My father lost his job while I was in grade school. Due to an economic downturn and attempts to start a business, my family lived without a regular paycheck for over two years.
It was rough. We tightened our belts and became experts in frugality.
But one doesn’t feel the big pressures of economic distress as a child. Instead, it’s often the small, trickle-down effects that are more noticeable. For the children in my family, having pickles and potato chips become rare purchases at the grocery store was clear evidence of the financial hardship we were going through.
We chuckle about that perspective now. It seems somewhat trite and naive. But at the same time, we’re grateful for that experience. The delayed gratification and denial of those material items, although simplistic, taught us to be less demanding and more content with what we have as adults.
Apparently, such an outcome is not unique to my family. Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. David Bredehoft explains that children who grow up with delayed gratification experience more gratitude and happiness as adults. By contrast, those who experienced overindulgence as children have a greater draw toward materialistic values and find less happiness in adulthood.
Continuing with his theory, Dr. Bredehoft offers the following table showing that those who experienced overindulgence as children are more likely to view life through a lens of discontent:
Granted, we all fall prey to discontent from time to time. But in today’s society, discontent and ingratitude are becoming mainstream. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the concept of victimhood.
Someone doesn’t agree with me? I’m a victim.
I can’t get into the college I want to attend? I’m a victim.
I don’t have a job that gives me meaning in life? I’m a victim.
The late academic Richard Weaver sensed the coming of this trend in the 1940s, noting that it is the over-indulged child – who has never endured the discipline and struggle that it takes to become a man – who spends his adult life blaming others for his circumstances:
Let us consider an ordinary man living in Megalopolis. The Stereopticon has so shielded him from sight of the abysses that he conceives the world to be a fairly simple machine, which, with a bit of intelligent tinkering, can be made to go. And going, it turns out comforts and whatever other satisfactions his demagogic leaders have told him he is entitled to. But the mysteries are always intruding, so that even the best designed machine has been unable to effect a continuous operation. No less than his ancestors, he finds himself up against toil and trouble. Since this was not nominated in the bond, he suspects evildoers and takes the childish course of blaming individuals for things inseparable from the human condition. The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it is to be a man. That man is the product of discipline and of forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow—this concept left the manuals of education with the advent of Romanticism. This citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind. [Emphasis added.]
Weaver goes on to say that “the spoiling of man seems always to begin when urban living predominates over rural.” In other words, once man no longer has to labor and work hard for the basic necessities of life, he loses the spirit of gratitude, exchanging it for one of entitlement.
It can be depressing to look around at our entitlement culture, full of adults who play the victim and continually display an attitude of ingratitude. But this revelation of Dr. Bredehoft’s should give us hope rather than despair. If we as parents and teachers become less indulgent of our children, and instead begin training them to delay gratification and to value things that go beyond material goods, might the victimhood tendencies of society turn around in only a few short years?
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Annie Holmquist is the editor of Intellectual Takeout. When not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, gardening, and time with family and friends.