February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The hummingbird trap

By |2018-03-21T20:01:56+01:00July 30th, 2016|"Psych Dept."|
Put synthetic matter in the feeder and the birds bite, but soon die.

#8220;Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile.” I’m sure you’ve heard the old expression. But is it true? And what does it apply to? More to the point, what’s the underlying fear it expresses?

We seem very much afraid of the needs of others — as if by satisfying one need, a dozen others are destined to sprout up like poison mushrooms around the one we’ve just satisfied.

In some cases there may be some truth to the worry. But only when we’re talking about manufactured needs.

Take kids. You buy them everything they want and yet they seem to always want more. The more they get, the more they want. Adults really aren’t that different. We buy all kinds of gadgets but how many of them do we actually need? How much must we add to the cart now that we have a computer and a smartphone, two devices that put us in instant and constant touch with all the people we know and give us access to all the information we might ever need?

Yet gadgetry and apps proliferate — and we keep buying.

I once read an article about hummingbirds and the feeders built and sold to attract them. Fill these feeders with sugar syrup and the birds flock to extract it. The same piece mentioned that people hooked on no-carbohydrate diet fads have been known to put artificial sweetener in their hummingbird feeders. The birds flock to the sweetness but leave unsatisfied. There’s no nutritional value in what they’re lapping up. Eventually the malnourished birds die.

Back to children: consider their insatiable need for more, which leaves them wanting. Then consider the products we crave, the ones we can never get enough of and keep buying no matter what. Maybe the urge for more is driven by lack of “nutritional value” in the things we consume, like sugar substitutes for the hummingbirds.

Life for today’s parents is hard. Mother and father usually work, and unlike in ancient times that work often take them outside their community and far from home. Yet the basic needs of children haven’t evolved for centuries. Evolution is slow process. Human beings remain predisposed to expect and need oxygen, nourishment, and loving, responsive human beings around them, ones they know, can count on and who represent staples in the lives.

Today’s adults are pulled in a many directions. Work increasingly overlaps into daily life. Earnings buy proportionally less than in the past. THE DEBT GAME LINK.

First computers and now smartphones have come to encroach on family time — our human time. People are afraid to say no to these ever-increasing demands because jobs are precarious and work demands increase in small increments. So people adapt, with all the physical and mental stress the adjustment entails.

Kids adapt less well. Their basic, natural needs remain the same, no matter what the adult world imposes on their parents. If parents like their jobs and work gratifies them, they may be able to return home in time to greet their kids with joy. But the reality is that most people in today’s industrialized world are not happy with their jobs and don’t get home in time. It’s a strain to be available in the way a young child needs, particularly after a stressful day in a joyless job.

What does the already stretched-thin parent do? People often turn to gadgets to entertain their kids. Toys with noises and lights, TV (which becomes a kind of babysitter), and, later on, video games and other offshoots of the cyberworld.

Parents lovingly want their children reap all the benefit that their long hours of work can confer. They buy things, then more and better things. It’s easy, without even wanting to, to slide into giving children objects when parents can’t give them time.

Needs are interactive. If a child is unhappy and we give that child a thing, a diversion, he may think it’s what he wanted. Again, though, as in the case of the hummingbird and the artificial sweetener, the child may soon ask for more. After all, turning to a feeder is an easier solution than trying to hover over a field of flowers. A toy may be simpler to get from an overworked and over-stressed parent than an hour of real closeness.

But one principle holds and is always worth bearing in mind: When you get what you really need, you don’t keep needing more.

About the Author:

Elaine Luti has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years. She has taught psychology at various universities in Italy. Her interests include calligraphy, cooking, singing, and reading. She has grown children (and grandchildren) and lives with her husband in Rome.