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What do we “owe” our kids? What if the answer is: “nothing”?

by Meagan Francis on November 20, 2012

what do kids deserve?

Photo credit: TaxFix.co.uk. Used with permission.

Over the years I’ve made some controversial parenting confessions.

That I don’t beat myself up over my lack of a fully-funded college savings plan, for example. That I let my kids go outside unsupervised and check my email or gab with friends instead of playing with them at the park. That I never really bothered with a sleep schedule and only “potty trained” when the kids were old enough to do all the work themselves.

Each time, I’ve heard from at least one person telling me that I “owe” my kids something I’m not giving them. More individual attention, more enrichment activities, more structure, more (or less)…something.

I don’t like the idea of not meeting my obligations, especially to my kids. And even when logically I believe that by “neglecting” one area I am making room for something else that’s just as important to me, the implication stings.

But the more I think about it, when it comes to what I “owe” my kids?

I keep thinking maybe the answer is “nothing.”

Okay, that’s not likely to be a popular observation, so let me explain. Of course I have parenting ideals and values and beliefs I try to uphold, even if they aren’t always consistent.

It’s just that I don’t like to think about relationships with the most important people in my life in terms of what we owe one another.

Because here’s the thing: we can’t all be everything to our children. And we all value different things based on our own priorities, values and world view:

  • Mom number one might feel that she owes her child the healthiest possible lifestyle, going out of her way to avoid GMO and BPA and HCFS…
  • …while mom number two feels that she owes her child a healthy lifestyle which to her means lots of physical activity and a low-fat diet.
  • This mom might feel that she owes her child the best start in life, meaning an excellent, enriching daycare and a prestigious preschool…
  • …while that mom feels that she owes her child the best start in life, which according to her worldview, means staying home with him.

Who’s to say which mom is right and which one is wrong?

What statistic has ever proven beyond shadow of a doubt that one approach or another is always, 100% of the time, best? What study has ever analyzed the big, all-encompassing picture of what it means to be a mother, or a child, or a family: physical and mental health; happiness and achievement, family strength and individual success, all at once?

It doesn’t happen, because none of us are statistics or two-dimensional study subjects. And even when some nagging voice tells us we “should” be doing this or that…

Doing something only because we feel obligated gets in the way of acting from joy and conviction.

And making parenting choices based on what somebody else thinks we “owe” our kids is a great way to drive ourselves crazy with conflicting opinions and unreasonable expectations.

Instead, I’ve decided to turn the idea of obligation – what we “owe” our kids – on its head. Because really, “owing” them is not the point.

Just because I would love it if my kids have a certain experience or feel it would be great for them to learn a certain thing doesn’t mean I’ve failed or let them down if it doesn’t happen.

And, perhaps just as importantly, it doesn’t mean I always have to be the one providing the experience.

So here are two steps for getting past the idea that we “owe” or kids this or that:

1. Accept that another parent’s priorities are not a reflection on your priorities.

I make the majority of my parenting decisions based on my world view: a mix of my upbringing and experiences and personality and tendencies and all kinds of other things that make me uniquely me.

There’s nothing wrong with a world view. It makes you who you are. In fact, I believe that when you are parenting according to your own completely unique self, 95% of the time that’s when you are most authentically “doing it right.”

I say 95% because I believe we all have some lingering baggage left over from childhood, or assumptions or tendencies, that it might be best for us to shed as human beings and parents.

But even the style in which we work through those things is as unique and individual as we are. And there is value to our children even in our mistakes.

We all accept that we can’t do everything well, right? That even if we all agree that X, Y, and Z are good, worthy goals, that we don’t have to pursue all three of them at once?

I for sure accept that.

I cannot bring in a full-time income with which to fund the education and pay for tuba lessons while cooking from-scratch, organic meals from locally-sourced ingredients every night, while getting down on the floor and playing with each of my children for an hour every day, while schlepping the kids to various activities to keep them mentally engaged and physically active, while keeping my relationship with my spouse strong, while also giving my kids the slow, relaxed childhood that’s important to me, while also staying sane (and you could make a strong argument that  I “owe” my kids that for sure!)

So in my house, when a choice needs to be made, I might make very different choices than you based on my unique world view.

For example, I usually value family time over super-healthy food. I value slow evenings over enrichment opportunities. I value individualism over achievement.

But it’s not that I think organics or enrichment activities or achievement are worthless or unimportant. It’s just that if and when I have to choose – and often, I do – those are the things that take the back seat.

We all have to make choices, and there’s no possible way to give our kids every single thing somebody else might decide we “owe” them.

2. Instead of thinking about parenting in terms of what we “owe” our kids, think in terms of what our kids need or deserve.

This takes so much of the pressure off.

If we believe our kids deserve play, but we don’t feel we personally OWE it to them, it frees us up to outsource play to paid helpers or family members. Or we get a friend to plan that blowout birthday party. Or we get Dad to handle bedtime stories.

The child still gets the thing or experience we feel he needs, but without the sense of pressure and obligation on ourselves, solely, to provide it.

Also, when we put the focus on our child’s needs rather than our obligations, it allows us to get really clear with ourselves about why we feel compelled to do certain things.

For example:

  • Do I want to buy a bigger house because I feel my child deserves her own bedroom, or because I feel like I owe it to her? These are not the same thing.
  • Do I want to put my son in preschool because I think he needs it, or because I think it’s what a” good mom” would do? Same basic question, slightly different language, but you can see how hugely it changes the meaning of the decision, right?

When we frame the issue this way, we can also ask ourselves pointed questions about why we feel our kids ‘deserve’ this or that. Do you think your daughter deserves a big 7th birthday party because you never got that party with a pony ride when you turned 7 – and were deeply disappointed? Are you regretful because you never took piano lessons?

Did a line from a book or blog you read at some vulnerable moment of pregnancy lodge itself into your brain, coloring your ideas about education or success or attachment or nutrition?

Taking the focus and pressure off ourselves also allows us to look at more general needs – a healthy environment, say, or learning opportunities – and recognize that there are many different ways to provide those things to our kids.

I’ve said before that a parenting value is not the same thing as a moral judgment. You can believe and prioritize very different things than I do, and we can both be awesome moms.

But it all starts with parenting from conviction; a clear sense of doing what feels most right to us while accepting that “right to us” doesn’t necessarily equal The One Right Path.

It’s not about my obligations. It’s what my children deserve, and what I deserve: the opportunity to parent them in a way that feels satisfying and good and right to me.

When I think about it, maybe that’s the one thing I owe them.

And myself.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Shell November 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

I absolutely love this! There’s a huge difference between owe and deserve.

I do think we should each try to do the best we can for our kids- we owe them that. But what that looks like to each of us is very different.

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mudmama November 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

Hmmmmm…but even “deserves” is subjective isn’t it? I don’t think my kids all have the same needs at the same time. Son with special needs requires a room of his own. Teen daughter requires a private space away from little brothers and that wasn’t an issue when she was little alongside them, Little brothers are just fine sharing a room, regardless of what they think they deserve.

Hmmm I need to think on this a bit more but I think we can all have very different ideas about needs, basic or otherwise (having recently sat down to talk about affordable groceries where we ranged from frozen pizza buying to making all our own condiments from scratch and raw vegan to meat and veg paleo I think we’re all on very different paths with regards to what we think is *best practice* too)…and our kids can too!

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Meagan Francis November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

I absolutely agree that “deserves” is subjective, unique and open to change! But, I think somehow it’s easier to look at needs objectively than it is to look at “shoulds” objectively. “Shoulds” just get colored by so many outside pressures, what other parents are doing, the ideas we have about what the world really expects of us. And I also know that for myself, when I get caught up in the idea that I am supposed to do this or that thing for my kids, it becomes more about ‘performing’ as a mom than it does simply making sure my kids get what they need.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 20, 2012 at 9:57 pm

I’m working on this question, too, as I try to identify what it is exactly that I owe my kid (if anything) and what she deserves.
I’m more sure about what I owe her (love, kindness, opportunities for growth).

What she deserves is tricker. Certainly she, and all children, deserve good food, medical care, a place to sleep, and a chance to grow and discover the world. However, living as I do in a country where so many have so much less than I do, it’s hard for me to say my kid “deserves” a room of her own, wooden toys, three pairs of shoes, when I drive by kids who sleep on garbage carts. You know?

Certainly I LIKE to give her these things, but as far as I can reason, she neither is owed them nor does she “deserve” them. Why does she “deserve” these things and the daughter of the man who drives her to school does not? I think about this a lot, and have heavy guilt feelings about privilege.

So, for me even to use the term “deserve” is loaded. I think I’d better write about this ;)
(Also, I really hope this does not come off as high-n-mighty, holier-than-tho. This is entirely my viewpoint, and is not intended to cast judgement on people who look at things differently, or have alternatie notions about obligation and childrearing. I have my own post-colonial guilt feelings and colour my worldview.)

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Sarah Powers November 20, 2012 at 9:55 am

When all this gets really jumbled and complicated in my head, it helps me to think this way: my kids benefit from a mom who feels at peace, and whole, and fulfilled. I’m able to give them so much more of what they need/deserve when I feel good about myself, my decisions, our environment, and our family life and dynamic. Many of the decisions I make as a mom are, in a way, selfish – because I have the end-goal of my own well-being in mind. But I see that as one way I’m giving them the very best of me.

Great post, Meagan. Love it. So wise and important.

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StephJ November 20, 2012 at 10:59 am

Well said, Meagan. We need this reminder from time to time, that WE are in charge of our families, not that other mom at the grocery store or some ideal that does not really exist. We have to parent as the moms (people) we ARE, not some image that comes from outside.
@Sarah, also well said. That peace of being yourself and being well taken care of is so important!

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Elizabeth November 20, 2012 at 11:56 am

I think you’re confusing ‘owing’ with different modes of parenting. We owe it to our children to love them, to prioritise their needs – often, but not always, over our own – to keep them safe… There are differences in opinion about how to demonstrate and achieve these things, but this isn’t the same thing as us not owing it to them.

I work full time as does my husband. I organise extracurricular for my daughters, I am home to make dinner every night, I am not all that interested in getting down on the floor and playing with dolls or whatever, I like to hug and take naps with them rather than do art projects — these are some of my tendencies, none of which really matter vis-a-vis anyone else’s standards.

But of course I owe it to them to be the best mother I can be. Sometimes I have to push myself to do something I really don’t want to do because it’s important to them. That’s part of the deal. If, from time to time, I didn’t push myself to do whatever (chaperone the school trip to I-don’t-care-where-we’re-going), I do think I’d be short-changing them.

I am a huge fan of yours Meagan, and I think going easy on ourselves as mothers is important. But let’s not lower the bar too far.

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Meagan Francis November 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Elizabeth, to me it’s not about lowering the bar at all. It’s about changing the conversation. If I think in terms of what my kids need or deserve, then I can get really clear about my motivations for wanting to do something. If I think of it in terms of my “owing” it to them, the focus is on ME, not them. And then the motivation for my choices becomes a lot more muddled.

I believe my kids deserve and need a healthy, safe life, an involved mom, etc. But when I think of our relationship in terms of what I owe them I feel like it puts the emphasis on the wrong part of the equation.

Of course, if you point-blank asked me “Do you think you owe it to your kids to be a good mom?” then I suppose I couldn’t rightly say “no.” But I’d rather focus on doing things for them because they need them, than because I “owe” them. Maybe it’s just semantics, but it’s one of those cases where I think semantics make a difference.

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Meagan Francis November 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm

oops, one other thing – I also think the word “owe” is too easily used as a weapon to be hurled from one parent to another. “You OWE it to them to…” well, to what? As we’ve both said, there are different ways of achieving any particular goal, whether it’s helping your kids feel safe, loved, happy, etc. But so often the idea of what is “owed” is some very specific, personal definition of that thing.

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Claire November 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I agree that sometimes we have to push out of our comfort zones depending on what is important to our kids at the time. I try to do the things with my son that I find enjoyable, and let my husband pick up the slack with some other things that are less appealing to me and more to him. But there are times when I do things with my son that aren’t my first choice, because they are important to him. If I did these things all the time, it wouldn’t be fair to either one of us, because I would be stressed and that would filter down to him. But on occasion it is appropriate to stretch ourselves a little. It’s all about being in tune with our kids and discerning what they need at a given time, and how important that need is.

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Tragic Sandwich November 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I think I owe it to my daughter to be the best mother I can be.

That’s a very personal bar, though, because it’s about me and what I can do. And I think “best mother” includes a lot of things–loving, attentive, willing to let go, flexible, understanding, and more. It doesn’t mean that I do X to Y level just because that’s what someone else does.

When I was tearing myself up about not being able to nurse–or, toward the end, even pump–Mr. Sandwich said, “What she needs most of all is Sane Mommy.” He reminded me that it was okay to make the choices that were best for us, and that the standards other people set were largely immaterial.

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Alexandria November 20, 2012 at 12:39 pm

A+

I had several thoughts reading this post, and probably don’t remember them all. HA!

I personally feel that above all else I owe my kids to be happy and sane. My feeling largely comes from being raised by a VERY unhappy mother, so is probably my #1 priority not to do that to my own kids. But I very early on noticed that this is not a popular way to parent. I personally don’t give a flip because I have GREAT kids who are so happy and well-adjusted. IT’s hard to give a flip that so and so is jealous that I ask for help when I need it, while we get endless praise from school administration and teachers, and other parents. We can take care of ourselves “first” to be better parents, for sure. It definitely has worked very well for us. (& obviously parenting is about great sacrifice – but it is all about balance. Just to be clear there are MANY instances where our kids come first – but it doesn’t have to be all the time/every little thing).

I don’t feel I owe my kids anything in particular – when it comes to the more tangible things that everyone freaks out about. I do want to give them all the tools and resources I can for them to be happy and well-adjusted members of society. I want them to carry our values. Stuff like that. None of what I Feel is important has anything to do with where they go to college, how it is paid for, if they went to daycare, how big their bedroom/house is, or how I potty train them. ;)

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Nina November 20, 2012 at 1:04 pm

It’s funny but this is the first time I’m hearing a discussion about what parents owe their kids. I suppose because no one has said it to me or maybe when I read it online it’s worded in another way.

When I hear the word “owe,” I’m thinking owing someone money, being indebted or having to repay some sort of service or good. I can’t imagine having those thoughts with my kids.

Instead, I just try to be the best that I can be along the values that are most important to me. I think that’s the gist that I’m getting from your article, where you don’t have to be everything to them all the time. It’s more like, pick and choose what’s most important to you.

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SK November 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I couldn’t agree with this more! I know in some cases, this is really a discussion about the words themselves. But, isn’t it the words that we use against ourselves, that other parents hurt us with, and, heaven forbid, words to our own children will use if they feel entitled?
We have 3 of our children sharing a room, try to limit outside activities, and most of all find balance. Obviously, things are not something that we feel we owe them.
Truthfully, there are probably some things that I feel I “owe” my kids, but they aren’t a vacation or classes. They are things like a safe home, a strong marriage, and a mentally healthy mom. The strong marriage is something that I go out of my way to cultivate and find that other parents don’t always see this as a good. Two things though, my husband came from a divorced family and desperately wants to help his children not experience that and when my kids are gone…he’ll be all that’s left.

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Crunchy Con Mommy November 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I *think* I get what you’re saying, and I think I totally agree.
I like that your approach takes the focus off of the mom and striving to be a great/perfect/whatever mom, and instead puts it back on the kid and what their needs are.

I think the only think we owe our kids is love…the details are all negotiable ;)

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phoenix1920 November 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm

I agree that “owe” is a very strong word, but I do believe that it is warranted in one sense: parents owe a duty to provide love and support for their children. If a parent is unable to provide love and support to his or her children, the parent should step out of that child’s life. I have seen those cases where parents truly feel they have no debt whatsoever to the child, including providing love, and have seen how that damage breaks the child. I have seen parents who wrongfully blame a child for coming into their lives and punish that child for their existence. I think “owe” is the correct word choice for these items because WE, as parents, have an obligation to provide these two things for our children. Thinking that our children “deserve” love does not mean that we are the ones that must provide it.

However, although a parent may owe love and support to their children, this does not mean there is one right way to provide love and support. I completely agree with you that we should not accept others’ opinion as to one correct way to parent or to show love or to give support. I am still considering your perspective as to viewing things from what my child needs or deserves. I am not sure classifying something as a “need” takes any pressure off me as a mom. If my children have a need, I will do whatever I need to fill that need. However, I also recognize that one of those needs is learning to fall and learning to struggle.

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Lisa @ Organic Baby Atlanta November 21, 2012 at 9:56 am

I love this post. Can’t even say how much. I’ve written about this so many times, but you sum it up really well. It’s not a question of what we owe, or what they deserve — what matters is that everybody’s happy (mostly) and we do what works for our families.

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Elizabeth Kane November 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm

So true. I think most parents have this underlying wish that they want to give their kids the world. Sometimes it means time, for others it means lots of stuff, and for the rest a jam-packed schedule of activities. It’s done with the best of intentions. But that obligation has a way of breeding resentment – never a good thing mixed with exhaustion and stress. That combination makes for an unhappy mom.

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Carrie November 22, 2012 at 9:18 am

Megan, you just put into words what I’ve been thinking for years. I was very stressed out about being a mom for years, and still am a lot of the time– but after prioritizing a little, working on staying close with my husband (and SK made a point that some of us totally neglect– I see so many moms who forget that aspect of parenting, and by the time their kids are teen or college-aged there’s nothing left in the marriage), and starting a new career, I HAVE to focus on their needs. I just don’t have the emotional energy to go that far beyond that. My kids are insanely lucky– they have 2 parents, who both try to be good role models, they go to an amazing school, and when they come home someone– and it has never been just the mom’s job– but someone is there to make sure their basic needs are being met, and that’s it. They had a baby-sitter who was awesome when they were 1 & 3, who was amazing at all of those “get down on the floor and learn & play” things, and what I learned then was that my kids don’t need me to drop everything in my life to make them happy. As I go off to do volunteer work, or workout, or get the groceries, or work, or whatever thing might be important that day, I don’t worry that I “owe” it to them to be completely hands on and over-stressed. Now I am proud of who I am, and the example I am setting for my children, and I am teaching them that we are not born entitled to anything anyone else has. They have people surrrounding them that love them and care for them, and teach them that no one “owes” us these things, but they do for them, they do it out of love and not an obligation determined by others who don’t have our same needs. We come into this life with nothing and leave with nothing. In the time between, life is as good as you make it. YOU owe that to yourself.

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Mystic Traveler January 18, 2014 at 3:36 am

No offense, maybe you shouldn’t have had children. I don’t have a lot to say except that if one considers having a child one should consider doing the very best for them that they can, give that new human being all the love, attention, and advantages they can afford. If a kid is just because of the “puppy, kitten longing” then don’t have one. Children are just little human beings coming to earth to grow Spiritually, parents owe them all the love and comfort, and security they can. If you can’t give this…it’s simple don’t have children…period. Save all your resorces and money for yourself. I was raised in an abusive family, my mother loved me but was not always a good, or caring parent, my step father beyond worse. I am the product of an oh well up
bringing, I do the best I can at life. Had my parents put me first above their own selfish longings, and my step fathers abuse, I may have not needed 5 years of therapy. It is so easy, give having children very serious thought, if one comes along that you don’t want give it to someone who does. It’s that simple.

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