Agency & the Checkout Trap

Sometimes it’s tempting to hate agency. One of those times is the checkout aisle. Racks of chocolate, gum, ring pops ad nauseum. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fall for them … (well, okay maybe on a rare occasion), but rarely do I shop without all five kids under age 10.

You get good at the “No. Absolutely not, now put it back and don’t touch”. It’s a survival tactic. It’s tedious, but the kids learn that as much as their mouths may water the whole section is taboo. I have the money and the final say.

Then along comes allowance. Now they have money of their own, or at least the older ones do since we pay based on work done. Embolden by this new power they again flock back to the candy.

Some parents I’ve talked to say “yeah, yeah, we give them allowance, but they still aren’t allowed to buy that stuff.”

Tempting, very tempting. And yet, for me, I can’t help but recall times in my own life where I was assured that I had power to make a choice until the authority figure discovered that I would make the “wrong” choice and then they reigned me in. To protect me they either took the power to choose away or heavily reprimanded me on the foolishness of my choice.

A great teacher has told me that one of the biggest keys to being a successful teacher is to honor the agency of others, especially my students.

I still cringe when my oldest talks about saving up to buy a DS gaming system.  So many of the things that fit on their “what I am going to do with my money” list are things that we would not choose to give them.  However, a point that we seem to have lost track of in the United States is that the freedom to win is the freedom to fail.

It is so easy to want to “protect our children” from anything bad.  But in reality this is not what they need. They need the chance to “fail gently” while they are under our protection so that they don’t have to fail hard when they run out of the house at 18 saying “I’m free.”  We all like the feeling of power that comes from being able to buy “what we want to.”  The challenge is to have the courage to let them enjoy that feeling on items that are not truly dangerous, so that they don’t have to seek out the dangerous things behind our back.

And there is a loving way to express your empathy later at not being able to buy something that they wanted to, without getting that “I told you so” tone in your voice. That way they can figure out for themselves what it takes to make a plan and stick to it.

In many ways it is humorous, for many children including my husband when he was a child, and adult is someone who gets to “do whatever they want to.”  Now that we have reached that enviable position, we find that there are many other constraints, and that elusive power to “do whatever we want to” is still just over the next big mountain.  The key is the other part of agency, and why I like the term instead of the more generic “freedom.”  Agency is the liberty to pick a path, not its outcome.  And we are becoming wise as we learn to look far down the path and predict its outcome with some certainty as we take the first step.

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

3 comments on “Agency & the Checkout Trap

  1. Ren,

    Thank you for this post. It speaks to a couple of situations I’m dealing with– 😉

    “Agency is the liberty to pick a path, not it’s outcome.”

    I like that– as well as the “freedom to fail gently.”

  2. I heartily applaud your choice to let the kids “have the courage to let them enjoy that feeling on items that are not truly dangerous, so that they don’t have to seek out the dangerous things behind our back.”

    My parents observed how all of us (videogame-deprived) kids devoured any and every game at friends’ houses. They decided it was safer to get a game system and monitor what we played, rather than have us sneak off and play everything with no discernment.

    • Yeah, my Mom was very controlling of the TV and tried to ban gaming systems. My older brother would borrow systems from his friends and sneak them home to play late at night. It was kinda crazy. Kids are creative enough that the forced control doesn’t work long if the child is inclined to oppose.

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