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Will my kids be spoiled?

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Dear Elisheva,

My husband and I were raised very differently, in a lot of ways. One way that comes up deeply for us, in our parenting, is my concern about raising spoiled kids. My own parents always made sure that we had a roof overhead, basic food, and simple clothes. If we wanted anything beyond that, we worked and got it for ourselves. We didn’t order takeout, buy brand names, or even have a lot of toys or gadgets. We did our chores and got a miniscule allowance. But my brother and I found ways to work from a young age- even like 9 or 10, after school odd jobs, weekends, and summers, and that’s what we used for anything we wanted that wasn’t a necessity. We’d save up babysitting money to go to movies, get pizza, go bowling, or extras like make up and hobbies.

Here in the Five Towns, it’s like another world to me. Kids seem to be handed so much on a silver platter- material things, like toys, games, devices, expensive clothes, and experiences like extra activities, summer camp, eating out, and travel. My husband is used to this, so he thinks it’s normal, and wants to raise our kids with all this consumerism. We can technically afford it, but to me it just seems so unhealthy and overprivileged. I worry that they’re going to turn out entitled, self-absorbed, bratty, or spoiled. We agreed to seek some advice about this, and we’re starting here. What are your thoughts on this please?

-Money conscious mom

Dear MCM,

When it comes to establishing values for our families, our own personal histories and beliefs play a significant role. It’s admirable that you want to provide your kids with not only their physical needs, but a work ethic, the value of a dollar, and an appreciation for what they have. The balance between minimalism and excess is relative and tricky, especially in a culture of abundance, or as it’s been unaffectionately dubbed: “affluenza.” It’s not my place to give you a budget or formula for what to spend on your children, but I can share some ideas that might help with your concern about their developing character.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between spoiled and fortunate:

There is a widespread misconception that “having” inherently makes kids spoiled, while “not having” prevents that. I suppose it would depend on how you define spoiled, but I know many kids (and adults) who are very fortunate, very blessed in terms of what they “have” but do not seem at all “spoiled,” in how they speak or act. Conversely, there are some who don’t necessarily have more than average, but present with entitled behavior.

I consider three general components which can create a “spoiled” mentality:

1. The first, and I think primary factor, is kids not learning to accept “no” for an answer. When children are always given whatever they request, or are allowed to demand, they internalize the assumption that their wants deserve to be fulfilled unconditionally. This is not always about “things”- it can be about breaking rules or violating the physical rights of others. Kids (and adults) who become accustomed to always getting whatever they want, whenever they want it, will lack the ability to cope with disappointment, respect boundaries, or accept limitations. (Note: I don’t think we need to deliberately say “no” to kids all the time either; we can often redirect children to the delayed “yes” option for the same educational benefit. For ex: “Could we buy that toy please?” Instead of “no” we could say: “Oh that is a nice toy! That would be a great idea for a birthday present- let’s write it down so we remember when your birthday comes!”)

2. The second is when the adults in their lives associate status, importance, or superiority to these “things.” A friend of mine grew up in a wealthy family, but she never realized this until 8th grade when a boy in her class made a wisecrack to her about it. Afterwards, she asked her parents who confirmed it. She’d probably noticed that she had a nice home and pretty things, but she was raised with far more emphasis on all the chessed (kindness) her family was busy with, that that was the identity and focus she internalized. She never thought she was different and certainly not better than anyone because of her family’s economic status, even when she did become aware of it. On the other hand, when kids get the message, either explicitly or subliminally, that money or what it can buy is what matters most in life, they’re more likely to internalize that (or sometimes rebel against it.) When kids hear adults mocking others who have less, or over-praising those with more, constantly pining for the next new “toy” or symbol, or bragging about what they have, that exudes an unwholesome relationship to wealth. But when they hear adults trying to be generous and praising virtue, wisdom, and goodness, being modest about what they have, then that’s what comes across.

3. The third is when material gifts and activities are used as replacement for authentic connection and love. Kids of all ages have emotional needs. They often express them- explicitly or indirectly: they’ll ask parents to hold them, read a story, play a game, help with homework, go to the park, run errands together, or start a conversation. When kids are consistently denied those basic forms of healthy affection and attachment, and they’re given “things” instead, repeatedly, their psychological selves are being malnourished. Picture someone who is physically malnourished and is fed only a bag of plain sugar. Those material gifts may release dopamine in the short term, (and get the child to stop “bothering” the parent), just like the pure sugar tastes good and offers a quick burst of energy. But the primary developmental nourishment comes from parental love and connection. This dynamic is similar to the way using any short-term pleasure can become addictive and create withdrawal. Addiction is generally a misguided attempt to substitute immediate gratification for genuine emotional wellness or personal connection that’s missing. If a child needs and craves love and nurturing, and is instead repeatedly offered “stuff,” there is no amount of “stuff” in the world that’s a good substitute for real love and the sense of self-worth that comes from substantive actualization. They’ll get cranky and insatiable because sugar is tasty but not filling, and it can’t substitute for all the other nutrients.

Developing a balanced approach for spending on our children’s non-essentials will depend on variables like our sociocultural baselines and norms, our kids’ personalities and peers, and our own values. These often evolve over time. For example, many families can afford different lifestyles at different points, eg first rent an apartment, but then later purchasing a private home. You might opt to compromise on some choices, because while they may cost a bit more than you’d like, they encourage wholesome activity: for example, music lessons or a good quality bike. If they could use a sweater, for example, but want one that cost more than you’d usually spend, you might say: “I’m happy to pay $x, and then you can add your own money if you’d like a nicer one.” We can show kids that we’re happy for them to have nice things and also to appreciate the achievement of earning and spending judiciously.

I generally recommend that parents try not to make their kids either the least or most privileged of their peers, but try to stay within the middle range of the bell curve, if possible. You may think overnight camp is wastefully expensive, but if virtually every kid in the class is going, and you can afford it, it’s probably wise to let them go. At the other end, if all the other kids are having simple bar mitzvahs in the shul basement, you might not want to be the one to fly the class to a destination luxury resort.

We can also model and teach thankfulness- by regularly expressing our own appreciation and encouraging theirs, to the other parent, to each other, to friends, teachers, and to G-d, for the all the big and small joys and blessings we have.

When my daughter was a young teen, she read a book about a kid who grew up in squalor. She expressed feeling guilty that she lived comfortably, knowing children in the world didn’t have beds, clean water, or enough food to eat. We discussed trying to shift from guilt to gratitude. Feeling bad about what we have doesn’t help anyone. Feeling grateful, recognizing, savoring, appreciating it can lead us to an expansive mindset, to then explore the question: “How can I use what I’ve been given to make a difference or help others?”

Regardless of how much or little you choose to give your kids monetarily, there are many ways we can gift them spiritually as well. We can create a home culture of mindful interactions, warm memories, intentional values. Where they see parents who get excited by goodness, knowledge, and contribution. Where they see charity and communal work modeled and uplifted, learning, and personal growth celebrated. Where gratitude is a way of life- starting with the parents.

These factors can help to raise children who are not spoiled but blessed, grateful, and kind.

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