Fighting desire with desire – the parenting version.

zooRecently I listened to a podcast by Rob Bell, or as he likes to call it, a “Robcast.” I’m way behind on his episodes because I started listening way after he started putting them out and I am going in order, because that is the way I do things. So, this one was from 2015 and entitled: “This Episode is Sugar Free.”

The theme of the episode was how to deal with cravings or desires for things we know are not healthy for us. So, while it started with the idea of foods we know do not fuel our bodies well, it also covered everything else as well, like addiction and unhealthy behaviors.

One of the things he said stuck with me. Don’t fight desire with will. It’s an unfair fight. Desire is much stronger than will. We have to fight desire with a bigger desire.

Now I’ve heard this idea before and totally adopted it into my understanding, even if I don’t always implement it. We can’t successfully become healthier by focusing on the negative, the things we can’t have. We need to focus on the positive, the things we can have.

But as often happens these days when I am deep in the role of parent, I started to wonder how this should apply to parenting. I feel like I am always giving my kids negative directives and answers when they ask for things they want that I know are not healthy for them. I haven’t spent a great deal of time helping them develop the ability to replace their unhealthy desire with a healthy one. We had just had an outing to the zoo, where everything had been happy and exciting until the one request for a bag of cotton candy was turned down. Suddenly the cotton candy became the one thing in the world that my nine year old really really wanted. Everything, EVERYTHING, now seemed to hinge on wether or not he was going to get cotton candy. Or if not cotton candy, some other special treat. Now, part of this was my fault because I didn’t have the fortitude to turn down the cotton candy idea right away. I played with the idea, or maybe they have kettle corn. I really like kettle corn. We could get a bag of kettle corn. But then it turned out that the supposed kettle corn was really just regular old butter popcorn and now there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted, so the treat idea was shut down entirely. So, yes, I realized that my indecisiveness and my own weakness when it comes to sweets led to some of the difficulty. But I also realized that even though I talked with my kids about how their disappointment should not be the thing that determines their attitude about the outing in its entirety, I didn’t really talk about the positive things they could use to fight their desire for cotton candy.

In thinking this through I wondered if it would work. Especially with my younger kids who are so focused on the present. Most of the positive desires we work for are long term, out in the future, not right here and right now. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to grasp the concept or be willing to even play with the idea. But if I wasn’t even giving them the option, how were they going to develop this positive thinking muscle that they will need later when mom is no longer there to say no, you can’t have five donuts for breakfast.

I received another chance at this on Monday. I was out with that same 9 year old. He is often the one who gets caught up in obsessive desires that end up ruining his whole outlook on an outing. It was just the two of us and we were heading back to the metro after an appointment in DC. The first time I took him to this part of DC I also took him to Starbucks and he bought a pastry and a bottle of watermelon juice, which was apparently the greatest juice EVER. Now, every time we go, he asks about stopping to get that juice.

In order to save money (once I realized that riding the metro was already adding up to a large chunk), I have stopped planning on taking him out to eat something and instead have tried to get creative with packing meals and treats instead. Today we had had “lunchables.” Not really, I just packed crackers and salami and cheese and cucumbers. I had even put in sliced apple and peanut butter for “dessert.” He really enjoyed the meal and now we were heading to the metro to hurry home.

As we passed Starbucks, he asked, as he usually does, if we could stop so he could get the amazing watermelon juice. I said no, we needed to get home and also I was trying to save money. As the disappointment started to set in, I decided to ask him. “What do you want more?”

I explained how when there is something we want that we can’t have or isn’t good for us, it is helpful to think of all the things we want more that we can have or are healthy for us.

Do you know what he said?

“A good attitude.”

That’s what he wanted more. He wanted to have a good attitude and a good experience on the outing. And then he went on to say how he really liked the food I had packed and enjoyed that meal. And just like that he left the desire for watermelon juice behind him and proceeded on with his day.

As we entered the metro I pondered how often my kids exceed my expectations when I give them the opportunity to try.

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