Gifts from bottom of parent's guilty heart

April 09, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

She was quite a sight in her proper business attire, stuffing a pinball machine in the overhead luggage compartment.

"It's for my son," she said weakly, as the flight attendant helped her cram the large toy into the small space. "He called me yesterday and said he really wanted one."

For the flight attendant, the only variation on this theme was the object purchased by the anxious, absent parent.

"You felt guilty because you were out of town," she said. "And so you bought this big extravagant gift to make both of you feel better."

But Guilt Shopping Syndrome -- in which parents try to compensate for a lack of time with their children by showering them with presents -- is by no means limited to traveling moms and dads or upper-income families. Busy parents in general feel pushed and pulled by schedules that have spun out of control. In tones that range from remorseful to righteous, many parents report that "things" provide at least a temporary sense of balance.

Ruby Takanishi, a developmental psychologist at the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in Washington, defines guilt shopping as a tendency to "provide kids with huge amounts of things which don't have any relation to what they need."

She called guilt shopping "an incredibly important issue -- one that I have been very troubled by," and said parents give in to the practice "because there's just so much going on that most parents are in shock."

At some level, Ms. Takanishi said, "we think that if we can consume things, and be busy in the act of consumption, we won't have to face the more fundamental needs that our families and our kids have."

As a mother and stepmother, Stephanie Marsten, a psychologist in Los Angeles, said that she has not been immune to guilt shopping. But she has also seen its impact in the families she counsels.

Guilt seeps through modern families, Ms. Marsten said, because so many people have "unrealistic expectations of what parents are supposed to be." In particular, she said, the "Ozzie and Harriet" image looms over a generation ambivalent about the fixed family roles with which it was raised and the evolving parental permutations it has embraced.

With lives that "really are stressed," Ms. Marsten said, parents also feel guilty because "our behavior isn't matching our values" -- meaning that "we feel we should be spending a certain amount of time with our children, and we just aren't."

As a result, "people try to buy love and buy forgiveness from their children by using money as an exchange for time," she said.

"It just doesn't work," said Ms. Marsten. "It's like feeding a starving child marshmallows. You're giving the child fluff when he needs substance."

Buying material absolution from children is nothing new. Divorced parents have long waged their wars in the trenches of Toys R Us. Their children, in turn, have learned to use parental conflict to their own advantage -- perfecting a kind of material battle strategy that might earn praise from the Pentagon.

"Kids are pragmatic. They only do what works," Ms. Marsten said. "They quickly learn they can manipulate us by playing on our guilt. And I don't think that's something we want our kids to learn."

Carilee Galligan, manager of the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in Boston, said the toll of guilt shopping shows up on her customers' faces.

"There are people who come in here and buy a particular item and say, 'I'd better not come home without this,' " Ms. Galligan said.

Like any consumer activity, guilt shopping has other costs. Thomas Chesus, a business consultant in Northern California, said that he has watched many busy parents tumble into a caldron of guilt-induced debt. They are overworked, Mr. Chesus said, overwrought, and, in far too many cases, financially overextended.

Working with families of various income levels, Mr. Chesus said he often questions them about their excessive credit card purchases.

"What I hear is, 'It's for the kids,' " Mr. Chesus said. "What it translates to is 'More! More! More!' "

Yet guilt shopping is not always an evil endeavor.

"I actually think these kinds of things work if there's a good relationship between the parents and the kids," said Pasadena, Calif., psychologist Neil Clark Warren.

Bringing home a little something -- not to mention a large something -- "does carry a powerful message," Mr. Warren said. "It says, 'My mom or my dad thought about me while I was away from them, and I really do matter.' "

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