When Kids Keep Asking For More And More Material Possessions

Thoughts on Demands, Giving In, and Drawing the Line

In hearing a lot of parents discuss the material possessions their kids would like to have, I've noticed that parents for whom buying anything is a struggle often describe all their children's "wish lists" as "demands". Then, too, there are parents who can comfortably afford to accommodate a reasonable wish list, but who, themselves, were raised with little; and who, as a result, have grown up believing, "Kids don't need all that stuff."

On the other hand, there are kids who actually are demanding of their parents - and the fact that they are, indeed, spoiled and demanding should actually be the larger concern. In the case of truly spoiled, demanding, children the more important question is not, "When should I draw the line?" but is, instead, "How do parents create such a demanding child?"

How much stuff a child has, and how spoiled he is, are two completely separate things. There are traits of a spoiled child. One is that he is demanding, in terms of the way he presents his requests for things. He doesn't care about any of his parents' struggles or how hard they work. He just wants the stuff and doesn't understand why he couldn't/shouldn't have what he wants. The spoiled child will demand, whine, and generally demonstrate unpleasantness when he doesn't get what he wants. A spoiled child can't or won't understand other people's concerns. He lacks empathy, and he lacks a willingness to even try to understand. A spoiled child feels entitled.

Spoiled children can be children who have little, or they can be children who an overabundance of stuff. From what I've observed, there are three kinds of spoiled children:

1. Children who feel deprived and who don't generally have at least some of the things their peers have. These are kids who get so tired of always being the one who doesn't have what the other kids have, they may become so sick of feeling like a "have not" they are no longer able to concern themselves with their parents' limited finances or (in their eyes) "unreasonable" refusal to provide at least some things. All they know is that they have acutely felt the pain of not "being like the other kids". They can reach a "frustration tolerance limit", and when they do they're often not capable of seeing beyond their own wish to have something.

Children want to be like their peers. There is a basic need to have a sense of belonging to the group; but, also, some coveted objects are things children view as a measure of how grown up they are. (If all twelve-year-old friends have a cell phone tucked in their backback, the one who doesn't doesn't feel quite as grown up as his peers.)

Parents who realize that any particular, coveted, object is not a necessity in life are, in fact, correct. The irony is that (as shown in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) when people have their physical needs met they will seek to meet the "next higher level" needs, which include a need to feel a sense of belonging. Hierarchy of Needs aside, simply remembering how it feels to be a child and to want to be like the all the other kids can help parents understand why their child wants things.

There are, of course, children from families of limited means who don't become spoiled. The difference between them and those who do may be that the extra challenge of helping a child deal with being a "have not" is one that many people of limited means aren't always skilled at meeting. Teaching understanding and values is easier when children are not deprived and parents are not stressed to their limit.

Then there are child who are from families with a reasonably normal income level, but who have parents who refuse to buy stuff simply because they don't believe it's necessary (and even because they worry about spoiling their children). While it can be difficult for a child from a low-income family to deal with feeling like a "have not", children with parents who don't seem to understand that - within reasonable limits - "man does not live by bread alone", can feel that their parents either don't understand them and their needs or else refuse to try to help them feel better.

These are kids who can come to feel that their "needs" (to feel like the other kids and to have something that's just kind of fun) have been disregarded for "no good reason". Kids who feel this way get to a point where they think, "If they don't care about my needs and wishes, I don't care about theirs." Kids like this can then develop "every man for himself" thinking and begin hurling demands right and left.

2. Children who have comfortable or wealthy parents, and who are given "everything imaginable" - except for a lot of conversation about values, how fortunate they are to be able to have so many things, and about how they need to appreciate what they have.

Without the accompanying talk and teaching of values and appreciation of others' generosity and work, children who have "everything imaginable" can become spoiled. With the right teaching of values, appreciation, and respect for others, children who have all kinds of stuff may not be spoiled at all.

Of course, parents who give their children everything can fail to teach them values and selflessness in varying degrees. Parents who make do a good job of meeting their child's emotional (and not just "superficial, material") needs, but who don't quite manage to teach the right degree of "others awareness", may have children who are "benignly spoiled". In other words, they may be generally nice children who just kind of take for granted that "the whole world has all this stuff".

When parents give children little of themselves and the right teaching, but give bizarre amounts of material things to their child, these kids (like those who have less but feel equally disregarded) can develop that "every man for himself" kind of thinking.

So, how do parents deal with how much to give, what to teach, and how to sort out what is really necessary and what isn't? How - depending on their means and ability to buy things - does any parent find that right middle ground between buying everything and buying nothing? What makes some kids reluctant to ask for anything and others demand everything?

When I was a child my family lived in a working class neighborhood, where many homes were two-families and some were single-family homes. Our home was a single-family home, owned by my parents; and my parents were people who wanted us to "have a childhood". While they made it clear that money was "always an object", they also tried hard to provide us with everything (but within reason). Our family was a generally happy family; and with the exception of my little brother's and my squabbling over nothing, our famiy was peaceful. My parents made it clear that we were adored and treasured, and we, as their children, absolutely adored and treasured them. We knew how hard they tried (and succeeded) to give us what we had; and, as a result, we never asked for anything.

At Christmas and birthday time my mother would have to ask us what we would like to have, and she would talk about how we could have one, big, thing for each occasion. She was always kind of telling us her plans about her schedule for when we would be getting some of the things that "all the other kids had". Like most good parents, she would "find a way" to get the occasional "all important" thing, so that we didn't have to wait too long to have it.

The kids in the neighborhood would always tell us how their parents said we were spoiled. We weren't spoiled. We were loving, respectful, kids who didn't want to ask our parents to spend money on us. We grew up feeling as if we were among the "have's" rather than the "have nots" - and that wasn't just about having stuff. It was about having the best kind of parents and family in the world.

When I had my own children I decided I'd use the same approach as my parents had, but my children came from a higher income family than my siblings and I did. We treasured and adored our children. We expected respect from them and treated them with respect as well. Conversation was often about right and wrong, caring about others, and appreciating what we/they had.

Because they had their solid, loving, nurturing they were nice children. Because they were taught right from wrong and proper behavior, they were well behaved kids. That's not saying they never did anything wrong, but - on the whole - they were nice, well behaved, kids who respected others and cared about others' concerns/needs.

Because they were such nice kids I enjoyed buying them all kinds of stuff; but I was careful, too, to make sure they knew that I bought stuff when the time was right for me, and that there were times when there would be no buying of anything. On an awful lot of shopping trips I'd let them know that we weren't buying anything other than, maybe, a snack. When we'd set out on a trip where I planned to buy them something I'd tell them ahead of time. Sometimes, too, I'd just order them something from a catalog and surprise them.

Like my parents, I had established with my children that buying is something that is done with plans and structure, and that is based on prioritizing. Like my parents, I let my children know that even in families where the income is fairly high, people work hard for their money; and when parents give to their children it isn't because they have to, but because they want to.

Teaching children the realities of money and prioritizing, without expecting them to shoulder the burdens of our own financial concerns, can lay a foundation that makes the amount of stuff kids get matter less, when it comes to whether or not they're spoiled.

Teaching children that special purchases and surprises come to those who most deserve them is also important.

Letting children know, too, that even if we can't buy what they want right now, we understand that their wish for something is normal and understandable, can let them know we aren't disregarding them, or seeing them as "always wanting something".

Helping them to understand that they need to sort out which things they feel are most important, and helping them decide which things are things that aren't "emergencies" is also important.

If parents can't afford to buy something children can usually understand more if parents express their understanding of how unpleasant it is to have to do without what "the other kids have". It can help to keep in mind that the child who longs for what the other kids have may understand that his parents don't have the money; but understanding that and not feeling like a "have not" are, in fact, two separate issues.

Usually, children who have some of the things that "everyone else has" can understand that they may not be able to have all of the things that "everyone else has". It can more often be the kids who have more than what "everyone else has" or none of what the other kids have who have the most problem when it comes to asking for things.

Sometimes, though, it is parents who need to differentiate between "demands" and "requests" or "expressing wishes". While there are certainly spoiled kids, who have not been taught appreciation, who will demand things; there are also kids who simply ask for the things for which most of the other kids their age ask, who have their request interpreted as a "demand", and who are made to feel as if simply wanting what kids their age want is wanting too much.

When should parents draw the line on how much to give their kids? That could be when what the children want is more than what parents can afford. It could be when children do not behave in a way that earns them a special gift. It could be when a child has just received one item and should take a little time to enjoy getting something new before getting something else.

On the other hand, crossing the line on whether something should be bought is something parents need to do occasionally as well. Once in a while, there's that item that, frivolous as buying it may seem, is particularly important to a child or teen. Sometimes there's just that special bike or electronic game that all the other ten-year-old boys have, and that not having can make a child feel particularly left out. There can be that once-in-a-lifetime new prom dress that a daughter who doesn't deserve to wear hand-me-downs may really want.

As with all spending, it's never a good idea to run up credit card debt or deplete savings accounts wildly. Still, there are those times when the occasional "frivolous" purchase can be an investment in a child's sense of belonging, sense of being a "have", and sureness that when something really matters his parents will find a way to come through for him.

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