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When Kids Keep Asking For More And More Material Possessions

Updated on October 21, 2013
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

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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    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 6 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      I'm 65, so when I grew up, we didn't have two cars. In fact, the only time that I would go to the store, when I was young was when I was going grocery shopping with my Dad. We used to have a Sears catalog in the house, and I guess my Mom would make purchases that way, and we used to read the catalog! When I was a teenager, and I had earned a few bucks, babysitting, I would walk to the store to buy a few things. Nowadays, the children always go with the parents, so, I believe, the children then get pretty aggressive about getting something.

      Kids don't really need that much.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      gmwilliams, sorry it took me so long to respond here. I missed your comment and one other one among several (and don't really know I did that).

      There was a little girl in my daughter's class, and she came from a family that struggled quite a bit with money. The mother would often say how her own grown sister (who was working to have an easier life) "was trying to someone we're not". That's how she raised her kids too. I really think that thinking like a "have not" doesn't always have anything to do with money and is sometimes, instead, just a matter of mentality.

      Being chronically deprived does, though, seem to take its toll on a lot of kids, I think.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Lisa HW, I read your lovely article. As an only child, my parents give me plenty things which I appreciated. I never exhibited any spoiled behavior. I know of kids who were from large families who were deprived and envious of those from small families who had lots of things. There was one girl from six kids who used to shake down other students for money to buy her toys because her parents were extremely low income. Many children who did not receive anything from their parents often resort to stealing other children's things and belongings. In the 8th grade, I remember this clearly. I was one of the better off students and recently bought a green dress for a fashion show. However, I became sick and the dress was left in school. When I returned to school, I noticed that the dress was slashed. The teacher punished the class except for me and the better off students. The same abovementioned girl admitted to slashing the dress because she could not afford it! It is better to grow up in affluence and this does not cause bratty behavior than to grow up deprived.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Lisa HW, I read your lovely article. As an only child, my parents give me plenty things which I appreciated. I never exhibited any spoiled behavior. I know of kids who were from large families who were deprived and envious of those from small families who had lots of things. There was one girl from six kids who used to shake down other students for money to buy her toys because her parents were extremely low income. Many children who did not receive anything from their parents often resort to stealing other children's things and belongings. In the 8th grade, I remember this clearly. I was one of the better off students and recently bought a green dress for a fashion show. However, I became sick and the dress was left in school. When I returned to school, I noticed that the dress was slashed. The teacher punished the class except for me and the better off students. The same abovementioned girl admitted to slashing the dress because she could not afford it! It is better to grow up in affluence and this does not cause bratty behavior than to grow up deprived.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      izetti, this is only my personal experience and opinion; but I don't think how many toys a child has has anything to do with whether she's spoiled or not. As kids, my siblings and I had a lot of toys, and we were far from spoiled. When I had my own three kids I made sure they had lots of things that would entertain them, educate them, or just make them feel kind of special (like buying my daughter the unnecessary extra dance leotards just because she enjoyed getting a new one; and, to me, deserved to get something nice because she was such a nice little girl). None of my kids were spoiled, and I think it was because I worked hard to help them realize they got things because I wanted to give them something nice or special - not because they were entitled to them. When I was a kid I had to deal with neighborhood kids telling me, "My mother says you and your sister are spoiled." We lived in a working class neighborhood, but it happened we had more toys than a lot of the kids who did without. There wasn't any real reason for it. My parents worked hard to make sure we had stuff. I'm really not making it up that we were awfully grateful, loving, well behaved (generally, of course), kids because our parents expected us to behave well and not be selfish little idiots. Even as a kid, I knew that my siblings and I were nice people and weren't demanding brats; and it really bothered me to have neighborhood kids always bringing up the "too many toys" thing. One reason we had so many toys was we took good care of them from one Christmas to another. Those other kids broke theirs.

      I've seen bratty, envious, and even malicious behavior in kids who are "have nots" when it comes to toys AND when it comes to having parents who don't bother teaching their children to be nice any more than they bother making sure their children don't feel like "have nots".

      I think, when it comes to toys, a few things are important: One is that most of the the toys are toys that help with children's development or learning. That doesn't necessarily mean fancy toys that are marked "educational" (and often aren't). I mean good, solid, skill-building toys; even if that includes the skill of imagination, nurturing, and playing with other children. Something else that I think is important is that children get the occasional thing that makes them feel special. When I was a kid my girlfriend was an only child and had an aunt who brought her to special places and bought her special gifts. My mother wasn't all that big for that kind of thing because there were three of us (and, in spite of all the toys we did have, a limited budget). When I had my own three kids I wanted each of them to have that time with me alone, time somewhere special, and occasional special gift "just for no reason other than to feel special".

      I think having lots and lots of books is also a great way for children to learn the joy of reading and learning and browsing. My thing with my own kids was that a lot of their toys/activities were aimed at getting them interested in different things. (It helped because they are people with lots of interested and were kids who did really well in school.)

      The other kind of activities I think are important (as my parents did) are activities that encourage physical activity - roller skates, ice skates, bikes, jump ropes, sleds, sports equipment, etc. Besides learning "sit down" skills, kids need to learn, and be encouraged, with stuff like riding bikes and skating (partly because it's good for a kid to active and have those skills most other kids have, but also because it helps give them confidence). They won't be "have nots" when it comes to things like "everyone is bike-riding" or "everyone's going swimming in so-and-so pool".

      I may be wrong about this, but I have a feeling the only reason your daughter may start talking about the next toy might be that she just enjoys looking forward to something. Everybody enjoys having something to look forward to and think about.

      As far as when to start talking about what she can have or not have goes, I did that from the time my kids were - like - two. Even if we were going into the grocery store, I'd tell them ahead of time, "OK. We're going to get groceries for dinner, and on the way out you can get some crackers. After that, we'll stop in CVS and see if there's some little toy that doesn't cost more than $3 that we get." If I planned to get them something bigger I might tell something like, "Let's go to Toys R Us and see if we can find a ___________ today. We can't always buy that kind of toy, but I thought today will be a special day because you're starting preschool tomorrow."

      I just kind of talked to them (without making it "all about money all the time") when we'd buy something. ("I wanted to get you this pretty leotard even though you don't really need one, because I just think you're such a good girl you deserve something nice every once in awhile.") I'd talk to them when the conversation wasn't particularly about any toys, and I'd say things like, "When someone gives you a gift it's special, so you take care of things people give you," or "People work hard for their money, so sometimes we can't buy some things. Sometimes we can only buy a little thing. "

      I pretty much think teaching children to respect other people, appreciate what they've been given, respect belongings (as much as their age level permits), and respect other people's stuff and property is about setting an example and just telling them right from wrong, and why. Mentioning things like, "Some little kids' mothers can't buy them something like a Barbie doll when it isn't their birthday, but Daddy and I are lucky because we have good jobs and can buy things right now," is something else I made sure I did with my kids.

      I think, too, when children grow up seeing adults who get joy from giving, they see that there's pleasure in trying to make someone else a little happy for the day. My daughter is grown (just moved out this past weekend, which is why I took so long to answer your comment; and please overlook that I haven't re-read my Hub to prevent any repeat comments here. It's been hectic. :)). A couple of Christmases ago she said, "I'm at the age now where I enjoy giving gifts more than getting them."

      I know I should be careful about talking about "how wonderful" my kids are (and I don't pretend they're perfect or have never done anything they shouldn't). Still, those three young people, who had SO many things as children, are about as far from spoiled as people could be. They're giving, kind, appreciative, respectful, and strong people. I think it's because they (as I did) grew up around adults who were very giving and aimed to make them happy so much of the time, that they just kind of saw that as "how people are". I think, too, it's because people who have parents who tell them right from wrong, expect them to respect other people, and talk about values learn that how much stuff anyone has or doesn't have is a separate thing from how nice someone is.

      I think your little girl will benefit from having activities that help her learn to play by herself and enjoy doing things on her own. Siblings or no siblings, kids need to learn how to do activities on their own.

    • izettl profile image

      Laura Irwin 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Great advice. My daughter doesn't have desires for what other kids have nor does she have the concept of money yet. She doesn't "demand", but I know things in early childhood (she is 3) can lead to demanding spoiled kids later. It certainly begins before they're older kids so when is the best time to teach them the values of getting stuff? I noticed she doesn't talk about toys she wants until we get her a toy, then she starts talking about another toy she wants. The getting spurs on her wanting more. What is unacceptable behavior over material possessions in younger kids? What about grandparents who get the kids things you wouldn't have?

      Also, I know this sounds odd but as an only child, I had a lot of toys to entertain me and I never thought I was spoiled. My daughter is an only child and so I wonder if it is rightin thinking she needs a good amount of toys. There are no siblings to entertain her or keep her busy and my husband and I can't do it all the time.