Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in eighteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Episode 55

How Do I Keep My Kids Grounded in a Materialistic World?

What should parents do when their kids want to own the same luxury goods that belong to some of their friends and classmates? Dr. Lisa explains how we can respond to requests for expensive gifts, and how that conversation will change depending on a kid's age. Reena asks what parents can do at home to get their kids to see past wealth and craving costly things. Dr. Lisa details how conversations about materialism can open the door to talking about service, savings, and family values.

November 9, 2021 | 23 min

Transcript | How Do I Keep My Kids Grounded in a Materialistic World?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 55: How Do I Keep my Kids Grounded in a Materialistic World?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: Holiday season is coming. I already have the Amazon Catalog circled by two little kids of everything they want.

 

LISA: You get an Amazon catalog?

 

REENA: There’s a catalog. Clearly, Amazon knows me well and our purchasing power and it gives you all the toys that you should be purchasing.

 

LISA: Oh, I really hope they never figure out how to get me a Catalog.

 

REENA: But you know, especially this time of year I think everyone’s struggling, year round, but particularly now, about how you keep your kids grounded. We got this letter: ‘Dear Lisa, I live in an affluent community and raising my teen girl among so much privilege is proving to be tough. It’s normal for my daughter, who’s almost 13, to hear that her friends take expensive trips, have nice stuff, and purchase luxury brand goods. I’m in a constant struggle with her, wanting to buy the expensive things she sees her friends have, and me not agreeing. Since I tell her I won’t spend that money on those things she says she can buy it with the money that she’s earned working and has saved. Although I honor the fact of being able to pay for something she’s worked for, I also disapprove of her spending $500 on sneakers, for example, because of what it represents. Am I going about things the wrong way? If she’s paying for it, should I let her? Please help.’ What do you think this parent should do?

 

LISA: That’s a great letter and a great question, and I think this is a real constant in parenting, especially in wealthy communities where there are kids, and, you know, I’ve seen this, Reena, you’ve seen this, where you’re like, wow. How old is that kid wearing an iWatch? You know it can be surprising at times to see what kids get at young ages and, you know, this parent’s trying to live their values and this kid is surrounded by peers who have really fancy things that make her jealous, and it’s hard. It’s hard. I think the first pass on this is, how old is the kid in this letter again?

 

REENA: Thirteen, almost 13.

 

LISA: Almost 13, okay so the first pass on this is to recognize that 12- and 13-year-old kids are still pretty concrete in their thinking, and so when they feel envy, which everybody feels, I mean you and and I feel, right? You see somebody in a beautiful coat and you’re like, wow that’s gorgeous. I love it. They’re still stuck in a kind of concrete phase around it, like that’s gorgeous. I love it. Why can’t I have it? I want to have it? And they aren’t yet able to do what older kids, and certainly adults will do, which is to say, oh that’s a beautiful item. I feel envy but on the grand scheme, you know, I value this more than that. Or, you know, I might say, I decided to become a psychologist, so I kind of knew when I went into that that I wasn’t going to be buying stuff like that, that  there’s all of this broader, we might call it rationalization but let’s also call it perspective-taking, that becomes available in later ages that is actually not neurologically available to 12- and 13-year-ol who’s like, that’s so lovely. Why does that kid have it? Why can’t I have it? Why are you guys being such scrooges? You know that that is a very standard way that we would expect a 12- to 13-year-old to think, and that will change with time. So, one way to say this is, over time this will get better. In the meantime something that can help, and this can help at a lot of points and development, is to empathize with how helpless that leaves this girl feeling, right? That her peers’ parents are willing to cough up money for stuff that does not feel to this parent entirely appropriate given the age of the children involved, but parents aren’t, and she’s stuck with her parents, and she can’t make them do this, and so a way to say that to a child, I mean a young person, is to say, this is hard. Because I get it that you feel helpless, that they have beautiful things and of course you envy those. That’s what beautiful things make us do sometimes, and you’re stuck with our decision that we’re not going to buy that for you, and you’re helpless in the face of this right now, and that doesn’t feel good, and what you can say is, you know, over time you may have more choices and, you know, this will get into the question of what if the kid’s paying? But you can also say to younger kids, when you’re a grown up, you’ll get to make your own choices about where your money goes and how you spend it, and you won’t feel helpless then, but we understand that our decisions render you helpless for now, and we understand that doesn’t feel good, and yet these are our values, and we’re sticking to them, and sometimes our values may take time for you to understand, and that’s okay with us. We’re still going to stick to them.

 

REENA: So, this part is really struggling. Is it right to let her work for the money and then blow $500, but the parent doesn’t feel good that she’s blowing, like wants her to understand $500 for sneakers is just crazy?

 

LISA: Well, and I mean, Reena, that’s a lot of money for sneakers.

 

REENA: It is. It is.

 

LISA: This does not strike me as an odd response on the part of the parent. So then, of course, I think, I’m like what kind of job does a 12- or 13-year-old have where they can make $500? So, let’s think about where this money might be coming from. So, one place it may be coming from is, you know, maybe this is a kid who is a good babysitter and is, you know, pounding the pavement and making cash and, you know, babysitting money is the best money because you don’t have to pay taxes on it. So, you know she may be accruing money. It’s kind of, you know, I know kids can do this. They can make a lot of cash. So, there may be that this, you know, this young person has saved up 500 bucks. So that’s one possibility. The other possibility is on that, you know how people give gifts to kids, money gifts to kids for savings and things like that?

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: So, that may also be in the kitty here for where this kid feels like she’s got some money to work with, and I think the source of that money and the idea of savings is actually really important to this. So, let’s say the kid is earning all this cash. Like just say for the sake of argument that this kid has our hands on a lot of cash that she brought in. So, one thing I would say, and there’s, you know, a terrific book by Ron Lieber about this, about, you know, how to talk and think with kids about money, and so one thing I would say is if you’re making all this money, that’s not all for spending. Some of it you save, some of it you donate and some of it you can spend. So, if kids are bringing in lots of money, any way that they’re bringing in money, take advantage of that moment to start to articulate values around saving, donating and spending. So, that’s the first place to start, which is that it shouldn’t just be expendable cash, I think. But if the kids earning an earning it, and earning it in what I am imagining is a pretty low paying job for a 12- or 13-year-old, and they are working what is it like 20 or 30 hours to get enough cash, Reena, to buy shoes like that, part of me feels like you know? There might be quite an object lesson in this. You know for a kid to work 30 hours for a pair of shoes that she’s going to outgrow in six months.

 

REENA: Great point.

 

LISA: You might say, in those six months, after the six months or maybe now the kid’s pushing towards 14 and can think about this really developmentally in a different way, was it worth it? Was it worth it? You know it doesn’t have to be the parent has to, you know, win on this. They could let it play out, still with their values in mind, which is, all right, you’re earning the money, this amount is saved, this amount is donated, you continue to accrue cash, you’ve come up with enough cash for the shoes, it took you, months and months to do it, I’m not going to stop you. Let’s talk about how this all feels in the end. I can live with that outcome. The other thing I think parents can do is they can say, and I like this idea a lot often, here’s what I’m willing to spend on shoes for you. If I took you to, you know, Stride Rite, or Nordstrom or wherever people choose to buy their shoes, probably not Stride Rite for a 12- or 13-year-old, but maybe. I would have spent $60, $70. I will give you that, and then if you want different shoes, fancier shoes than that, you’ve got to earn it, and you can’t use every last bit of your earnings toward it. You’re going to split those earnings into these other, you know, kind of pots. So, there’s that. Then there’s the question of saved money, and I don’t know, Reena, it doesn’t sit quite right for me if a kid got cash, you know for birthday gifts or holiday gifts or things like that, for all of that just to become, you know, expendable cash on luxury items. What do you think? Where are you on that? Do your kids have savings? How does this work in your family?

 

REENA: I think savings is hard for like a 9- and 10-year-old to understand because they’re so used to instant gratification, so they don’t get why I need to save that money, and so I struggle with that of getting them, and I’m wondering, you know, what age when you’re laying the foundation of trying to make them not materialistic, but it’s so hard if you do live in a materialistic community where everyone is checking each other out, which so much I remember middle school and high school particularly being about that, who’s got what? When do you lay that foundation and what works in getting through to the kids?

 

LISA: I think as you talk it through, right? And you’re right, I mean it’s hard to make a case for savings, you know, with an 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old. The wish for immediate gratification is really powerful. To me this feels like a place where you lay down some rules around cash gifts or money that was meant for savings. I think it’s worth saying to a kid, we’re going to ask you to keep a savings account. We’re going to put money, this money that’s coming to you for, you know, this that or the other into your savings account, and maybe give a percentage for spending. I think that like continuing to think about money as it can be split, and, you know, sometimes parents, grandparents give money that is meant for savings.

 

REENA: Right. Right.

 

LISA: And so I think that can also shape this a bit and in fact one place, again, now we’re talking money, like teach your kids about money, that’s a really nice time to say, look, here’s why we’re asking you to save this. Let me introduce you to what compound interest is, right?

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: And that, you know, you’ve got 500 bucks here in savings and you are 12. If you don’t touch that, and your grandparents continue to give you $50 every, you know, few years for savings, when you’re thinking about decorating your dorm room, here’s how much cash you will have on hand, and you will be older and we will have a very different conversation about your ability to control this money. So, every one of these conversations about earning and saving, it can feel tense. People often get really tense about money. It can also be like this golden opportunity to help kids better understand how money works, and how we use money to reflect our values as individuals, and so I wouldn’t miss those opportunities if they come your way.

 

REENA: When you talk about sort of the parent’s choice of how they play into all of this, what does the research show? Particularly you know from wealthy communities versus middle class, What have you seen?

 

LISA: Okay, so this is super interesting because this parent who writes to us lives in an affluent community, and it happens that there are people who live in affluent communities, and this can happen for any variety of reasons, but they really don’t align with all of the values around them. You know what the other parents are wearing, what the kids are wearing, you know, how people choose to vacation, and so this tension arises, and when we look at stress in young people around finances, it arrays itself in this completely interesting way, which is kids growing up in affluent communities tend to report higher levels of stress than kids growing up in middle class communities.

 

REENA: Why?

 

LISA: Well, there’s a lot of reasons, and Suniya Luther is the major thinker on this, and she’s done incredibly beautiful work, but one sort of set of reasons that have been teased out is, you know, first of all there is, and it’s exactly what you describe, a kind of powerful keeping up with the Joneses effect, you know? That if everyone around you has nice stuff it can make the parents and the kids feel pressure to have nice stuff. It also often comes with a lot of achievement pressures. You know the sense of, you know, those to whom much is given, much is expected. Also, interestingly, Reena, this isn’t in the letter, but it’s just an interesting point in the research, kids in very affluent communities tend to spend less time with their parents than kids in middle class communities.

 

REENA: Wow. Interesting.

 

LISA: Yeah. You know it is interesting.

 

REENA: How does that, so just not having that parental supervision, or that force, makes a difference?

 

LISA: It does, and there’s a couple explanations for that, and of course, you know, this is not going to describe every family. So, sometimes it’s that to get to that affluent level the parents are working really big demanding jobs, and they’re just not home that much.

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: At other times, at that very affluent level, they have a lot of help.

 

REENA: Yes. Yes.

 

LISA: So there’s other people, hopefully good adults with those kids, but not necessarily the parents themselves. Whereas, in middle class families there’s a lot more hanging out at home together,  and that’s a fundamentally good thing for parents and kids to spend time together. So, this was sort of extraordinary research that was kind of groundbreaking, by Suniya Luthar, showing, you know, being wealthy is not necessarily a psychological benefit to children, and being surrounded by wealth is not necessarily a psychological benefit to children, that there’s a lot in middle class life they can be easier developmentally. Okay, but then this research comes from Eric Dearing and Terese Lund, and it was so dazzling when they figured this out. There’s a third category that has the lowest stress of all. So, if the middle class kids have less stress than the wealthy kids, in some ways, the category with the least stress are affluent families who choose to live in middle class neighborhoods. Isn’t that interesting?

 

REENA: Wow. I never would have thought that. Why is that?

 

LISA: Well, so here’s why. You take away the keeping up with the Joneses effect because you’re living in a middle class neighborhood and so people have more accessible items, and yet you have all of the ease that comes with surplus cash, that when parents are living below their means, well below their means, they’ve got cash, and having cash reduces stress, right? So if you are living at this very, very opulent level, and if it’s stretching you, and then your boiler goes out, now you have financial stress. If you are wealthy and you’re living a middle class existence and your boiler goes out, you fix the boiler.

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: And your kids never know, I mean not that they don’t know, but there’s no sense of like, oh my gosh how are we going to pay for this?

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: And so, truly, Reena, if you really want to reduce kids’’ stress, you live below your means.

 

REENA: Oh my gosh. I’ve never heard this.

 

LISA: I know, right? Isn’t it fascinating?

 

REENA: Transformative in my thinking, oh my gosh.

 

LISA: But it’s tough because a lot of parents who like, but wait, I’ve worked really hard for all this stuff, like why would I not live in a house we can afford or not live in a nicer neighborhood? Because, you know, I only get one ride here too, and I’m really empathetic to that as well.

So, it’s a tension. It’s a real tension in decision making for some parents.

 

REENA: So, going back to this letter, what do you think? In your research, your understanding and the psychology of children, what makes a difference? Because you were saying developmentally sometimes they’re just not ready to get this keeping up with the Joneses lesson in empathy really helps, but I guess for me, like you whether if you have an elementary age kid or high school or college, how do you get this into them to understand the materialistic world and not get sucked into it?

 

LISA: It’s hard, Reena, right? It’s hard, and nice things are nice, likeI I don’t ever want to have us taint a young person’s ability to enjoy something beautiful or something hard-earned.

 

REENA: But he can also be so empty, and I want to, you know, I don’t want them to get sucked into the emptiness of it with just having things and that’s good enough and it’s so easy in our culture for that to happen and happen early on.

 

LISA: It is. Okay, so for me, as I think it through out loud for you, I think the solution is service.

 

REENA: Getting them involved in projects?

 

LISA: Yeah, getting them involved in caring for people who need and, you know, there’s different ways to do this, churches and religious organizations are often good at having ways that kids can engage this, whether it’s, you know, drives or collecting things or making things. I have, you know, good friends whose kids are deeply involved in the work around homelessness in New York, that it has to be experiential. It has to be lived. It has to be felt, and I think the key in this is how it’s done as a family, right? That it’s not, you know, you’re being greedy, your punishment is that you need to work at the soup kitchen. I don’t think that’s going to really get the outcomes we’re looking for. I think the spirit of it should be more, we are ridiculously fortunate. We have everything we need and we actually have more than we need, and so with that comes an obligation to care for others, and this takes you right back to that donating conversation.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And right back into the question of, when we have all of our needs met and more, we turn around and start helping people meet their needs? And then there can be ways, you know, I can understand where parents might be uneasy about having their kids in direct contact, with groups that don’t, you know, may feel overwhelming or unsafe for their kids. I totally get that, but then there can be, you know, where do you want to donate money? What kind of research do you want to do? What causes do you care about? Do you care about animals? Do you care about people? Do you care about the environment? And really I’m talking about philanthropy as a family, and philanthropy is a big word. Giving. Giving. Everyone can and should be giving, and and I think that that may be the best way to counterbalance the consumptive nature of our, you know, certainly our lived environments, the digital environments we’re exposed to, the sales that are, you know, always bombarding us, the beautiful things people around us have, and I think, you know, any kid at any age, you know, once you get over 5 or 6 or 7 easily can be brought into serious conversations about how we share our great good fortune.

 

REENA: That’s great. That’s really great perspective, and I tell you there’s lots of Afghan families arriving all across the country that need help. It might be a great way for kids to see themselves in other children. So many opportunities from feeding the needy, so many things. Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: One of the things that has always struck me in my clinical work is that it really matters how gifts are given, and so if you are going to give your child something, something, you know, kind of conventional or maybe something extra nice, give it with a whole heart. Don’t give it and then wrap it in guilt. Don’t give it and then point out to them how fortunate they are because not everybody gets gifts like this. To me, when I take care of kids that have had that happen clinically, they often feel like they don’t even want it by the time it’s been given in that way, and so what I would say is we want kids to enjoy the gifts they have, and we want to enjoy giving them things. So, if you know you can’t get back with a whole heart, then don’t give it, and if you give it, give it with no strings attached.

 

REENA: Sometimes that’s a great reminder. Such a great reminder. And as we are on the topic of holidays, we are going to have an episode next week talking about difficult relatives. Tis the season, Lisa.

 

LISA: Tis the season.

 

REENA: See you next week.

 

LISA: See you next week.