One of my children observed in a conversation that their childhood was “deprived.” I think they were a little surprised when I agreed… and even more so when I explained why.
To be clear, I don’t mean deprivation in the sense of denying the basics needed for survival; and my kid didn’t mean that either. They were referring to the fact that they felt socially deprived, in part because we moved a lot while they were young and in part because they were homeschooled. They missed out on a lot of social interactions with their peers. Even now that they’re adults, they sometimes feel self-conscious about their lack of social skills with people their own age.
Since my kids grew up learning to speak with adults, they’re great at that. They’re also very good at conversations with people they know, too. Their lack of experience with a lot of cultural markers in childhood and adolescence—taking classes, skipping school, dances, dealing with teachers, report cards—led to feelings of deprivation. I understand that.
I agreed with my child because deprivation is an unavoidable part of life. It’s simply impossible to give a child exposure to every possible thing they might be interested in or have talent for. (And there are some things parents want their children to be deprived of: hunger, thirst, abuse, lack of education, disease, etc.) We see how trying to give a child a wide variety of experiences can lead to issues such as stress and burnout. Who wouldn’t be exhausted after a full day of school and then a series of after-school activities?
As parents, we can’t know what our children might be interested in as they mature, or what latent abilities might blossom with exposure to the right tools and materials. When we choose an activity for them—or better, they choose an activity to try—that closes off other opportunities. For most parents, time and money are finite resources. Children have limits to their attention and energy that can be very different from adults’. It isn’t deprivation to acknowledge these realities. And to me, focusing on the things we weren’t able to do as children—our deprivations—can keep us from seeing the positive aspects of the things we did explore.
In more formal terms, we can frame our childhood experiences in terms of deprivation, or in terms of opportunity. My kids were certainly deprived of both positive and negative aspects of the educational system. Instead of that, they experienced a lot of freedom in what and how they learned… and on the negative side, parents who stayed invested in some topics far longer than the child’s interest lasted. We tried to do our best with what we had, so I don’t have many regrets about how they were raised.
Focusing on negatives is considered a survival benefit: it helps us avoid future potential problems. But it can also limit our appreciation of the good in our lives. Outside of genuine deprivation, dwelling on the things we didn’t get to try can hurt our ability to see what we learned and enjoyed from the opportunities we did have.