This is a guest post from Amy Suardi of Frugal Mama. This is a timely and topical post for me after reading the New Yorker piece a few weeks ago about America’s spoiled children. Amy has some great strategies here – thank you, Amy.
Most American children are being treated like royalty and are treating their parents like serfs. It may sound dramatic, but two-thirds of American parents think their kids are spoiled, according to a poll commissioned by Time and CNN and an eye-opening article by Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker, Spoiled Rotten.
The problem is not just the sheer number of toys, electronics, clothes, sporting equipment, and TVs that kids have; it’s the way they treat their parents. Or is it the way parents treat them? Most of us have first-hand experience of the scenes of American life described in Spoiled Rotten and similar articles where kids manipulate their parents into tying their shoes, cleaning up their toy-littered rooms, and buying them iPads in response to a week-long whine.
If we don’t have any burning conviction or dire need to be the toughy, it’s easier for parents to just do what the kids want. At least for now, anyway. What will happen when they’re young adults, of course, remains to be seen, but sneak peeks are already leaking out. Colleges complain that kids can’t do anything without their parents coaching them via cell phone, and psychotherapists are being funded by lost young adults (or more likely, their parents) who don’t know how to make themselves happy because their happiness was always orchestrated by you-know-who.
As a mother of two sons and two daughters who range in age from two to ten, I am in the thick of this American parenting thing. And I get why unspoiling our kids does not come naturally. Ironically, making kids work takes work. Then again, having self-sufficient, respectful, helpful kids is too good of a thing to come easily.
I can count myself in the one-third of Americans who do not think my kids are spoiled, but I don’t possess any special virtue and I don’t stand on any moral high ground. It was by necessity that we ended up with kids who help me clean the entire house on the weekends, who change diapers and play games with their little brothers, and who don’t have personal electronics, load of toys, or even very much screen time. But it’s by choice that we continue down this road.
How did we do it? Here are three of our strategies:
1. Have goals for your money
Not everyone is living on a tight budget where spending less is a must, not a should. For the first ten years of our marriage, my husband and I grew our family on one salary. We were on a mission to give our kids a comfortable life without going into debt, and that required living simply, being resourceful, and cooperating with our neighbors. It was easy to say no to clothes for myself or even cable TV because we had limits (one salary) and goals (buy a house). Now that we have that house and a bigger salary, our budget has loosened. But to avoid sliding into spending money just because we could, we set new goals: saving for retirement, renovating our house, and building college funds.
Having clear financial goals helps keep us on track — and when we talk to our kids about those goals and how we prioritize spending — it’s easier for all of us to say “no” to little extras that eat away at our bank account and fill our lives with clutter.
2. Start an allowance plan for the kids
When kids have their own money, begging is reduced to almost zero. When my kids were toddlers, I could take them to Target without the store becoming a moral battlefield (besides the one going on in my own mind). Once the kids got how money worked, the peace was over. We now give our kids an allowance every month and any discretionary spending must come out of their allotted amount. “Can I please, please, please have this sparkly, pink pony?” can calmly be countered with, “If you want to spend your own money on it,” and that’s usually the end of that.
Our allowance system has evolved over the years, and now we require our kids to portion it into three categories — spend, share, and save — and record running totals. Our daughters (now 10 and 8) are learning how to manage their money, how saving over time adds up, and how to keep a running tally of what they have available.
3. Adopt a system for household chores
Asking kids to help unload the dishwasher every now and then is not going to work. At least in our house, irregular requests are highly resisted, but a system of assigned tasks leaves little up for debate. We started with each child getting herself ready for school and bed in time. A list of tasks (brushing teeth, packing lunch, straightening up the room) must be completed in the allotted time. An X on the chart is equal to going to bed early that night, whereas smiley faces add up to occasional prizes.
For everyday family needs — like setting the table, straightening up common areas, and entertaining little ones before dinner — kids are assigned days of the week. And on the weekends, when our house cleaning and laundry gets done, my daughters and I divide up all the chores. Cleaning wheels or card-and-pocket charts work great for keeping the system fair and organized.
These systems don’t just happen naturally, of course. In the old days, when manual labor dominated daily life and goods were costly, children were an essential part of the family economy. Nowadays, asking children to help, or saying “no” to something we can easily afford, seems almost quaint. But bringing up children that can take care of themselves, help with the housework, and entertain themselves without grabbing our iPhones is a beautiful thing. And as mother of five and author of The Happiest Mom, Meagan Francis, says, kids need to feel needed in an essential way. Maybe today’s child-centered parents would feel better about setting limits if it were for the child’s good. The cherry on top? It’s good for parents too.