DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
“Games” debtors play
“Scientists tell us that rats . . . will give themselves painful electric shocks rather than endure prolonged boredom . . . the anticipation of torment is exciting in itself, and then there’s the thrill that accompanies risky behaviour . . . Whatever else debt may be, it can also – it seems – have entertainment value, even for the debtor himself. Like the rats and their self-induced electric shocks, we’d rather have something painful happening to us than nothing happening to us at all” (Atwood, 83 & 86).
Margaret Atwood’s book Payback, published in 2008 and based on her lecture series of the same title, gives pause for thought. One part of it that hits close to home for me is her focus on Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play, published in 1964. “Debtor”, according to Berne, is one of the games we play. He says, “Paying off the mortgage gives the individual a purpose in life.” What a sad thought! And yet here I am blogging about debt repayment. Hmmm . . . People like me play the game “Debtor” fairly. We follow the rules and strive to pay every cent. Berne identifies another type of player – a cheating player – whom he calls “Try and Collect”.
This cheater avoids paying back the creditor and often causes the creditor to give up – thus resulting in a win for Try-and-Collect. Alternatively, the creditor might get aggressive and enlist the support of the law to get payment from the cheater. In such cases, Try-and-Collect feels victimized. “The debtor can then position himself as a put-upon victim and paint the creditor as a truly bad person who, because of his badness, does not deserve to be paid. The obtaining of goods on credit, the avoidance of payment, the thrill of the chase, the anger at the creditor, and the acting out of victimhood all come with their own jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards . . .” (Atwood, 85).
Debtor as “victim”
It seems incredible to me that people would feel victimized at having to fulfill their end of a bargain, the conditions of which they agreed to in the first place. Yet in my own extended adolescence, I did just that in relation to my parents. I played the Try-and-Collect role, often with victory. And when there was insistence on their part, I felt genuinely victimized. What’s with that?
Culture of entitlement in schools
Every generation of middle-aged adults seems to have something alarming to say about the adolescents of their day. “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” So said Socrates sometime around 400 B.C. I’m with him. I’ve been a teacher of adolescents for over twenty years, and I am astounded at the sense of entitlement that so many demonstrate. I`m also dismayed at the extent to which our society promotes this sense of entitlement. The Ministry of Education under whose authority I work mandated several years ago for policies to be implemented in the classroom “to promote student success”: assignments submitted past the deadline were to be accepted; marks could not be deducted for late work; students who failed tests and assignments needed opportunities to redo them; a teacher could not give a mark of zero – even if the work had not been done. The result was extreme frustration on many fronts. Teachers were deluged with late assignments in the last few weeks or even days of term and unable to mark them effectively. Students who previously had been motivated by the deadline to hand in assignments now couldn’t find it in themselves to produce. The need to study for tests was eliminated by endless opportunities to take retests. Community colleges and universities complained that new students were not prepared for post-secondary education.
In praise of boundaries
As a reformed entitled adolescent, I can attest to the fact that a lack of boundaries does no good; it does not “promote success” of any kind. We flourish when we`re made accountable to fulfill high expectations. Otherwise, we wilt. And yet with my own children, I have at times been guilty of the same enabling that I criticize in education. I remember once shopping for a birthday gift with DD2 when she was five years old. I had DD3 attached to me in an infant sling, and the hand of my five-year-old pulled me towards a display of porcelain dolls. I allowed her to select the doll she wanted to give to the birthday girl, and I picked it up, ready to make the purchase. DD2 then flew into a tantrum. It was no fair for Larissa to get a porcelain doll unless she got one too. “I want it! Ahhh!” she screamed. “It” was the bride doll, and soon everyone knew it. I felt the vulnerability typical of a baby-toting mom with a screaming young child in a store. Embarrassed shoppers looked away; irritated shoppers cast cold glances my way. You already know what I did. I came out of the store with two dolls that day. One was a bride.
Ramsey speaks of the pandemic “I want it now!” attitude that has swept America – and I would say the West in general. It’s like a collective tantrum. And while DD2’s individual fuss earned her a doll that day, this collective tantrum has earned millions of people crippling debt, just as it has earned entire nations their teetering economies. I have learned the importance of my own need for lines drawn in the sand, and I have learned the importance of drawing them for my children. It is not a comfortable lesson to learn. We have suffered through a sharp learning curve. I believe that my Ministry of Education needs to recognize the harm caused by an absence of parameters. Similarly, banks and credit card companies need to be held accountable for the attitudes they foster with their apparent lack of boundaries – especially insofar as they deal with young people. Atwood notes “. . . an epidemic of debt among over-eighteens, especially college students: credit card companies target them, and the students rush out and spend the maximum . . . Since neurologists are now telling us that the adolescent brain is quite different from the adult one, and not really capable of doing the long-term buy-now, pay-later math, this ought to be considered child exploitation” (Atwood, p. 8) What is true for individuals is true for families, communities, and nations: We need parameters and guidelines; we need rules of the game. Try-and-Collect Debtors need to get their thrills another way.
It sounds simple: “Don’t give people what they want just because they`ll have a tantrum if you don`t.” So does, “Don’t spend money unless you have it.” And yet most of us are in debt. Ramsay says that the road out of debt is simple – but that doesn’t make it easy; it’s tough. That goes double for asserting boundaries in an entitled society. We need to tough it out and turn around – on both micro- and macro- scales. There’s something better out there for this “I want it” generation. I believe it’s possible for all of us who play Debtor to acquire “jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards” from feats of wisdom in money matters. I should know. It’s happened for me.