'But mom, all the cool kids have one'
It's not easy to teach kids values in a me-first culture, but some parents hold the line.
In an age when millionaire game shows, lotteries, and headlines about mega-wealth feed fantasies of instant riches, saving money has gone out of fashion.
The new wealth spilling out of Wall Street and dotcom companies affects only a tiny proportion of Americans. Yet its emphasis in the media produces a trickle-down effect. Many parents find themselves struggling to impart values to their children, helping them resist the siren call of expensive sporting goods, toys, clothes, and electronics.
"There's a real worry about this new wealth," says Diane Ehrensaft, author of "Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Their Children Too Much - But Not What They Need." She adds, "What do we do about children so they're not spoiled? It's a question we all need to be asking, whether we're millionaires or not."
For one mother, Carrie Gibson, the answer lies in taking a firm, consistent approach with her 11-year-old son, Jeffery Sullivan. Instant gratification and frivolous spending are not the family's style.
As Mrs. Gibson, of LeRoy, N.Y., explains, "Jeff will come home and say, 'Can I have the Tommy Hilfiger and the Zones [baggy pants]?' He checks them out when he goes to the mall. He's normal. But he realizes we can't do all that. I would rather all of us go to the movies than spend the money on clothes."
Jeff gets a weekly allowance of $5 and can spend half of it. He is saving for a class trip to Boston in June. He also wants a $300 Dyno bicycle.
"He says, 'Everybody has one,' " Gibson notes. "I tell him, 'I'm not everybody else's mother. Everybody else's mother goes to work." She is at home with the couple's 10-month-old son, Jack.
Jeff, a sixth-grader, adopts a philosophical attitude. "I have a lot of cool friends, and they have more brand names than I do," he says. "But it's OK. When I want to buy something, I usually have to save up my money."
Lillian Rubin, a sociologist in San Francisco, applauds that approach. "When children say, 'Well, Susie has $200 sweaters,' parents need to be able to say, 'In this family we don't have $200 sweaters.' "
Yet she acknowledges that parents today have a much harder time saying no. Many think they must give children every possible advantage. That in turn "breeds kids who have a sense that they're the center of the world, with an enormous sense of entitlement."
In a materialistic and consumer-oriented culture, Dr. Ehrensaft says, parents may be tempted to reason: "If I give, my child is happy, and if my child is happy, my child will love me." She calls that a dangerous equation. "Because parents don't have time, they give things. They want to be able to give."
Ehrensaft refutes the notion that these are uncaring parents who are buying their children off. "It's absolutely not that. We have guilt-ridden parents who are making up to their children for what they cannot give, which is more of themselves and more of their time."
Overindulgence can also stem from what Rubin calls "an ethos of wanting to be our children's friends, rather than their parents. We're fearful that we'll lose their love. A sense of parental authority isn't even acceptable." She emphasizes that she does not mean repressive authority, but "an authoritative adult who has his or her own values and who says to a child, 'This is what we believe in this family, this is how we live in this family.' "
That describes the philosophy of Jeannie Watkins, president of a marketing-communications firm in Pasadena, Calif., and the mother of an eight-year-old son, Michael, who "loves to shop."
"He has friends with every gizmo possible, and then he has friends whose families live very similar to our lifestyle, where you don't need that stuff," Mrs. Watkins says. Watching friends react to their children's wants rather than to their needs has been instructive.
"The lesson we've learned is, once the faucet gets turned on by giving them their wants, it's hard to turn it off," she says.
Watkins and her husband do not let Michael watch commercial TV. But in the past three months, they have allowed him to watch Nickelodeon, which does have commercials. Since then, she says, "The word 'want' is coming out of his mouth dramatically, which it never did before."
As a reality check, they have explained to Michael that many people live in poverty. "We've discussed articles in the newspapers about kids in Sudan who have nothing to eat, as well as kids here in Pasadena who have too little to eat," Watkins says. "We talk about the value of electronic gizmos versus going to bed hungry. We even told him, without naming names, that there are children at his parochial school who are on scholarships who go to bed hungry."
As a result, Watkins says, Michael has a better understanding of how fortunate he is. He has also begun to think about how to help these people. "He's a little bit more giving with his allowance to put into the basket at church and into a container at home that he can turn in at school. That money is given to the needy. Even at 8, it gets him thinking in the right direction."
Wealthy parents also face challenges. "Just because you have money doesn't mean your child has to be indulged," says Fred Gosman, who speaks nationally on parenting issues. "Kids need things to look forward to. If they have a personal trainer by age 7, what's left?"
He emphasizes the need to teach young people a work ethic and to help them to value money. Giving children budgets helps them "learn to say no to themselves."
Jessie O'Neill, author of "The Golden Ghetto," notes that it is difficult for affluent parents to say no, because they don't have the excuse of saying, "We can't afford it." Instead, she says, "They have to explain why it's not in their best interest to get every single possession the minute they want it."
Ms. O'Neill, founder of the Affluenza Project in Milwaukee, believes that much of the violence in today's culture is a direct result of "affluenza," which she defines as "an unhealthy or imbalanced relationship with money or wealth or the pursuit of it." She adds, "It's the 'never-enough' mentality. It's the myth of the American dream, that money buys happiness. We've begun to put money and the pursuit of money above relationships with our family and with our children."
For Pam Waterman, an engineer in Mesa, Ariz., and the mother of three daughters, 11, 9, and 6, family relationships and modest outings take precedence over expensive purchases and vacations.
"We do lots of day trips," Mrs. Waterman says. After the family moved to Arizona from Michigan, they started "Exploration Sunday." Once a month they find something to do in the area, such as visiting a museum or a park.
Referring to her daughters, she says, "I know they still have dreams of Disneyland someday. It's not that we couldn't swing it if we wanted to." She adds, "I don't think my children go around moping because they don't have a certain designer patch on their clothes. They're bright and creative and on the whole happy."
Even so, the forces of market and peer pressure can be daunting to many families. "Parents who don't give in to all the hoopla could use some encouragement," Waterman says.
What else can parents do?
O'Neill urges parents to communicate honestly with children about money. She encourages them to explain to children that the words "wealthy" and "rich" have wide definitions. "It's not just about money," she says. "It's about spirituality, it's about family, friends, community, philanthropy."
Sometimes the messages affluent parents indirectly send to children can be confusing. Says Rubin, "If the adults can have every toy in the world that comes their way, if they don't use their wealth responsibly, if they aren't concerned to give something back to the community, if they're not worried as they get richer to reach out to others who are getting poorer, words alone won't do it. Children have to see parents living by a set of values."
Financial experts emphasize the value of teaching children to save - and to wait. Gosman suggests that before a family trip, parents encourage a child to save $2 a week in a souvenir fund. "Letting children see parents working toward a goal where money is set aside can be a very good thing," he says. "We don't do that. We just put our vacation on the MasterCard and never even talk about the finances of it."
Ehrensaft offers parents this advice: "The first thing is to keep our credit cards in our pocket. The dictum is, Less is more."
She also encourages parents and children to be involved in the community, so they give something back. One affluent family she knows volunteers at a homeless shelter once a week.
Parents who indulge in instant gratification "believe that if they give their child everything she wants, instantly, there will be no wrinkles in the system. They try to provide wall-to-wall happiness, so children will love them. It's a myth."
Gosman, the author of "Spoiled Rotten: Today's Children and How to Change Them," illustrates that point. "If there were two parents, and one gave lots of love but practically no toys, and the other one gave lots of toys but no love, which is the better parent? It's really a ridiculous question, because of course it's the parent who gave love, but it underscores what's important."
Parents, Gosman adds, "must understand that a child who has everything appreciates nothing." Ehrensaft varies that theme just slightly, saying,, "A child who has everything is rarely a happy child."
For 11-year-old Jeff, having everything is not a danger. Speaking about his need to choose purchases carefully, he says, "I appreciate money more that way. I know what it's all about because I've got to save for what I want."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society