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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Parenting lessons from some distracted and privileged teen girls

One of my daughters works in housekeeping during the summers, where she cleans up after guests who have stayed for conferences and workshops. While I know that everyone can be absent-minded at times, some groups leave behind more of their belongings than others.  One particular group, while different individuals each summer but same basic group, leave behind an amazing amount of nearly-new condition belongings. The demographics for this group include, teen, female, and privileged enough to afford a couple of weeks at a dance workshop. Among the things left behind this year there was a beautiful sweater in like-new condition, a leotard, a brand-new, still in sealed packaging tube of mascara, and many other  items.

We were talking about why this group leaves behind belongings that any young girl/woman would covet. Our conclusion was that these young girls and women must feel that their belongings can easily be replaced, without any financial hardship to them individually. We are guessing that their parents pay for all of their needs, and may also provide a healthy allowance for wants. If the girls/women have summer jobs, the money they earn may be mostly for discretionary spending. To them, the amount they earn in a summer job, or is given to them by parents in the form of allowance, must be enough to cover replacing lost belongings, without any extra labor on their part. However, for their parents, I imagine having a child who left behind that sweater that they "just had to have", or the new mascara that they needed money to buy, must be confounding and infuriating at times.

On the child's part, some of this absent-mindedness is due to age, teenage distractions, and lack of having to pay for anything truly consequential, like rent, groceries, electricity. But I also think that some of this is due to being given so much, too freely. If parents will always replace a lost item, then why should a teen take any extra care not to lose belongings. I'm not bashing the parents, at least not a lot, as I had younger children once, too. I remember feeling very badly for my kids when they lost something that they cherished. And I remember patching up a stuffed toy repeatedly, after a child tore it up, through rough play. I also remember buying a replacement toy for another child, when the beloved one was lost. As the parent, we want our children to not feel the pain of loss of any kind. We want to stop the hurt.

When I was in middle school, I had a brand-new pair of blue jeans to wear at the beginning of seventh grade. This was the first year that girls could wear blue jeans to school in my district. I was running to lunch to meet my friends and I tripped and fell, and tore a hole in the knee. I was so upset about that hole -- my brand-new jeans! Even so, I still thought that my mom would replace them with a new pair. But she didn't. Instead, we went to the fabric store and she bought a patch in the shape of an orange. It was the only decorative patch large enough to fit over the hole. I'm sure that I begged and pleaded for new jeans, but she was firm. She probably wanted to make my hurt go away, but she was wiser, and likely on a tight budget, herself. I continued to wear the patched jeans, with the big orange, until I outgrew them. And the patch was a reminder of the loss I had felt when my new jeans were no longer pristine, and urged me to be more careful. This type of lesson was repeated throughout my childhood. A broken thermos meant that I had to bring a clunky old thermos with my lunchbox, instead of the cutesy one that was its original companion. A lost game token meant that we had to use a penny in the game set, when playing with three other friends, instead of the fun plastic token the game came with. If something was repairable, like grease stains on my pants from the bicycle chain, then my mother showed me how to repair or remove a stain. She didn't just do it for me. My mother was compassionate, generous, loving, but she was also wise enough to know that I needed repeated lessons on taking care of my belongings.

I do wonder about the young girls/women that my daughter cleaned up after. Will their parents let them feel the loss of the forgotten items? Or will the parents rush out to buy replacements? Perhaps the girl/woman won't even notice she left behind her like-new American Eagle sweater, or leotard, or tube of mascara she just purchased and didn't even own long enough to take it out of the packaging. Maybe I'm just being too hard on a age-group that is inherently distracted and forgetful. What do you think?


  1. Very thought-provoking. I don't know if you have read any of the Love And Logic books on rearing children, but the authors have a similar philosophy to you. They espouse having children take responsibility for their actions (in an age-appropriate manner, of course!). This runs the gamut from being on time for school, getting along with peers, doing chores, and so on. The book(s) teach parents to allow natural consequences to be the "teacher". We are using the overall principle in raising our own kids. For me, it feels like the best balance between being kind and compassionate and having firm expectations about behavior. I think it looks a little different for every family (I confess that my daughter lost a washcloth at camp this past summer ... and in your case of the torn jeans, I might have caved in and bought another pair, since it wasn't a case of negligence on your part) but I have found that (typically) I don't have to get into battles with them about homework or chores--a gentle reminder usually does the trick. They are still growing up so this may change! All to say ... I think you are right, Lili--smoothing the way too much for our kids robs them of learning to modify their own behavior to avoid negative consequences. You are a wise mom!

  2. This post struck a real cord with me as I have worked and lived most of my adult life in one of the most affluent areas of the country. My students usually had their own credit cards-want something? just charge it, the parents pay for everything. Crash a car? no worries, we'll buy a new one tomorrow. SMH. These same "kid's" siblings will tell me about how their older sibling is now in NYC, post college etc. Turns out, Mommy and Daddy are paying the rent and costs. Just when will they be allowed to struggle and grow up? Sigh

  3. OK, I have almost the EXACT same jeans story! Seriously... eerily similar, except that mine were the first new pair of jeans I'd ever owned - up until then I'd been dressed in hand me downs. And I think my patch was an apple... it was red anyhow.

    But I totally agree about spoiled rich kids. I went to college at a very expensive east coast school. I was there on a scholarship which involved a work study program. My sophomore year I got accepted to be an RA (resident advisor - a live-in counselor, etc.) this fulfilled my work study requirement. Anyhow, at the end of the school year, the RAs had to stay an extra week after everybody moved out of the dorms to inventory the rooms, report damage, what have you. I was absolutely blown away by the things these spoiled rich kids simply left behind! Televisions, microwaves, skis, clothes, furniture, an answering machine (it was the 1980s - so that was a big deal, at least to me!) The university was just gonna throw it all away, so we were allowed to take whatever we wanted. I still have some of that stuff.

    It was a real awakening for me in terms of seeing how the "other half" lives, and my first inkling that "living off the fat of the land" was not necessarily something that went out with the pioneer days!

  4. I, too, think that in some areas, kids are indulged too much and need to learn consequences for their actions. But as you said, it's hard to put into practice because we don't want to our kids feel pain.

    And I have heard similar stories to Cat's from my nephews who have gone to more expensive, private schools. All kinds of good stuff gets tossed at the end of the year and the locals get a lot of good things from them. But also, I learned that in many of the private schools, they get there by plane and it's easier and sometimes cheaper to just leave things behind than to have them shipped home. There are ways around that such as renting a storage pod as my nephew did. And if the kids thought ahead, they could figure out how to donate things. But I'm guessing that they get so involved in end of school projects and finals, that that's the last thing on their mind. And one of the reasons for this may be that they know it can be easily replaced. I only wished I lived in one of those college towns and could take advantage of all the stuff left behind.

    As for the specifics of the particular group of girls at dance camp, I don't know. But I do know that I went through a couple of years in junior high where I lost EVERYTHING! Thank goodness, I grew out of it or I could have bankrupted my parents. They didn't have much money, but when I lost my only pair of shoes they had to get me something so I could go to school. And the list goes on. And I don't think anything they tried to break me of the bad habit of losing things worked. I'm guessing that I just couldn't handle all of the changes that were taking place in my body and keep track of things at the same time. As I said, thank goodness I outgrew it.

    1. While I want my kids to be responsible, I kinda think middle schoolers are a particular breed of animal whose brains flip-flop from very responsible to, well, squirrely. At least, that's been my observation over the past 3 years of having had a middle schooler (just started another 3 years!). I teach Sunday School and volunteer at youth group with that age and they can boggle my mind with the way they bounce from mature and insightful to acting like 3-year-olds. All those hormones ...

      I would tend to expect older kids/young adults to be more responsible, but as you said, it's a growing process. Tricky for me as a parent to be wise about when to let things go and when to let them crash and burn ... it's a case-by-case thing. :)

  5. To add to my post -- I think that outgrowing this behavior is in large part the result of repeatedly suffering the consequences of ones actions. My reasoning comes from knowing older people who have never learned how to be responsible with their things, because someone else has always cushioned the blow for them.

    There are some instances where the parents kinda do need to step in and provide the solution -- like Live and Learn's shoes. I don't know what kind of shoes your parents bought to replace your lost pair, but I'm guessing the replacement pair weren't a pricey pair of Nikes or Adidas. And I'm sure that your parents provided a nice, clear lecture on taking better care of your belongings.

    As a person, I made my largest strides in growing up at two points in my life: the year I had to support myself, completely, in a new city; and when I became a parent and realized that life was not just about me. In general terms, I think that our culture cushions the blow too much for the younger generation. We don't do it maliciously, but because we don't want to watch them suffer. As parents, it's easy to get lost in wanting our kids to be happy, in the moment, and forget the big picture, that longterm satisfaction may have some painful moments of growth, along the way. There is a balance, in showing kindness and compassion when a child loses something precious, without overindulging them by quickly replacing the lost or ruined item.

    Speaking of lost shoes, I am constantly amazed by the used shoes I see by the side of the road. Doesn't someone notice that their feet are bare? I imagine that some of these shoes are likely the result of a teenage prank, where one teen throws a friend's shoe out the car window. But are all of these lost shoes the result of teen pranks?

    Now on the up side, for my daughters at least, when things are found in housekeeping, they're supposed to go to lost and found. After being in lost and found for a period of time, if they're not claimed then the employee is allowed to have it if they want, or else they get donated to charity. The items I mention in my post were just a couple of items found after the dance workshop teens left. There was a ton of other stuff, too. How does a person forget a dress? Yes, a dress was found, and a cute one, apparently.

    I think if I was employed by colleges and universities where students leave a bunch of stuff behind, I would suggest that the school fine students (and their parents) who don't leave their rooms empty of personal belongings. Even though the schools can donate stuff to charity, it's still an irresponsible behavior of young adults.

    Yes, I am opinionated.

    1. Aren't shoes some sort of a gang thing? Like they use them to mark territory? Maybe that's the shoes hung over power lines. What do I know... anyhow, it does seem odd that there would be random shoes by the side of the road!

  6. I think they do fine the students if their rooms aren't empty. The stuff they leave is usually outside on the curb.

    And how does a person forget a dress? Well, I did in my losing days. After school, I changed into shorts for softball practice and in a bag, I put my dress and nice shoes to carry home. I left them in the locker room to pick up later. BTW, there were no lockers in the locker room/ bathroom. Just a couple of benches. After practice, I went home in my shorts and didn't realize that I left my school clothes behind. The next day I looked all over and never found my dress or shoes. Another time, I lost a jacket and I got to go to the schools lost and found. We didn't have any place like thrift shops in my little town at that time, so there was quite an accumulation. If there was one item there must have been a thousand. However, even with thorough looking, I never found any of my stuff. Like I said, I lost everything.


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