, I think we will get it right most of the time.

We should be generous with our time. I remember reading something Barbara Bush said once that has stayed with me ever since. She said, “The darn trouble with cleaning the house is it gets dirty the next day anyway, so skip a week if you have to. The children are the most important things.”

When I am doing the dishes and my toddler pulls on my pant leg with a book in hand, with her cute but insistent “ugh, ugh,” I find a stopping place in my chore and read her a book. I don’t drop everything right away, but I don’t test her patience beyond a few minutes. There are so many times I can’t do what she wants, because of work, or her siblings’ schedule, or a church duty. Dishes can wait.

Oh, how I long for a clean house some days, but if the choice is between that and children that know they are my top priority, I will choose the children.

My children know the world does not revolve around them. Their parents have to go to work; we are not always at their beck and call. They must respect each other or there are consequences. Everyone takes turns. We all share in the daily chores. But, they also know they are more important to me than my work or the chores.

I am really tired of people telling me not to forget to take time for myself. I want to know, how much time did Jesus take for himself? The fact is, childhood is gone quickly. You don’t get a do-over. At the end of the day, I want to know that I did my best.

Yes, I would like to exercise more, take an art class, write a book, get a Ph. D, and a whole host of personal goals. No, I’m not going to put those ahead of my children’s needs.

I am not saying that people who do those things are ignoring their children. I am saying it is one of those lines we walk, and I think people of faith would do well to discuss these choices with the Lord and their family and choose according to their conscious, considering what serves the family most rather than what serves the individual most. Sometimes they happen to be the same thing. Sometimes they don’t.

We should be generous with our love. I wrote another article on unconditional love, so I won’t overwork this point here. But generosity in love means giving all we can, unconditionally, without the expectation of getting anything back.

In my experience, people who learn to love others this way do get it back. They generally have teenagers who tell them the truth and obey the rules and continue to have a good relationship with their adult children. People who receive love as a gift rather than a reward for obedience are more likely to go out of their way to pay that love forward, as well as to reciprocate to the one who gave it initially.

I am completely convinced that the path to raising children who are considerate and generous to others is paved with the stones of parental generosity. As my children grow, I see evidence of this constantly.

Before the cupcake-decorating quandary I mentioned earlier, there was a birthday present quandary. In our house, siblings are not required to give birthday presents, but if they want to, they must pay for them out of their own money. Sometimes they will pool their money or go halfsies with a parent.

We took a family shopping trip to a toy store, and everyone took their money with them. I thought they were looking for things for themselves. I didn’t even realize they were planning to buy their little sister birthday presents.

It was interesting to note how the older two kids — ages eight and eleven — didn’t bat an eye about spending three weeks’ worth of allowance on their little sister. They were very generous and cared much more deeply that they find something she would really like than they cared about the sacrifice of their hard earned money (allowance is tied to chore-doing in our house).

My six-year-old was a bit different. He wanted to get something for her, but he really wanted to get something for himself also. He has limited funds, so this was quite a concern.

I remember his older siblings going through this as well. It is a natural stage for children his age to focus more on their own desires, adjusting rules of games to benefit themselves, weighing other people’s opinions as less important than their own.

However, I know that when they are shown good examples and reminded to look at things from another's perspective, they outgrow this, and learn to care more about the happiness of those they love. It was touching to see his older sisters display this.

So, on that trip, I bought him a little toy for less than a dollar. He was so thrilled to get something from me, he didn’t bat an eye when he forked over the money for his little sister’s present. It encourages him to be generous when he knows his needs will be cared for as well.

That is the stage he is in. Eventually I have faith in him that he will get to the point he doesn’t need to be given something to feel secure enough to give of himself. It is a process.

I wonder if some parents are stuck at this stage — they are not secure enough themselves to give generously to their children, because they feel their own needs are unmet. There are times I have felt this way — so tapped out from other parts of my life that I wonder what I have left.

But, I find these are the most important times to be generous. These are the times when giving my time, my love, my listening ear costs the most, but affects the most as well. My child — who will be a day older tomorrow, who won’t want this cuddle next week, or won’t want to tell me about the boy she likes next year — I hope she’ll remember that I am there for her even when I am tired or sick or stressed.

I hope that will inspire her to leave her comfort bubble when she sees a need, to choose to serve when it is not easy, and to be generous to her children some day, even if it means giving up her dream for cupcake perfection.


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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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