How To Not Spoil Your Kids This Christmas

Dec 10, 2017
Originally published on December 11, 2017 9:10 am

Holidays mean one thing to many kids: presents. You've probably heard a parent of young children say something along the lines of: "It's all worth it to see their smiling faces."

There is an immediate reward to giving your kids what they want — shrieks of glee. But there is a downside to always saying "yes."

Parents have the conflicting desires of wanting to give their kids everything — but not raising them to be spoiled.

NPR's All Things Considered asked two people who've addressed these competing parental desires for some advice for this time of the year.

Here are some of their tips for parents — for the holidays, but really for any time of the year.

Go for experiences, not objects

"I'm always one that believes in investing in memories and choosing experiences over things," says Richard Watts, author of Entitlemania: How Not to Spoil Your Kids, and What to Do If You Have. "Something to do. Something that was meaningful."

Watts told NPR's Michel Martin that he and his kids will often pass out holiday blankets at homes for the elderly. Sometimes, his kids have even bought the blankets themselves.

Doing charitable work isn't the only option, of course.

Go to a play as a family or go on a hike together, suggests Beth Kobliner, author of Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You're Not). "The joy we get from experiences stays with us longer than the stuff we get," she says. All that new stuff is only new for so long, then it becomes old and you want more stuff.

Be an example

"I think parents need to model the behavior that they're suggesting," Watts says. "So if they're telling kids they can't have [but] Mom and Dad are charging up the credit cards — they have everything they desire. ... Their behavior speaks loudly."

That goes for more than just material objects. It means letting your kids face adversity and not getting mad when things don't go their way. It doesn't take wealth to raise entitled kids, he says.

"We don't have money to spoil them, but we've done everything we possibly could to take away the struggle," says Watts. "So even in our modest way, we made sure that we complained when the kids didn't get a participation trophy. We were there arguing with the teacher on every opportunity. And we model that for the children."

Watts says a new generation of parents now in their 30s grew up without an example for how to act — "and the Internet becomes the source of our example. And the Internet gives us so much overload that we feel we absolutely can't get parenting right."

Kobliner acknowledges that in a era of instant gratification, doing things right can be hard. "This time of year, I remember as a kid waiting to watch It's a Wonderful Life," she says. "It came on once a year, this time of year. And now you can download it whenever you want. I think it's more challenging for parents to teach their kids, and it's more challenging for kids."

Getting to "no"

When it comes to gift-giving and shopping, "Don't be afraid to say 'no,' " Kobliner says. A Duke University study found that kids with parents who gave in to all their demands grew up to be more likely to have "credit card problems," she says.

Avoid the "hedonic treadmill," Kobliner adds. "You keep getting everything you want, whenever you want it, and it becomes meaningless after a while."

Saying "no" and letting your kids struggle makes you feel better as a parent, too, says Watts. The "idea of letting them crash, letting them struggle, letting them feel the results of their own pain" will end up being a relief.

"It lets us stand up and just go, 'Hey, it's OK to let our kids cry once in a while,' " he says.

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And we're thinking you might have hit the stores today or jumped online because it's the holiday gift-giving season. And if you're a parent or grandparent, this might also be the hand-wringing season because this is the time of year when you might be particularly concerned that gifts are given and received in a spirit of gratitude, that brattiness (ph), or dare we say it, a sense of entitlement, does not rear its ugly head.

For more on how to handle this, we called two authors who've been writing about this. Beth Kobliner is the author of "Make Your Kid A Money Genius (Even If You're Not)." And Richard Watts is the author of "Entitlemania: How Not To Spoil Your Kids, And What To Do If You Have." And I started by asking Beth Kobliner - that's really how you pronounce her name - if kids really are more spoiled these days, or is it that they're just really clueless about money because adults don't talk about it?

BETH KOBLINER: I do think it really is about the conversations. Every generation feels that, oh, the younger generation, they're spoiled. And I do think we're in such a pivotal point in time. It seems that everything is a click away, so it's all about instant gratification. And I was thinking about it. At this time of year, I remember as a kid waiting to watch "It's A Wonderful Life." It came on once a year, this time a year. And now, you can download it whenever you want. So I think it's more challenging for parents to teach their kids, and it's more challenging for kids.

MARTIN: So, Beth, your book is divided into sections according to age group. When I was looking at the section around gift-giving, I noticed that you mostly focus in specific ways on kids in the elementary school group. I was wondering why that is about, like, how to gracefully receive gifts and what to do when people give too much and things of that sort.


MARTIN: Why do you focus on that particular age group?

KOBLINER: I think that it's so important. First of all, people think their kids are too young to understand it. And we know from research that by age 3, kids can understand basic money concepts like value and exchange. So that is really a great time - preschool, early elementary school - to start talking to kids. And I think one of the most important things when it comes to gift-giving and shopping and - don't be afraid to say no. A Duke University study found that kids whose parents are constantly giving into their demands, they're more likely, those kids, to have credit card problems down the road.

And I find when I tell parents that, they think, oh, OK. Now I get it. I can say no and know that I'm saying no and it helps my kids. It sort of - I think it's important to educate parents and explain why it is so important to not give your kids everything they want so they don't get on that what they used to call the hedonic treadmill. You keep getting everything you want whenever you want it, and it becomes meaningless after a while.

MARTIN: I used to - they used to call it affluenza when I was, I guess, at the age.

KOBLINER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Richard, do you have a general rule of thumb for gift-giving at this time of year?

RICHARD WATTS: Yes, I think I do, but it's not quantitative. I think it's qualitative. I think that the - you know, I agree with regard to, you know, the kids - you should say no to certain things. But I think generally speaking, the two things that that concern me are, one, I think parents need to model the behavior that they're suggesting. So that if they're telling their kids they can't have it and mom and dad are charging up the credit cards to have everything they desire and don't speak about that, their behavior speaks loudly. And the second part of that is that I'm always one that believes in investing in memories and choosing experiences over things.

MARTIN: Beth, what about you? Do you have some general rule of thumb?

KOBLINER: Right. I mean, I agree that kids do take their cues from us. And it is hard. You know, if you're rushing out to get the latest version of the iPhone and then you tell your kids, well, you can't have that hottest toy, you know, they are very smart. And they get even the subtle clues that we're not really, you know, practicing what we're preaching.

MARTIN: Here's a question from our listeners. A number of people had this question. It came in in different ways, but we've sort of boiled it down into one question, which is how do you teach children the value of charitable giving as compared to saving for themselves and their own future? Richard, do you want to take that first?

WATTS: Yeah. I - that's a really interesting and difficult one because in the world that I see, I do see parents that often leave tremendous foundations and whatnot to their kids and grandkids, only to find out that the kids and grandkids aren't so fired up about giving. They don't see the benefit in that. And I think the reason for that is is that the children really haven't been able to develop their own passion for something.

And it may be very elementary in the very young years, but they have things that they love and that they care about. And I don't know if those would be, you know, stray dogs and rescue dogs or whether that's something at school where they're benefiting people that aren't - don't have the opportunity to have Christmas dinner. But for the kids to participate in things they choose and they develop gives that meaning. And it makes it exciting, rather than a parent saying, I'm going to drag you to my favorite charity. And I'm going to have you give $10 to that charity because I think it's a great idea.

MARTIN: Beth, I'm going to ask you to take this one. Do you have any advice for teaching children on the autism spectrum about financial responsibility and entitlement?

KOBLINER: Right. I'm not a specialist on disabilities, but I have had some personal experience with it. And I do know that including kids regardless of, you know, whatever level of understanding they have, showing that they understand, kids really pick up on what you're doing as a family. You see a person on the street who doesn't have anything, and instead of walking by, explaining, we're going to give that person a little bit.

MARTIN: Richard, another question for you is, what should you do if a child doesn't seem appropriately appreciative of a gift and you suspect that the child is becoming spoiled?

WATTS: Well, I think that always takes the big long look in the mirror. You know, this really is about binding yourself, you know, a great big roll of duct tape and duct tape your self as a parent to the chair and just allow some of these things - instead of trying to placate them all the time, no doesn't need to be explained all the time - never used to be to me. No was no. And I think sometimes, if you take the positive side of inviting and looking at struggle as an opportunity for your child to work through something, I think that that really begins to set the tone for the children in self-discovery.

MARTIN: Richard Watts, author of "Entitlemania: How Not To Spoil Your Kids, And What To Do If You Have," and Beth Kobliner, author of "Make Your Kid A Money Genius (Even If You're Not)." Thank you both so much for speaking with us and Happy Holidays to you both.

KOBLINER: Thank you.

WATTS: You too, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.