I read a great chapter in “Boundaries with Kids” (Cloud & Townsend) last night. It was on “the law of envy.” While I have never really thought about envy before, I realized that it perfectly described what has been going on in the heart of my oldest child.
For so long, I have been concerned about some of the behaviors of my oldest:
* won’t spontaneously give or share
* takes from others
* distracted or drawn to the attention others are receiving
* possessive about the attention he is receiving
* interested in whatever else someone is using/doing
* reluctant to play by himself–almost sees it as punishment
* acts bored with his toys
* “me first” attitude
* running to get something that he sees someone else going to get
* sneaking forbidden objects when unsupervised
* breaking toys when unsupervised
* resists asking for permission
* goose-steps around to see what others are doing when he thinks they aren’t looking
* lying, even when confronted about it
* controlling behavior (tries to manage others’ play, words)
Now, all little kids want what they want, when they want it. And most kids have a stage where they lie, take, and are sneaky to get what they want (or avoid what they don’t). Many also struggle with bossiness. But what concerns me about my oldest is that even though he is the oldest and gets the most attention or the best stuff, he never seems to have enough. It is like there is this big hole in his heart that never gets filled. If Daddy has a special play session with him, he still wants to be part of his siblings’ play time. If a friend pays special attention to him, he still wants to keep that friend from paying attention to anyone else. He seems really intent to be part of everyone’s activities and interactions lest he miss out on some special experience or response that someone else gets.
This concerns me. I have always actively resisted spoiling, and even my firstborn can’t remember the time he didn’t have his siblings around because he was only a small toddler when his first little brother came. And yet he does get to do the new things first because he is oldest, or he gets let in on the special activities with Dad because he is fastest and most capable. What is in the heart that wants to protect this experience so much that no-one else can have it? And what is in the heart that doesn’t value these experiences enough so that the normal, run-of-the-mill toys and roomtimes make him feel stiffed?
Apparently, it is envy.
Cloud and Townsend talk about how the envious child is always living in comparison with others, instead of in touch with what oneself is receiving. In short, that child is unthankful or unaware of how the world is blessing him. He thinks he is entitled to whatever he receives, and due those special things that pleases him. When those things are not present, then, or if someone else is receiving them, he feels slighted. My little boy even tries to vicariously receive the blessings of other people–he laughs super hard as if he is the one getting tickled, trying to keep Grandmommy’s attention on him. Unfortunately, this usually works.
And also unfortunately, depriving the child of attention does NOT work. Probably even more ineffective than giving the child the thing they are trying to steal is ignoring that child. Because then they feel even more deprived, and determined to fill up that hole in their heart. I have fallen into this trap before! I will try to ignore that vicarious, attention-getting behavior, and the child will either persist more exaggeratedly until I am forced to correct him–ruining the happy mood I was trying to create, or he will walk away with revenge and bitterness in his heart.
It is a tough trap. Cloud & Townsend recommend teaching your child to be grateful. And humble. To combat that lust and covetousness, the child has to be taught that they are not entitled to everyone’s blessings, and that what they receive is an extra blessing. This is a good insight–to teach the virtue rather than just correcting the sin–but how to do that? My child’s sense of deprivation seems insatiable. I don’t want him to spend even one more year feeling that loss (which, objectively, does not exist since we love, care, and connect with him continually).
I really do believe this is partly responsible for the ugly feelings grown children feel towards their parents. They perceive deprivation where it truly wasn’t because of the entitlement and sin in their hearts.
And yet the Holy Spirit is the only one who can convict of sin. Especially in the inmost parts. Father, I thank you for this child and the heart of capacity you have created in him. Please help him to glorify you with it. Please give him a sense of fullness that can only come from you. And help us love him so that it goes in and stays in. Amen.