Dear Dr. Comer: I am black and a grandmother of four lovely children, ages 4 through 12. I feel that my two sons and daughters-in-law give their children too much. They say that they can afford it and the children should have some of the things they couldn't.
I have noticed that even poor black families try to give their children too much, especially toys at Christmas time. Why? Is it good for the children?
Dear F.B.: The most important thing parents can give children is the kind of time and relationship that will help them grow into socially skillful, competent and responsible adults. A moderate amount of such material things as toys, clothes and vacations isn't harmful if the parents are interacting with their children in a way that develops healthy attitudes.
But there is a limit. In some homes every "nook and cranny" is filled with children's things. In some of these cases, parents have substituted material things for real interest and involvement with their children. Giving children whatever they want can be a way of trying to buy affection, which never really works. It can also be a way of avoiding a painful showdown with a child, of having to say no to excessive wants.
Children are not born knowing how to share, be reasonable and responsile people. They must learn and develop these characteristiccs from the adults around them. Heaping gifts upon children works against development of good character traits. A child who gets whatever he wants can become selfish and may feel that the world owes him something.
Children need to hear that you don't buy something every time you walk into a store. They will say, "mary's mother bought her one!" They need to be told in a kind way that you don't do something just because somebody else does. Parents should explain that they buy useful and fun things when they can afford them, after they have bought all the things they need.
There is a first generation middle-income trap here. Most middle-income blacks are of the first generation.
People who have been very poor often like to prove to themselves and others that they've made it. People who are still poor often try to make up for it with a big day for children on the holidays. Without being fully aware of it, some blacks try to compensate for the race-related problems their children face with material things. While these reactions are very human and understandable, they are not very helpful.
Millions of middle-income Americans are over their heads in debt because they received too many material things as children and think they need them now. Since it is no longer true that a good education will guarantee a well-paying job, such needs are even more troublesome.
Children of middle-income families who become asccustomed to the excessive good life today may discover that they can't afford it tomorrow. Childhood preparation for reasonable spending is more important today than ever before.
Parents and grandparents who grew up with very few material things sometimes have unrealistic ideas about how much is reasonable and what is excessive. And being excessively tight can create as many probelsm as buying too many material things.
The proof is the behavior of children. If they are able to share, handle frustration and disappointment reasonably well, and relate to and have good attitudes toward others, there is little cause for concern.
You might discuss these goals with your sons and daughters-in-law. That way they can be more aware of promoting them as their children enjoy the material things they can afford.