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Outlook: The Season of Buying

Pat Dalton
Clinical Psychologist
Monday, November 29, 2004; 10:00 AM

In the rush up to the holidays, many of us are beset by a problem: what to buy the person who has everything. Pat Dalton, a clinical psychologist who practices in Washington, D.C., says that she is seeing the negative impact of rampant materialism. Parents are exhausted trying to make the money needed to buy, buy, buy; and kids are competing ever more over possessions.

Dalton was online Monday, Nov. 29, at 10 a.m. ET discuss her article, We've Gotta Have It.


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Virginia: What is your opinion of telling kids about Santa Claus? Does it help, or hurt with this materialist mindset you have wrote about in your interesting article?

Pat Dalton: I'd hate to take Santa Claus out of our children's lives, because they need the magic and imagination amid the screen time kids log in today. Parents can keep their wants at a reasonable level by not going overboard on Christmas day with too many gifts.

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Greenbelt, Md.: One additional thing for folks to consider, credit card companies are revving up to hammer you with doubled, even tripled interest rates on your cards:
The Plastic Trap, (New York Times, Nov. 21)

Pat Dalton: That is a good thing to remind people about. It's good to check interest rates on cards with the 800 number, and also have them break down interest charges which are usually an aggregate number.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Hello!
So glad for this discussion. I have two questions:

I just spent nearly half of my holiday weekend making pocketbooks for friends (and they're still not done!) and after looking at the two that are finished, I realize that I could probably spend about $20 for new shiny purses that don't have the "charms" of homemade gifts (odd lining issues, strange hems, etc.). In a world where something less than perfect often ends up forgotten in the back of the closet, should I even bother making things for people anymore?

Also, How do you avoid the perception of appearing "cheap" when in the past you've felt like you've gone way overboard? It seems rude to send out some blanket announcement that you'll be "scaling back" your gift-giving... so how do we get out of the "potlatch" effect of the holiday season?

Many thanks!

Pat Dalton: I think that a gift that someone has made is always lovely, and if it's something you enjoy doing that's even better. Nobody should even apologize for a gift. We should just give what is reasonable, and hope our loved ones will follow suit!

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning, thanks for the chat.

I'm moving to New York this weekend and the expenses related to the move are not a good thing to happen to anyone's budget around the holidays. To combat my shrinking bank account and still allow myself a chance to be "giving" and feel the holiday spirit with my friends and family I'm organizing a volunteer afternoon at an assisted living community. We'll gather together and "give" each other the gift of spending time with people who really need some love and attention over the holidays. For those who live out of town or can't make it I'm making scarves and sending them with warm wishes for the new year.

I've over spent and over-stressed in years past about gift giving and this year I've realized that the materialism isn't worth it. More stuff doesn't mean more love or more comfort.

Thanks. Just wanted to share.

Pat Dalton: Your idea reminds me of a Mormon family I read about who collected clothing and toys for an orphanage in Mexico, and then drove down together in two vans to deliver it. No presents for one another, just one another's prescence. They said it was the best Christmas they ever had--together.

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Washington, D.C.: The criticism that our celebration of Christmas and media portrayals thereof are making our children too materialistic has been around for at least as long as television. Is there anything you're seeing that suggests that the past few years are substantially different than what people have been saying about this for the past half-century? If so, what are the indicia that the 21st century is particularly bad, and what might be causing it?

Pat Dalton: I never know how much to make of trends I notice in my office, or how representative they are of the country at large. I do notice more kids driving their own cars today, and parents, teenagers and faculty putting a great deal of pressure on brighter students to do exceptional work to get into a good college to make lots of money. I don't think the consumerism has gotten better, and it seems to be hurting the best things in life that are actually free.

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Columbia, Md.: Excellent, very timely and pertinent article.

I noted your euphemism (retail anthropology) for the advertising/marketing industry. My question deals with our educators, both in public schools and at universities. Do you see academia's role changing from facilitating a better and healthier society to educating brainwashers (aka retail anthropologists) to learn how to make people feel bad so that victims consume goods and services that create capital for businesses, but lead to an ever more sick society, including -- most unfortunately -- our young children, some who are not yet even school-age?

Pat Dalton: You raise an interesting issue: is making money enough to justify a career, or do we need to look at the results of what we do and their effects on our society and world? As capitalism has gotten more ruthless, the second part seems to be getting lost.

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Monterey, Calif.: Terrific article... so what do we do about it? How do we reach people on this subject? (You need to write a book and get on "Oprah.")

Pat Dalton: My college age son has been telling me to write a book for years. I guess I like free time too much! Probably the best place we can start is in our own lives and what we teach our children and those around us about what we value. Like the quote from Gandi: Be the change you want to see in the world.

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Richmond, Va.: Is it too late for me?

I have two kids ages 12 and 16 who live like millionaires even though our household income is less than $65,000. They have toys they have not even taken out of the packages, cell phones, closets stuffed with clothing that they mostly don't wear, and for my 16-year-old's birthday we bought (borrowed the money is more like it) her a new SUV. Do I get tough now? How do I deal with their certain anger that will result from suddenly cutting back? HELP!

Pat Dalton: The first place I usually advise parents to start is to hash this issue out together without the kids, and make some concrete decisions about what to stop doing. It is very important for parents to unite on this, and it's common that one is more indulgent and one more strict. I'd also talk to the kids about why you are making the changes. And it's probably better not to blindside them with a backlash. You want to enjoy gift giving, on both sides. (Also expect that they give to their parents and to others!)

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Fairfax, Va.: Thank you for the article. It was right on the money... no pun intended. I have had a fairly successful [career] in educational administration and in business and certainly fall in the upper, upper middle class -- and I suffer from the problems of "what to buy" for the family that has it all. My parents and my sibling are in the upper, upper, upper middle class and let all around them know it. Unbelievably it makes me feel sub-par!

On the other hand, when I sit down, my married daughter will sit next to me for a long chat and my college age son still asks for advice. My wife, son and daughter and I spent a great day over the holiday just "hanging out."

While I struggle with the feelings of being inadequate due to my paltry $100,000-plus income and 8 to 4 job with no travel and tiny expense account, your article points out what I believe in my heart, that I and my family are the rich ones.

But I still struggle in my mind. How do I beat this? I truly weighs on me.

Pat Dalton: I think we spend our whole lives addressing the place money occupies in our lives. It is not an easy task. And it's made harder when family and friends use income as a sign of superiority. If you are clear about your priorities and grateful for your own life, it probably won't bother you as much.

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Rockville, Md.: Thank you so much for writing this article!

It seems that a lot of people are in denial of this phenomenon or problem. Do you think this bubble will ever burst? When will we realize the distgustingness of this decadence? Absurd spending and lifestyles are all too celebrated via TV. This is a real problem with our country and I think it extends out to our political behavior. Your thoughts?

Pat Dalton: As a therapist, sometimes I think that the biggest service I can provide is to help people see clearly and without denial what they are doing in their lives. Then they decide whether to change. The first step with this materialism problem is to see it. We have to be less busy to really notice things and reflect on them!

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Indianapolis, Ind.: My money it tight this year so I'm giving homemade cookies. I spend $63 on the ingredients and that should cover the kids of those I would normally give gifts to. Everybody else gets a card.

Pat Dalton: Cookies sound like a great idea. Especially since we live in an age of Oreos!

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Washington, D.C.: I have a niece who I see being utterly spoiled. She is smart and sweet, but already getting all she wants in pre-school. Her father says there's nothing wrong with giving a kid everything as long as it is accompanied by "correct upbringing" and "proper morals."

What do you think?

Pat Dalton: I have a book to recommend: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel. She bases her approach to raising children in the Judeo-Christian ethic, without being preachy or heavy handed. (Actually, she is quite humorous--I recently heard her speak). The bad thing about spoiling children is it can make them entitled and petulant, not grateful and content. It hurts them and actually makes them un-happier.

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Washington, D.C.: Isn't the root of materialism among kids simply the inability or unwillingness of parents to simply say "No?" My parents never had a problem telling me I couldn't have something (and as an only child from an upper-middle class family, it's not like they couldn't have bought it for me, had they been so inclined), and I can't imagine I'll have any problem telling my kids they can't have designer label clothes or a new car. I sympathize with parents, but really folks, try putting your foot down once or twice.

Pat Dalton: You point out one of the biggest problems therapists see in parents today. I think it's rooted in guilt, that parents are responsible for making their children happy at all times. Sometimes kids have to be frustrated to grow up normally. They need to realize at young ages that the world is not going to revolve around them.

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San Leandro, Calif.: Do you think there is any way to get across to young children the idea that consumer products and entertainment are just a means to an end? In other words, that joy and fulfillment are something that come from a full life, and that handy-dandy products or cool tooys are just one small part of that, rather than the ultimate goal? I fear that the consumer cycle will just keep repeating with increasing strength if kids are raised in the current cultural/media climate without parental guidance toward recognizing there's more to life than "whoever has the most toys wins."

Pat Dalton: The kids and families who are the most shopping-susceptible are the ones who don't have time together and strong bonds between them that have nothing to do with spending money and stuff. It's a climate parents create in the home that determines how materialistic a family becomes. And the problem can occur at any income level, although there is more risk in affluent households that are surrounded by materialistic families.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Is there really any evidence that this materialism is getting worse, or just that more people are talking about it to their therapists? As a 33-year-old woman from an upper middle class background, I see the rampant materialism today as "same uh, 'stuff' -- different day." In my view, all the things in the article were just as bad in the 80s as they are today -- parents who equate purchasing power with good parenting, kids variously becoming obsessed with luxury possessions and rebelling against their parents' empty life, etc.

I think that the bigger difference is it used to be more accepted to be forthrightly materialistic -- people were proud of it, and now it's more "sexy" to rail against OTHERS' materialism to make us feel like we are so superior and down-to-earth... it's like: "How terrible, I'd never drive a Mercedes and wear Prada," she says as she drives her 2005 Prius to her $20-a-week yoga class in her $80 yoga pants.

I'm a lawyer with great working hours, a low stress job that I enjoy, and a lot of disposable income. I'm materialistic, and my possessions, expensive vacations, etc., DO make me happy, along with the other things in my life that also make me happy -- my personal relationships, personal satisfaction from my career, donating a substantial percentage of my income to good causes, and volunteering in my community. My frivolous possessions and the money I spend on luxury services and vacations only add to my happiness. I think it's disingenuous to say that materialism is empty or unfulfilling. Some people are never happy with what they have, whether it's possessions, personal relationships, looks and body-type, or career. But don't blame material wealth for that attitude -- it's like they say about guns: money doesn't make people unhappy -- people make themselves unhappy.

Pat Dalton: I agree that it's pretty odious (and unnatural) for people to take their lack of spending and stuff as a sign of virtuousness and superiority to others. It's just another side of the same coin. We are meant to enjoy the things of the world as they come and they go--I heard this in a sermon once. But there is some kind of detachment also that is good to have. Maybe the issue is the balance between self and others. Every person figures this out in his or her own way. I wrote the piece because I think our society as a whole is leaning too much toward self. And the sure sign of it is restlessness and discontent amid plenty.

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Fairfax, Va.: I hope some parents can stand up to the onslaught, because we have a one-year-old granddaughter and are trying, with her parents, to instill reasonable values and expectations. For her birthday we bought a couple of simple, classic (no batteries) toys and a couple of books. She liked the boxes as well as the toys -- more power to her! Why people go out and buy $100 plastic playhouses when they can sling a blanket or some brown paper over a card table and let the kid invent the "house" or "castle" or "fort" is beyond my understanding. Kids have done fine with simple toys and serviceable clothes for hundreds of years, and we hope our grandchild (and any future grandchildren) will be able to do the same! We're not Luddites, by the way; our sons had a computer in the house from the time they were in middle school, and we will support appropriate technology for the grandkids. But we will not give them toys that do the playing for them, or that are merely "tie-ins" to TV shows, movies, and other consumerist schemes.
--- The Grinches

Pat Dalton: You raise an interesting point--that improvising play can be of more benefit than ready-made toys and computer games. It develops children's imagination. There was a piece on this issue yerterday in the NYTimes Week in Review. (I hope I can mention that on the Post website!)

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Charlottesville, Va.: Your article rang true with our family. Over Thanksgiving, I got to spend time with my uncle and his wife and two kids. I hadn't seen them in a year. They used to be workaholics, both of them, and they made good money, but the paper chase seemed to be hurting their family. One child was forced to "escape" to his Gameboy everywhere they went. The other one was getting in emotional trouble and began cutting herself.

They recently moved out of the rat race, their mother only works while they're at school, and their new town is much more relaxed. After seeing them a year later, everyone seems much different, much more laid back and happy. Coupled with therapy, the escape from "the chase" has obviously helped move their family dynamic in a healthy direction.

Pat Dalton: Your uncle and aunt sound like they took a right turn. Did you tell them you notice they are all more relaxed? It can be so good for parents to hear confirmation of changes they've made.

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Delaplane, Va.: While it was an excellent article, I am not sure how you truly help your kids overcome the constant bombardment from their peers. You can tell kids that materialism is fleeting, but when they go to class and see half the other kids with iPods, what are you supposed to do? Many times, this social structure is more dominant in their life than the family structure.

Pat Dalton: This raises the issue Judith Harris wrote about in her book about nurture--that peers have a large effect on kids today. Parents can try to choose areas to live and schools that are more "normal". It's ironic: I'm hearing parents complain that they are sorry that they chose a neighborhood with excellent schools here in the DC metro area because what often comes with the package is more materialism and more pressure!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi there,
I agree with your article. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old. All of their clothes and toys are "hand-me-downs" or from yard sales/eBay.

However, I can see myself in the future wanting to make sure they get the trendy clothes or certain things that their friends have because I remember I didn't have that stuff and always felt "out of it" as a young teen.

How can I reconcile this?

Pat Dalton: I think we can err with our kids by trying to re-do our childhoods by either giving them more or less. It's the love they need, not the stuff. There are many children raised with little materially who are rich kids in every other way. They also benefit from parents with can-do attitudes, that you can do a good life without all the stuff some people expect.

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Washington, D.C.: Just a comment for parents worried about their kids not understanding when they need to cut back: my husband's parents overspent when he and his siblings were teenagers and declared bankruptcy as the kids were reaching college age. The $100K student loans we are paying now are a lot harder to understand in retrospect. My husband would rather not have had a new car when he turned 16, and not be paying over $1,000 a month to pay for an education that his parents had saved for, then had to spend the money to try to save the house. Stop it now. They'll get it.

Pat Dalton: Your comments raise a very important issue, that sometimes children can be burdened in their adult lives by their parents' spending habits. They must feel terrible about it. And it must be hard for your family to carry this responsibility.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you see a connection with this wanton materialism and women working outside the home?

Pat Dalton: Yes. The more disposable income there is, the more families can buy. But there are fiscally responsible families with both parents working, and irresponsible ones with a mom home with time to shop! Probably what drives it is the maturity of the parents, not their working/non-working.

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Rockville, Md.: Thanks for your wonderful article.

I would like to respond to the reader who wrote: "While I struggle with the feelings of being inadequate due to my paltry $100,000-plus income and 8 to 4 job with no travel and tiny expense account, your article points out what I believe in my heart, that I and my family are the rich ones."

I am glad that this person is spending more time with his or her's family and I understand that coming from a rich family may make you feel that $100,000+ is a "paltry" income, but since when is that REALLY a PALTRY income? Many people are making A LOT less (myself included at $41,000.) I think people need to get some perspective.

Pat Dalton: You make a good point: each person has a perspective based on their surroundings re family and friends. It makes me think of the perspective many poor Africans or Asians would have as they see the life of almost anyone in America. We are truly blessed materially, and sometimes too blessed.

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Pat,
Great article. When will these indulgent parents realize they are setting their children up for failure? The teens that have everything under the sun bought for them are the ones that have problems with their finances later. I am a parent of a 17-year-old and I say "no" to buying things all the time. It does not make me feel bad. I know my son will be better off when he gets older if he works for what he has and doesn't get everything he wants. Thanks for letting me make a comment.

Pat Dalton: Kids learn to say no to themselves by being told no. They develop self-discipline in two principal ways: being told no, and seeing their parents tell themselves no. Scott Peck talks about self-discipline as the basis of a productive life. People are truly handicapped in our culture without it.

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Richmond, Va.: I am 39. My father was well off financially. Spent a good amount of time with us. But, he was so cheap and never bought us things to the degree in school we felt "left out" as odd-balls. At what point does becoming anti-materialistic become a problem?

Pat Dalton: You are right--there are serious problems at both ends of the continuum: buying too much, and being Scroogelike. Sometimes people like amassing money more than they like people, like Scrooge. And kids are right to sense something is terribly out of whack. It becomes a form of punitiveness. But this is rarer today than it's opposite.

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Alexandria, Va.: My three nieces (2, 6 and 11) are spoiled. They are swimming in unopened toys and never worn clothes but always want more (or is forced upon them by my sister and mother?). Is there anything I can do to stop them from becoming materialistic adults? Or is it totally up to the parents?

Pat Dalton: I find that most people don't want advice unless they ask for it. I recommended a book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel earlier in today's discussion. Maybe your sister would read it--it's one of the best books on the market re raising kids now. Moderation and common sense are the tones she sets.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm one of the "materialistic" parents that you talk about, a defense lobbyist who supposedly has "too little time" for my children. I give my kids the iPods and $200 sneakers so they can show these things off. If you live like you're successful, you will be successful. Other kids will naturally follow my kids, which helps my kids be leaders. My kids' teachers think twice before they give my kid a B+, or before they cast someone else as the lead in the school play. That's the extra grease I can give my kids so they follow in my footsteps and be just as successful as I am.

Pat Dalton: We probably raise kids who are a lot like us, and value what we value. It would be hard to do it any other way.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: cars

Sometimes it is reasonable to provide wheels for a teenager. One of ours went to a high school far from home, and when two kids had summer jobs in opposite directions from home, cars were pretty much a necessity. But we bought well-used vehicles, with absolutely NO cachet: Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas, etc. (The boys paid the insurance when they were employed.) They did fine, and while the cars protected them in the inevitable accidents that new drivers have, the kids did not have the burden of responsibility for A $30,000 vehicle. IMHO, no teenager should have that responsibility thrust upon him or her.

Pat Dalton: I am really against kids getting their own cars when they get their licenses--they are not experienced enough. We need to re-think whether they are mature enough at 16 to drive today. Kids grow up slower.

I wish I could have answered all the questions. Thanks for your participation.

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