I was standing in a department store checkout queue recently, when my daughter, aged 7, started hounding me to buy whatever it was they put in the checkout queue to seduce kids into pester power territory.
“No” I say, simply.
She asks for the next “thing”.
“No” I repeat. “We’re not buying anything from these stands today.”
The woman in front of me who had been listening to our conversation, turns around and asks with a resigned smile;
“How do you do that?”
I looked at her and said,
“I just say ‘No’”.
[OK, I wanted to say, “Well, DUH”, but we were in a public place and I didn’t want to start a fight].
The interaction got me thinking about the cult of giving our kids everything they want all the time and the reluctance of parents to say “No”. Affluenza: it’s a real thing. The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “the dissatisfaction that accompanies consumerism as a path to happiness”.
It starts in childhood. As parents we may be motivated to give our kids everything they ask for because:
- it’s easier to say yes than no;
- we’ve inherited that approach from our own parents;
- we dread the reaction of our kids to the word “No” (and fear others will judge us if our kids have a public dummy spit);
- we don’t want our kids to miss out or be bullied because they don’t have the latest iDevice; and/or
- we define our own success by our financial situation and believe it’s a status symbol for our kids to have cool stuff.
Ultimately, the buck stops with us as parents. Sure, brands encourage kids to flick out the pester power moves and wear us down so we buy, spend, CONSUME. Our materialistic, capitalist culture impounds the idea that giving kids all this stuff will make them happy. But ultimately we are in the power position to rise above it.
It’s not always easy to teach our kids the value of things in such a hedonistic culture. Sometimes it feels like we’re going against the grain, like other parents are judging us for our naysaying. And we are ensconced in an age where, like it or not, technology is practically a necessity to complete our education (and ultimately to do our adult work), rather than a “nice-to-have”. Pushback on our kids is HARD.
But pushback is necessary. I give my kids things they want occasionally; I’m not a hard-arse, but for our family it’s about balance. If our kids are targeted by others in the playground because they don’t know who Desmond Miles is (thanks Google), then that’s a separate issue. And the experience of my kids not getting what they want all the time is developing in them the most remarkable gift of childhood: resilience.
Happiness is never a guarantee but it’s not a magic ingredient in an X-box either. I believe we give our kids the best chance of happiness by arming them with a sense of independence, of resilience and of self-worth.
It’s generally accepted that our brains are still developing well into our 20s. The danger of giving children everything they want with no limits in early childhood is that they are conditioned to believe that they don’t have to work for anything, ever. They grow up not understanding how the “real world” – the world outside the cosy microcosm of “ask and you shall receive” – works.
Children who get everything they want may grow up with a skewed sense of entitlement, believing that the world owes them something. Jessie O’Neil, a therapist and psychologist, surmises that in its worst form, affluenza can lead to low self-esteem, depression, frustration-management issues, and neuroses.
As well as the psychological effects on our own children, our reluctance to say no may have sociological knock-on effects, amplifying the great divide between the haves and have-nots.
Vaccinate your kids against affluenza, don’t give them a snotty consumerist handkerchief. Tell them “No”. It’s a word they need to hear.