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Affluenza: A disease I don’t want my daughter to get

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I just read this great piece by Judith Warner about $10,000 summer camps and overbearing, can’t-let-go parents who send their kids there. Some of these camps employ parent liaisons, whose job is to basically be a concierge and deal with parent requests, or more likely demands (e.g. check that my kids have put on their sunscreen today.) Judith Warner uses the camp example to talk about affluenza, a social phenomenon where one’s self-esteem is closely tied to what one is able to get. The study of affluenza mentioned in Ms. Warner’s article defines it in the following way:

Affluenza can be defined as the dysfunctional relationship between the acquisition of wealth and other sources of self-esteem…. Americans earn three times as much as they did 30 years ago, technology has opened a world of resources to children, and parents are working in excess to provide opportunities exposing our children to the “good life.” Yet a generation has emerged where adolescent psychological problems are escalating and teen suicides have doubled.

When I first read this I felt a sense of relief — this is a rich people problem and since we’re not rich, or anywhere near rich, we don’t have to worry. But the study makes a specific point to say that while yes, wealthier parents and kids are likely more susceptible to having affluenza, it’s more about one’s attitude than actual wealth and can therefore affect everyone, regardless of income. It’s a sense of entitlement and of not having to work hard to achieve your goals, both which overbearing parents reinforce when they make sure that everything a child wants or might want is taken care of.

I grew up in the former Soviet Union, where no one had money, no one (except for a few elite politicians) was entitled to anything, and where the constant theme that was reinforced in school was about hard work. After we immigrated to America we lived on welfare and built our life here from scratch, purely through hard work. I feel comfortable saying that nobody in my family ever feels entitled.

But I worry about my daughter. While we’re not rich, we live comfortably and are surrounded by people who live comfortably and some who are wealthy. My husband and I are both extremely focused on raising our daughter to not be spoiled — we don’t buy lots of toys or clothes, don’t indulge her every whim, are beginning to involve her in chores, and will be sending her to public school next year. We try to be extremely respectful to her teachers and anyone we deal with together, so that she learns from us and never feels like she can order people around.

But I still worry. She has more toys than I ever had, we don’t lack for anything, and as she grows up, she will see how comfortable her life is. I know that as parents we can influence a lot in terms of her work ethic and understanding values in life, but as she gets older, so can her friends, some of whom will be coming from wealthy, extremely comfortable upbringings.

Do you worry about spoiling your kids? Are there certain things you do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

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7 comments so far...

  • I guess I never really thought about it. until now! I just figure my husband and I are more fun that any toy for our kiddo so as long as we get time with him he doesn’t need that many toys LOL! Plus we are his examples in life in regards to how people are treated. I don’t order people around or treat anyone as ‘beneath’ me and I would expect the same of my child. Even as he gets older, I would expect him to be the ‘good influence’ to his friends and not the other way around.

    Attitude and happiness really have nothing to do with money or things. People can be mean and spoiled and dysfunctional with and without ’stuff’. I understand many people feel they need to equate them, but I don’t really get it.

    My younger brothers had pretty much anything they wanted growing up and they are by no means spoiled bratty young adults - they are awesome, thoughtful, happy, warm hearted, respectful young adults (college aged). To me, it’s much less about the stuff and much more about how much importance you give to the stuff.

    *stepping off my soapbox*

    Kate  |  August 1st, 2008 at 11:15 am

  • I think you have a great standpoint. I hate seeing a developing ‘ungrateful’ culture around me. - Stop postal junk mail, Protect the environment, Protect your identity.

    Eileen134  |  August 1st, 2008 at 11:31 am

  • Dear Nataly,
    Thank You for bringing up this important issue! I do often think of this issue of my son becoming spoiled. I grew up with fresh water and fish swimming for us to catch and eat, clean air to breathe, clean soil to grow good healthy food (it was all organic then in our garden- we did not call it that, we just didn’t buy those chemical fertilizers, as they were not needed). We had plenty of space to run and enjoy nature. We were very healthy and fit. And people thought we were poor! I look back on my youth and see clearly what vast wealth we had then- even without cable tv, laptops or portable electronic gaming gadgets and the very latest cell phones. We had the gifts of Mother Earth, and we were rich beyond measure. My mother traded garden vegetables for fresh chickens eggs and goats milk to bake bread, then she continued to trade fresh loaves for more eggs and milk, and also for childcare. It was a very wholesome trade.

    10 years ago I moved to NYC, and have had both of my sons born here.
    While I miss home, we now live close enough to commute to the UN headquarters.
    A few years ago we moved from Park Slope Brooklyn to Manhattan beach, brooklyn, and the amount of prada, various namebrand logos of all types emblazoned under long flashy fur coats is well, nauseating. And then there are all of the electronic toys and latest model mercedes, lexus and cadillac suv’s- all during a time when gas prices are soaring. We live 7 blocks from the school, and simply walk there each day, while we have neighbors only two blocks away who make the daily drive. I am working to explain to my eldest son the difference between what we want, and what we need.
    And not having the latest model of the most expensive type by no means makes us poor— in many ways, I feel richer by having more space in our lives for the simple pleasures. The advertising companies have worked very hard to convince consumers (increasingly targeting young children in their ads) that they “need” said products, or that products can create happiness. True happiness can not be bought. What kids want more than all of the toys in the world, is the devoted time with their parents. All too often we fall into the trap of working extra hours to give our kids those extra things…, they simply want our undivided attention, a chance to play a simple game in the kitchen, or to take a walk outside in the weather. When I cut my work weeks from 80 hours to 40, and then to 20, my sons behavior improved dramatically. It turns out money actually can not buy happiness- exactly as our grandparents had said. Of course having enough money does make life easier… the balance is to remember that money is simply a trade tool, and our children come first. If I take a few hours each day or at the very least 20 undivided minutes to not think of bills or work issues and focus solely on my children, they thrive.
    Thank you for bringing up this issue- I love the title “affluenza”! It is a truly dreadful epidemic.
    The Indigenous People of this country have always said that if we take too much without giving back, we will become ill. Besides the affluenza, there is the asthma rate from polluted air, the diabetes rate from eating un-natural foods, the cancer rate that is coinciding with the carcinogenic ingredients in many of the heavily advertised “needed” latest shampoos containing laurel/ laureth sulfates and even lipsticks containing lead, and of course the pesticides in our food. (Three quick questions to ponder: Why is it that pesticide manufacturers profits outweigh human life? Why are the chemically treated crops sold cheaply in underserved communities of color while organic food is now sold for twice the price and available now mainly to the affluent?
    Why are farmers who grow crops treated with chemicals subsidized with our tax dollars?)

    Most importantly, many of the affluent forget that the Natives of this country still own the land and resources according to International Treaty rights, and at some point, maybe the new european culture will remember to listen to what has always been said here- we need to provide for the next seven generations. There is a Cree prophecy directly related to this aptly titled”Affluenza”:
    Only after the last tree has been cut down,
    Only after the last river has been poisoned,
    Only after the last fish has been caught,
    Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

    Thank you for my moment on the soapbox, as I remembered the vast wealth of my “poor” childhood. I would trade all of todays “wealth” and city living to have our clean air and water back.

    tahira  |  August 1st, 2008 at 10:35 pm

  • I have three comments for you after reading this blog.

    1. I like that you brought up the fact that you grew up in Soviet Union and were taught hard work and “that nobody in my family ever feels entitled.” I think this is key to being a high achiever is taking advantage of the opportunity rather then feeling entitled. I plan to teach this to my children.
    2. Many of your blogs are about the things you read. Yet I think there was one blog where you wrote that being a mom is making you boring because before children you were an avid reader. Well your blogs tell me that you are still a heavy duty reader. So I guess not too boring after all.
    3. I certainly don’t buy a lot of toys and unnecessary items for my children. I lived more comfortably before having a second child and before gas prices sky rocketed and I feel like I am going backwards. So I make it a priority to save for retirement and college and other investments rather then spend ridiculous amount of money on toys and other stuff.

    Vera Babayeva  |  August 1st, 2008 at 11:36 pm

  • I really liked your piece. It is always eye-opening (albeit somewhat sad) when people who were not born into our affluent society appreciate it, yet recognize the pitfalls more clearly then those of us who were. Congratulations on realizing there is a balance between success and acquisitiveness! It is interesting to see how people’s lives are changing due to recent economic downturns. Maybe the one good thing to come of it will be a raised consciousness to the fact that the old adage is true…money truly can’t buy happiness.

    Maureen Thomas  |  August 2nd, 2008 at 8:17 am

  • Nataly, this is a subject I can really identify with. It seems that the children who get every little thing that their heart’s desire learn to appreciate nothing. I’ve witnessed this in kids whose parents and family shower them with things (and it really scares me as a parent).

    Our son has learned the value of things and is delighted with even the smallest gift he receives. He also collects leaves, rocks and other “free” things. Bottle caps, you name it. I have to thoroughly check all of his pants pockets when doing laundry.

    We as parents need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of giving gifts to our children as a way of appeasing our guilt for working and not spending enough time with them. What we need to do is spend more time outdoors doing “free stuff” and get them on their bikes and so forth. We need to have our children donate their own money (allowance maybe) to those less fortunate. We need to let them know that there’s a big world out there with people who are less fortunate; kids who may not own even one toy.

    There’s nothing worse than a spoiled child who grows up to be a spoiled, self-centered adult.

    JC  |  August 2nd, 2008 at 4:14 pm

  • I was raised pretty much as your daughter was — by parents who grew up poor, but were now comfortable and never very worried about money but also not extravagant.

    I still managed to learn to work hard, to be grateful for the advantages I was given, and to feel obligated to use those advantages to help others.

    As long as your values are right (and it sounds like they are) I think your daughter will be fine.

    Emily  |  August 6th, 2008 at 6:27 pm