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How much is too much?

Published on: May 01, 2007

My Barbie doll had a blond ponytail, blue eyes and perfect proportions.
I coveted this doll. She's still here, tucked away in a blue
faux-leather Barbie box, along with her dazzling duds: a shimmering
black gown, a creamy hostess outfit and a black-and-white zebra-striped
bathing suit.

I realize this recollection places me in a long-ago and far-away
childhood, when every Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan song I bought was a
big deal (you couldn't download hundreds of them to your iPod) and when
kids made do with single dolls, dresses and toys instead of infinite
sets of them.

Who, these days, buys just one Barbie? Who buys just one anything?

Perhaps every generation feels the generation following them is
startlingly overindulged. And after all, isn't it our pleasure and
privilege to give our children more than we had?

To a point, says Seattle parent educator Elizabeth Crary, the author of
more than 60 books and articles for parents and children. She advises
parents and caretakers to transcend that point at their own risk.
"Overindulgence is as damaging as child abuse," Crary contends.
"Overindulged kids lose self-esteem. They'll feel they're only valuable
if they have the newest jacket or the latest PlayStation."

They miss the chance to build important skills, she says, how to
budget, how to decide whether to buy the blue shirt or the red shirt.

Think your kids appreciate the collection of games, books and toys that
fill your living room-slash-playroom? Don't count on it. "The more they
have, the more they want," says Barbara Swenson, a Mercer Island-based
parent educator. "Children raised in the midst of too much stuff don't
do well. They get distracted, demanding, whiny and entitled. And they
think they are entitled to even more."

Sometimes the catering, pampering and pleasing is more about the parent
than the child. When's the last time you saw a 2-year-old angle for an
$800 stroller or a Burberry raincoat or a pair of Italian party shoes?
"Maybe the parents want to show off to their friends. Maybe they didn't
get everything when they were kids," notes Crary.

One mother told Swenson that her daughter's closet was crammed with
clothing, some with tags still attached. "The mother seemed proud of
this," Swenson says.

That kind of uber-consumerism puts pressure on less affluent
communities. "The kids from poorer areas have to have the trendy stuff,
too," says Swenson. "Parents with low budgets try to keep up. When they
can't provide for their kids at that level, they feel inadequate."

Need versus want

An overemphasis on materialism increases kids' expectations, says
Crary. "They learn they can have what they want. And many parents don't
see why they shouldn't give it to them."

Do they need a new Game Boy when the one they have still works, or do
they simply want it? Do they know the difference? "A long time ago
parents would say, 'You can earn the money for this and we'll pay
half.' Now kids don't learn to work for what they want," says Crary.
"These parents are setting their children up for unreasonable
expectations for the future."

They're also promoting questionable values that can surface at school,
says Swenson. "I see kids trying to buy friends with the latest gadget;
with the family pool; with the new Mercedes they got for their

Some families equate money with power, and feel their wealth should buy
their children good grades minus the effort, Swenson notes. The
fallout? Entitled students who don't respect their teachers.

"Just because you can give your children more things, more trips, more
lessons doesn't mean it's good for them," she says. When your child has
everything and still begs for more, it's time to ditch the checkbook.
"They don't have to have it all," says Swenson. "They should want for

Linda Morgan, ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

Elizabeth Crary's tips

  • Assign chores.
  • Establish a clothing allowance. Once it's gone, it's gone.
  • Let them suffer the consequences of their actions. If they are mean to a friend, let them resolve the problem.
  • Figure out how many shirts, pants and pairs of shoes they need. Then make rules about what they can own.
  • Have
    them do something for the community, and make sure it's a true
    interaction. Pick a project like cleaning up a stream; let your child
    plan it and work it out.
  • Be a good role model. Ask yourself: What kind of person do you want your child to grow up to be?

Talking dollars and cents

By Barbara Swenson

  • Parents who talk about money in appropriate ways raise well-adjusted, responsible, and value-conscious kids.
  • Connect your money to the responsibility that comes with it and the effort it took to earn.
  • Use an allowance to teach money management and to help your children understand that there are limits to spending.
  • Teach kids the difference between what they want and what they need.
  • Expect kids to work outside the family to understand the work/money connection.
  • Make sure kids establish financial independence as young adults; cut the financial "umbilical cord."
  • Avoid the "trust fund syndrome." This is when kids get money they had no involvement in earning.

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