Is It Generosity, Or Is It People Pleasing?: Lessons I’m Learning from My Daughter

I try my best to keep our kitchen stocked with an assortment of healthy and tasty foods for my kids. There are certain staple foods that can always be found in the pantry, and others that are treats I buy on occasion. This week, I decided to purchase all of my kids’ favorite special treats—the ones I seldom keep in the house. They were elated when they came home from school, grabbing up their favorite snacks and retreating to their room for their after school down-time (it’s part of their daily routine, a chance to decompress after a long and taxing day at school).

The next day, I saw my six-year-old daughter scooping all of her favorite treats into her backpack. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to bring a gift for each of her friends at school. She was meticulously combing through her pile of treats, carefully calculating which one would be just right for which friend. She lovingly sorted them out and rehearsed out loud who each treat belonged to. By the time she was done, her bin was empty. There was nothing left for her.

I was really proud, at first, to see her generosity. I love a giving spirit, and it makes me proud that my daughter would think nothing of giving away her prized and limited treats to her friends, not knowing when I might buy them again. But then, I reflected on a few things that gave me pause.

She is so sensitive—a sweet and gentle girl. She often comes home from school telling me that this friend or that friend doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. When I ask why, it’s usually something like:

She wanted to play with someone else today.

She said she didn’t like my dress.

He wouldn’t play Legos with me.

She often takes these small, thoughtless rejections to mean that friends don’t like her anymore. She carries in her a heavy burden to be pleasing to everyone so that she won’t lose their friendship and favor.

Ask me how I know.

I am so scared that my daughter shares my tendency to try to earn love, acceptance, and approval from others by giving them all the best things I have to give. Because I am a grownup, those things include my energy, my compassion, my financial resources, my listening ear. Since my daughter and her friends are children, the “best” they have to give each other is often tangible things like treats and toys.

Was my daughter sacrificing the best things she had to offer from a kind and altruistic spirit, or was there something deeper? Were these gifts a silent prayer for love and acceptance? Was she imploring for people to love her if she could just show them how much she could sacrifice?

It hit me so hard. How do we navigate these moments as parents? I would rather not discourage her from being generous—don’t want to squelch an enthusiastic spirit of giving. That said, it’s my job to carefully watch and interrogate the choices my daughter is making and to make sure I don’t let her make them for the wrong reasons.

I can’t let my daughter or my son grow up thinking they deserve to have to earn love by demonstrating how willing they are to betray themselves. I want them to be able to give as a way to show their love, not to earn love from others. I need to know that I’m sending them into the world equipped with self-esteem, self-worth, and self-respect. I need them to understand that healthy and fulfilling relationships are hinged on reciprocity and mutual positive regard—not one person striving to earn love from someone who only seems able to receive it.

The conversation I had with my daughter was awkward, and I’m sure I didn’t do it right, but I did my best. I asked her if we could choose a few special friends—the ones who make her feel the most loved and accepted—and take those friends a treat. Then, we could put the rest back into her treat bin for her to enjoy. I explained that we give to people from our abundance. We give to others out of what we have to spare after taking care of ourselves first.

Sometimes in life, we may decide to give to people who can’t give us anything in return. We donate our money to children’s hospitals, volunteer at homeless shelters, contribute to GoFundMe pages for people who have fallen on hard times. That is called charity. We do it because we have a sincere desire to help someone who can’t help themselves, and we do it because we know they can’t reciprocate. We do it because we can, while they cannot.

Occasionally, we might give charity to our friends, families, and loved ones. We do it for a season because we love them and wish the best for them. But prolonged charity is not the goal in those relationships. The goal is to give what you can to help them out of a hard time, and once they are well, to get to enjoy a healthy and equitable relationship.

Charity isn’t friendship. It isn’t romance. It isn’t connection. And earning love from the people we count as friends and family isn’t what we deserve. We deserve equity, consideration, safety, and respect. We give and receive those things without expectation because we know the relationship is a two-way street.

Of course, this conversation sounded a bit different while relating it to my six-year-old, but she got it nonetheless. She chose three friends who have always made her feel good about herself—friends who, of course, she has occasionally had difficulties with but who always made her feel loved anyway—and selected treats for them. For everyone else, she returned their treats to her treat bin.

My daughter will not be earning love. She will show up authentically. She will be genuine and sincere. She will love with her whole heart open. And she will give from her abundance. But she will have enough self-respect to know where not to cast her pearls. Or her KitKats.

May we all be like her.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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