Monday, July 13, 2015

The pitfalls of affluent parenting

I shared this story from Boston Magazine on the Of Kids and Education Facebook page over the weekend. The article talks about many issues that have bugged regarding parenting, such as bribing our kids to perform simple tasks, and the fall-out that results from these missteps.

There are many pertinent issues raised in the article but the one that I want to focus on in this blog post is the culture of overabundance - where our kids get so many things they want so easily (and even more stuff they don't want), that they have become jaded and unappreciative.

We live in a society of instant gratification and I'm not just talking about the kids. I know many kids want things NOW. But parents are a big part of the problem - we give in because we too want to feel the joy of seeing our kids happy NOW. So we feel the urge to heap the best and the latest on our kids, as if that is an indication of our love for them. 

All studies and child psychologists will tell you this is a big mistake...and yet parents can't help themselves. It's like a drug - making our kids happy NOW has become such an addiction that it rules our life. My mother-in-law dotes on my kids and has a generous heart. When she found out that Andre was hankering for sugar rolls, she went out and bought a box full. And then another box a few days later. And more the following week, by which time, Andre was all hung over on sugar rolls and the prospect of sugar rolls was more alarming than pleasurable.

It's not about the giving. It's about knowing when to stop. Sometimes, the more we give, the less they want. What is a toy worth when you have 50 other toys? How will you outdo your previous gift? Will you feel the pressure to go larger, fancier, more expensive? I remember when growing up, birthdays were something to treasure because there was a chance of getting a book I wanted. Compare this with modern times when I buy my kids all the books they want. Close to my children's birthdays, I always ask: "What would you like?" and more often than not, both child and parent are stymied because my kids can usually get whatever they want any time of the year. Heck, they don't even have to wait till their birthday to have cake.

I think in smothering our kids with stuff, we are robbing them of the indelible excitement and anticipation of wanting something, and then working or saving to get it. The wait and the effort make the reward that much sweeter. More importantly, it develops priceless values such as diligence and patience.

Bromfield, a child psychologist, says “Getting what they want, whenever they want it, can undermine children’s learning patience, gratitude, and all those old-fashioned values that help the adults they grow into manage a healthy, responsible, and contented life. Affluent parenting can deprive a child of fundamental life skills.”

Bromfield advocates not trying to keep up with the Joneses as a way to break out of this trend and this, I support whole-heartedly. Giving in to your kid who says "But he-and-she has one!" is the fastest way to snowball down the massive Toys R Us mountain. (You can bet that after you give in, your kid's classmate is emotionally blackmailing his parents the same way, using your child as the baseline).

My kids were the only ones in their class without a handphone for the longest time. Then the only ones without data plan. Lesley-Anne got her own laptop only last year, in her first year in JC, because she needed to work in school. Till today, we do not own a Wii, Xbox, Playstation or even an iPad. You may call us the family living in the Stone Age but guess what, we function just fine. What we don't get used to, we don't miss.

Likewise, when we calculate pocket money for our kids, it's based on how much their canteen food costs and what we think can keep them properly fed, not what other kids get. We believe in setting our own values for giving, not based on the standards of other families. We're not a shop. We're not obliged to offer market rate.

Financial prudence teaches the value of money, as well as how to manage money. Once again, life skills. When we go to a restaurant, my kids don't choose the expensive items. If there's something on the menu Andre wants that is more expensive, he will ask if it's ok to order it. It's not that we curb their choices, it's that prudence has become part of our family psyche.

Related to the appreciation of the value of money and things is the spirit of thankfulness. Have you ever heard parents complaining about their kids, "I gave them everything and yet, they're so ungrateful!" I wonder if they've ever stopped to think that maybe that's the problem - they give too much. The truth is, the more we have, the less we value. The less we value, the less grateful we become and I find this to be one of the sad contradictions of an affluent society.

From a young age, when my kids receive a gift, Kenneth and I would always make them thank the giver, whether personally, by phone or sms. I won't claim that we did this consciously thinking "we must make this a habit!" but without quite realising it, it stuck. In our family, we say thank you a lot. We always thank each other for gestures and gifts, even little ones. I don't know how it works in other families, but I thank Kenneth when he picks me up from the MRT station. He thanks me even for little things, like helping him print out a form. When we go out for dinner, our kids always thank us, even if dinner was just at a hawker centre. They thank Kenneth when he buys back food or durian or cake for them. (When it's something especially nice, they thank him multiple times!) It has become intuitive, a habit.

Some people may think, alamak, liddat also must thank! Only a small thing what. To me, it's not about how big or small the gesture was. It's about cultivating the habit and the spirit of thankfulness. In some ways, it's like saying your prayers. Why do we need to say prayers? God already knows what we need even before we ask! The point of saying prayers is less for Him than for us. By going to God in prayer, we connect with Him and grow our own spiritual life. Similarly, giving thanks is sometimes less for the benefit of the giver than for the receiver. By constantly showing appreciation for little things, we become more aware of our blessings and grow in thankfulness.

There is no shortcut to nurturing values. (That's like asking God, "Give me patience NOW!") We can't spout values to our kids one day and expect them to materialise the next. Want your kids to be diligent, resilient, caring or thankful? Then mean what you say and create the environment that allows for these values to take root.   




5 comments:

Jingwen Mun said...

We are working on getting the kids to say thanks, but I'm happy to know we aren't the only family around who doesn't own an ipad, wii, xbox, or playstation, and we don't celebrate the kids' birthdays with lavish parties (just a cake and candles at home after dinner, no presents!) or buy them stationery and toys because so and so has it too.
Glad to chance upon your blogpost! =)

Alex said...

Hi,

Thanks for your blog post :)
I also wanted to share my 2 cents!

I want to encourage all parents to always tell your children ‘As long as you have done your best, its ok’

I think it is important to understand that what we say to our children means the world to them. It can really make them or break them.

Hope that made some sense. Thanks!

Taby said...

Lovely and refreshing to read! What you said resonates so much with me :)

Yin said...

Your kids are lucky to have you as parents! I think all young Singapore parents should read this post! I'm afraid we have caved in on the Wii after holding out till they were in Secondary - for want of some bonding time - haha! Glad to report that they still don't have data plans - and don't seem to mind :)

monlim said...

Yin: Wow, still no data plan? I applaud you! I'll always remember fondly us saying we were the only two families who held out on the gaming toys :)

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