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Anthony E. Wolf on teens

Set holiday gift limits with your teen Add to ...

"I know that this is going to sound greedy. And I understand how lucky I am that we can afford to get me really nice expensive things. And I do care about poor people.

"But you have to get me the new KPM6 phone as a present. You don't understand, I really have to have it.

"Actually, don't get too upset, but there are two other kind of expensive - actually they're really expensive - presents that I also need. I mean, I really need them."

With the holiday season, the thoughts of teenagers inevitably turn to getting stuff. Lots of stuff. Especially expensive stuff.

"Well, what am I supposed to want, socks?"

It can be stressful and confusing for parents.

"This is supposed to be a time of caring about others. Yet all I see is my child turning into one of those baby birds in the pictures with their mouths wide open just wanting to be fed. All the holidays seem to bring out is their inner greediness. Frankly, it's appalling.

"I worry that if I get them nice presents, I'm just making them even more spoiled and materialistic. And I feel pressured to buy what I'm not sure that we can afford."

When it comes to gifts, there are two big questions parents grapple with over the holidays: Is it a mistake to get them all the gifts that they want? And what can I do to make my teenager less greedy?

First of all, wanting stuff does not make you a bad person. If most of your friends have a nice cellphone, it's normal to feel left out if you don't have one. And if you really want an expensive cellphone and you get it, that doesn't make you a bad person, either. Remember, today's teenagers are being raised in a world that constantly bombards them with images of desirable stuff.

Your job as a parent is to decide what you feel is reasonable and what you can afford. The biggest mistakes you can make here are being pressured into spending significantly more than you're comfortable with (which may hurt your pocketbook) and getting them obscene amounts of expensive stuff (which may spoil them).

A fact about parenting teens is that they are very good at making you feel that if you do not give in to what they want, you will ruin their life.

"You don't understand. What am I supposed to do, not have a KPM6?"

Part of parenting teens is knowing that sometimes saying 'no' is necessary, and doing so does not ruin their lives.

So what can you do to improve their generosity of spirit during the holiday season?

You may be strongly tempted to give the lecture: "You do not understand how fortunate you are. You just take everything for granted. Well, let me tell you one thing. You do not have a clue just how good you have it ... "

The lecture is fine. The points are good. Just do not expect to hear, "Thanks, Dad. Now that you've so forcefully pointed it out, I now see the error of my ways. I can feel my greediness ebbing away and I'm already feeling more charitable. Can I fix you a drink?"

Still, there is a flip side to getting stuff, and the holiday season can be used as a time to emphasize that other side - not so much that the holiday season is a time of giving, but rather the more sobering message that there are many people who are far less fortunate.

How do you do this? By talking about it, and not just during the holiday season. Or even, as some families do, by going out into their community and trying to help those who are less fortunate.

It is a good thing if getting stuff always comes with a little twinge of conscience: "I'm lucky. Not everybody is."

Always getting teenagers lots of very expensive presents might warp their character. Too regularly being intimidated into getting them what you really are not comfortable with might also do this. And there does need to be the accompanying perspective that such are luxuries - not needs - that not all can afford.

But the bottom line is that there's nothing wrong with getting a teenager a $250 cellphone. Giving nice stuff to people whom you love can be a source of real happiness.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

awolf@globeandmail.com

 

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