Too many children are spoiled by parents who can't afford it

October 25, 1994|By ELISE T. CHISOLM

Did we spoil our children? Do we spoil them now? Only time will tell, say 20 years hence, when there are more of those surveys.

Looking back over the past 40 years, I think we HAVE spoiled our children.

And here's the dichotomy -- middle-class and even lower-class families have spoiled their children, perhaps, as much as the very rich.

I see families whose income is not that hefty give their kids everything they can in the way of material things.

Take my friend Tom, who grew up poor on an Alabama farm. He was one of 10 kids, and there was no money and very little good parental guidance:

"I ran away from home and I put myself through college, then made money. I am not going to see my kids suffer like I did."

This Christmas Tom and his wife have decided to give each of their five kids $20,000. "I'd rather they have the money now, and let me see them enjoy it even if they don't need it."

The sad part is that Tom's kids never have been motivated to struggle. The work ethic eluded them. They aren't happy or successful. They were given guitars, skis, dancing lessons and tennis rackets in the '60s, and in the '80s they were given the down payment on their homes and cars.

I know about 10 families that give their kids everything, while the parents live meagerly with meager trappings.

Now the "giving-them-all" concept has been handed down to the middle-class baby boomers. They are giving their kids everything. They are picking up where the Toms of America left off, only some of them don't have Tom's income.

The only difference is that the boomers frequently don't call it "spoiling" their children, they call it "expanding their children's horizons intellectually" or "enrichment."

But Dr. Winifred Hohlt, a specialist in counseling and family therapy in Wilmington, Del., sees it as I do.

"Because our culture has boomed into a materialistic society 'things' have become the substance of parental proof of love. Parents get into a trap, they give to express their love hoping for appreciation in return. If the parents don't get the affection and results they want, instead of cutting back the gift-giving, they will elicit the behavior they are looking for by raising the gift-giving evil."

We all know that young children often covet things they can't afford -- things that make them feel socially acceptable to their group whether it's athletic shoes or the latest in toys. They want to belong.

After all, our children have seen their parents use money to buy security, why can't they? The rationale for keeping up with the Joneses grows as they grow up.

I think the "have-to-haves" are handed down from generation to generation now like an inherited genetic disease casting flaws in our value system.

A widowed grandmother who worked all her life recently said to me, "When we were young marrieds we couldn't afford to give our kids all those things, and so we didn't do it. Now my grown kids with children can't afford 'those things' either, but they are giving them anyway. This worries me."

I remember when children used to have more fun with the box the toys came in than the toy itself. But that was before the hype, the lure of television commercials, the spread of malls and "Possessions R Us."

Children believe now that the ownership of things is their right instead of a privilege.

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