A valuable lesson
With expensive gifts for every occasion, it's easy to spoil your children these days. But teaching kids the art of appreciation and the value of what they already have is a much better gift to bestow, writes Arlene Harris
Looking at the little girl wearing a mini version of her mother's impeccable outfit, I couldn't help but smile. The pair, who were French, both looked incredibly chic with stylish ensembles and quirky hats placed at a jaunty angle on their heads.
However, while the child's clothes were of the highest standard, her attitude most certainly wasn't.
I happened to be on the same flight as the mother and daughter duo, who, being in first class were boarded early. And while I stood waiting to get to my seat, I gave the young girl a smile and was rewarded with such a disdainful look that I was totally taken aback.
Hardly more than 10 years old, she assessed me from head to toe and obviously found my attire seriously wanting as she ignored my smile and returned to her top-of-the range phone.
Never was it more obvious that money doesn't buy class as this little girl gave the impression of one who already appeared to judge those that didn't quite meet her standards.
Last month TV presenter Kirsty Allsop admitted that when she has the opportunity to fly first class, she ensures that her two sons (Bay, 12 and Oscar, 10) sit in economy seats as she doesn't want them to take luxury for granted.
I can see where she is coming from, but I would sit with my children and either take the opportunity for an upgrade when I was flying solo or have them seated with me but make sure they realised what a treat it was.
We travel a lot as a family and have had some good journeys and some incredibly bad ones. We have stayed in some stunning places but have also had the misfortune to spend time in locations which were seriously below par - and this has ensured that my sons take the rough with the smooth - they really appreciate when things are good, but don't complain when things are bad.
Child and family psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, says experiencing discomfort and not having every wish granted, is a very important part of growing up.
"By indulging your child's every whim they will grow up without learning how to solve their own problems and may lack the skills necessary to successfully negotiate the demands of adulthood," she says. "It can also leave children very dependent upon their parents into young adulthood and they may have a poor sense of boundaries so their behaviour can be very challenging."
Parents who are very well-off might find it difficult to draw the line, particularly if they themselves are used to living the high life, but Joanna, who runs Solamh Parent and Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin, says a grateful attitude can still be instilled.
"It's OK to give your children nice things and a certain lifestyle if you can afford it but also teach them how to show gratitude and value what they have," she advises. "Let them see you giving back to society and helping others less well-off and give them opportunities to do the same. And if you give pocket money, they must be responsible for saving some to work towards buying something they want."
Child psychologist, Peadar Maxwell, agrees but says not every job should be rewarded with cash.
"It's important for parents to teach their child collective responsibility by assigning chores and relating that work to reward," he says. "This teaches skills to do laundry, cook, clean or repair things and promotes future independence.
"Praise their effort and reward it with a hug, kind words or money if appropriate but don't fall into the habit of paying your child for every job they do. While relating pocket money to chores teaches work ethic, it's also important to learn that we all have a role in keeping the household ticking over - sometimes with no more a reward than a 'thank you'."
Helen Cassidy from Glenageary has three sons - Jack (10), Sam (5) and Danny (2) - and ensures they all do their fair share.
"Everyone has jobs, from the youngest putting out the place mats for dinner, to the eldest making the school lunches and emptying the dishwasher," she says. "I believe this improves their concept of what's required to run a household, their organisation skills and their dexterity. It also means they develop a sense of being responsible for themselves.
"Our job as parents is to help our kids to become adaptable, resilient and independent adults - and I'm determined my boys will all be able to cook their own meals and manage their own budgets and timetables by the time they leave the nest."
The mother of three says life is full of disappointments and children need to develop the ability to deal with this from an early age.
"Being resilient allows them to pick themselves up after a disappointment, makes them more empathetic to other people's disappointments and allows them to start thinking of different ways to achieve what they want, thus empowering them a bit," she says. "I'm always telling my kids how lucky they are when they start comparing themselves to other families - whether it's who got what for Christmas, or who gets what treats - they understand our way of life enough now that they don't tend to ask for stuff outside normal parameters."
Peader Maxwell, the Wexford-based expert, says this is an example of positive parenting.
"Learning to wait and to save for things not only teaches the necessary delay in gratification but also the value of things," he says. "Most children will prize something they have bought with their own money more than something given. And receiving without the need to save may lead to unrealistic expectations in the teen years and poor budgeting in early adulthood as they may not have learnt to wait, to estimate the cost and value ratio and how to delay gratification.
"But it's not only rich people who spoil their children. Many middle and lower income parents don't teach the benefit of saving up either. We all need to learn to delay gratification and about the value of money for our own good."
Laura Erskine, head of community for mummypages.ie, says striking the right balance seems to be very difficult for many parents.
"Our mums find giving children what they need and gifting what they want, a very difficult balancing act," she says. "Of course you want to make your children happy but you also want to raise future adults who are appreciative and grateful. Our mums worry about creating an attitude of self-entitlement and how that will serve them in relationships and carving out a career for themselves.
"Children today are generally spoiled when it comes to birthday, Christmas, Communion and Confirmation gifts from their parents, grandparents and Santa Claus. The limit on spending has gradually crept up from gifts worth in the region of €20 to over ten times that. And unfortunately this now seems to be the status quo and it's harder for parents to say no to their children's requests when it seems every other child is receiving similar."
But Laura, who has two children of her own, says she remembers the disappointment of wanting something as a child.
"When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted was a puppy and a bicycle," she recalls. "Year after year I would ask but was told Santa couldn't bring a bicycle because we lived too near a main road and we couldn't have a dog because my sister was allergic to pet hair. I still feel hard done by, even now as an adult.
"So my two children have had bicycles from the time they could stand up as I wanted them to have what I always wanted. But because I pre-empted their request for a bicycle by giving it to them before they asked, they most likely don't appreciate it in quite the same way that I would have as a child."
The mother of two admits to inadvertently spoiling her children - James (9) and Lucy (6) - but says she has good reason.
"James was sick as a child with a brain tumour and thankfully he is well now," she says. "But there was a time where we worried greatly about his prognosis and all we wanted to do was spoil him with trips and extravagant gifts. Then when he had to go back for unpleasant medical procedures, I tried to offset his anxiety with promises of a gift at the end. I know it's probably wrong, but I couldn't help myself - I would have done anything to take his place, but I couldn't, so this was the next best thing.
"Then a few years later when my husband and I separated, I tried to compensate for the upset and hurt we all experienced by striving to make my children happy in any way I could. I have no doubt I was guilty of giving in to gift requests that wouldn't have been entertained in previous years but I was doing my best in a very difficult situation. However, I never gave in to demands for gifts or treats to stop incessant whingeing, tantrums or other bad behaviour. Of course, sometimes giving in can seem a lot easier than saying no, but I knew this would lead to two spoiled brats and I couldn't reward bad behaviour."
The Dublin mum seems to have the right approach and Peadar Maxwell says if any parent is worried that they have crossed the line to the point where their child has unrealistic expectations, it's never too late to set things straight.
"Parents can go back to basics by reinforcing good manners and acknowledging kindness," he says. "They should not debate basic, fair rules or over-explain their budget. Disappointments happen in life and it's perfectly fine to say, 'Sorry I can't buy that' - so stop apologising and move on. Remember, for a lot of your child's achievements a simple 'thank you', a 'well done' or a hug is sufficient."