Million Dollar Baby
In a society of excess, spoiled children are no longer the sole province of the upper class. Now, middle class parents are battling the recession, internal doubt, and each other to see who can give their kids the most stuff
There is no room for automobiles in Denise Powers's two-car garage.
Instead, the space is a playland for daughters Kylee, three, and Mekenna, five, complete with wooden playhouse, sandbox, and toys. This playroom, though, is not the only room in the house devoted to the girls' things. Inside, there's another playroom jammed with toys, books, and a ceiling-dusting princess castle.
"Of course I overindulge my children, in every way," says the stay-at-home mom who lives in Cornelius. "From dropping everything to play with them to buying what they want even though I know I can't afford to."
The battle over stuff is playing out across the Charlotte region. It's often a quiet war, one fueled by guilt, competition, and, most of all, money. You see it in the countless playrooms jammed with untouched toys. Or the suburban legend of a one-year-old's triple-layer fondant birthday cake that rivals those being served at the most upscale weddings. It can be heard in the fitting rooms at any mall as you listen to a teen berate her mother into buying her new True Religion jeans. Or seen in the middle-schoolers who wield iPhones like extensions of their arms. Wait a minute -- twelve-year-olds with mobile phones?
In 2010, overindulgence, once relegated to the wealthiest families (think the gaudily glorified My Super Sweet 16 on MTV), is now so firmly part of the middle class it's almost expected. Parents and their children are locked in a dangerous dance of excessive posturing and entitlement that is at times jaw dropping in its scope. In fact, even the recession has had little affect on how much parents give their children.
What often goes overlooked, though, says Denise Hanson, a clinical psychologist at Presbyterian Rehabilitation Center Charlotte, is the effect of overindulgence on parents. "Parents are falling apart from the guilt. Parents who overindulge their kids have this sense that if their children are perfect and appear perfect to the outside world, then [the parents] look perfect, too. They truly see their children as an extension of themselves."
"I call it the happiness trap," says parenting expert Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Without Spoiling. "No parent wakes up and says, ‘I'm going to spoil my kid today.' I don't blame parents; they do their best, but they don't want to do anything that would make the child upset with them."
Parental motivations for overindulging children are as varied as financial statuses: some spoil because they have the funds to support their toddlers' boutique clothing habits. Others give because they want to provide their children with better than what they had growing up. And still others excessively give until they can't or shouldn't because they feel peer pressure to compete, or they don't want their children to not fit in. The subject of what constitutes too much is the new taboo. Very few speak honestly or openly about the volume of material things their children have. And, if they do, it's often in cagy, non-specific terms. "I rarely, if ever, discuss overindulging with my friends," says Rachael Harris, who lives in the University area and is mother to Gabrielle, three, and Jasmine, one.
Though there are numerous studies showing that overindulged children are more depressed, have more behavioral problems as young adults, and have an inflated sense of entitlement, many middle-class parents today continue to give their children too much stuff. It starts simply, with a mission to make a child happy by giving him everything he could ever want or need. The result, though, is often a dysfunctional child who doesn't have the necessary skills to be effective as an adult, which can lead to stress, guilt, depression, denial, and sometimes divorce among parents. "It does increase parents' stress levels," says Hanson. "They eventually become anxious and ultimately depressed because they can't keep up with the everyday demands of what they feel they should be doing or giving their child."
$$$ Simply put, we have more now than ever before. And our lifestyle choices reflect that. The suburbs are jammed with supersize houses. Bonus rooms and sky-high cathedral ceilings are standard. Siblings sharing a bedroom is the exception, not the rule. Median home prices in the United States have quadrupled since the first U.S. Census Bureau survey in 1940 (from $30,600 for a single-family home to $188,400 for a single-family home in Charlotte in 2008).
"We live in a society of plenty," says Rebecca Anderson, mom of Zach, six. "This recession may be the first time for a lot of children to become more aware that bounty and a material lifestyle is not a God-given right."
Anderson and her husband, Mike, are vigilant about what they call "toy creep," but that doesn't lessen her internal conflict about the volume of her son's possessions or the opportunities available to him. The family is planning a trip to Italy to celebrate Rebecca's fortieth birthday. When she was a child, traveling abroad wasn't even on the radar for her middle-class family. "We are all so fortunate. We live in a country with an economy that affords us this very high quality of life," she says. "It's so easy to get lost in all of that. Kids especially."
Anderson and her husband, whom she says is "particularly sensitive to it," approach the overabundance with a dose of pragmatism.
They've applied a marketing strategy to the management of toys: too many choices affect the ability to respond, she says. Toys are taken out of the rotation, often without being missed. Her first-grader has a bedroom full of toys, she says, and another room in the family's South Charlotte home was turned into a playroom when they moved in three years ago. "It was a natural and easy decision to turn that extra room into [Zach's] playroom," Anderson says. "But at some point, I said, ‘My God, my kid has two bedrooms. What's wrong with this picture?' "
For the Hodges family of Concord, the indulging takes on a different configuration. "I like to call it doting," says Rhonda Hodges, wife of Eric and mom to Vicente Turner Jr., nineteen, Christena Hodges, twelve, and Daniel Hodges, nine. "We buy video games and other toys in an attempt to make our home a ‘cool' hangout place for the kids and their friends. I'd rather have them all at my house because we can observe how they interact and get to know their friends better.
"Our oldest has his own car and cellphone and all we ask in return is that he stay in school. We don't want the kids to worry about grown-up things because there's plenty of time for that when they are older."
A 2006 study from Concordia University Chicago found that overindulgence associated with the lack of doing chores, having too many clothes or toys, having too much freedom, and not having or enforcing rules results in young adults who may not be able to handle time management, effective decision making, and the ability to delay gratification. All of which, says Hanson, can create a young adult who has behavior issues, who uses drugs, or who is ill mannered. "It puts the parent in a chronic state of conflict," says Hanson. "When parents overindulge their kids, it soon becomes apparent to them that their child can't meet the demands of everyday life … and ultimately the parents begin to feel like a failure. They feel like they did a disservice to their children."
Some families, though, are aware of the excess, and try to keep the stuff under control by donating unused items to local charities. The Hodgeses schedule regular donations with the Kidney Foundation, where outgrown clothing and unused toys find new life. The Andersons challenge son Zach every few months to sift through his bounty and give to the less fortunate. "He resisted the whole time," Anderson says, "but he turned [those toys] over to the program. Then he raced home to get more toys to give. It is sweet, but how the hell did we get that many toys to begin with?"
$$$ If you want a front-row seat to excess, make the rounds of children's birthday parties. Gone are the days of candles, cake, and pin the tail on the donkey with a few friends. Instead, there are party planners, off-site venues, goodie bags, and so many gifts that it is now considered poor form for the birthday boy or girl to bore the guests with having to watch them being opened.
Cornelius mom Powers has been known to go all out for birthday parties, including baking elaborate cakes and having up to twenty children over for the bedazzling, backyard-consuming events. "Kids go to other parties, and parents think, ‘Gosh, they've got it together. I've got to at least do the same or outdo them, or no one will want to come,' " says Powers. "When my kids have a party, they know there will be fanfare. Everyone wants to come."
Powers, who says she's separated from her husband in part due to her spending on the kids, knows she tends to go overboard. "I am still finding Christmas presents that I bought for them that I forgot about. Part of it is because I had a really crappy childhood. My goal is to make sure my kids are never unhappy."
Hanson has seen families in the situation of overindulging their kids because they feel it's the best way to make them happy. "Your job as a parent is not to make your children happy," explains Hanson. "If they're happy along the way, great. Your job is to teach your children skills so that they can go out in the world, make a living, make a difference. You need to give them lots of love, hold them responsible, put a roof over their head. But if you're doing everything just to make them happy, then you're not functioning in a parental role."
It was a pony in a San Francisco backyard that drove the Sopp family cross-country to Mooresville three years ago. "There was a tent and clowns for literally a baby," says Dave Sopp, relaying what his wife, Kelly, had spotted at a neighbor's house. "Um, why?" The Sopps, parents of son Atticus, nine, were turned off by the over-the-top parenting they saw in San Fran. Parents there were not only willing to pay more than $30,000 for kindergarten, Sopp says; they were so into it that they got on waiting lists before conception. The couple, who left corporate advertising jobs and purposely slowed down their lives with the move, now run WryBaby.com, a boutique baby gear company, from a restored building in Mooresville's historic downtown.
Time spent trying to best others is better used by doing something creative with your child, Sopp says, when it comes to birthday parties and beyond. "Their needs and wants are fairly simple. You know that rule of Christmas? All the toys get forgotten, but the boxes they came in get all the attention?"
The Sopps are turned off by over-the-top parenting.
Sopp's son, Atticus, envisioned a giant robot party one year. The pair stacked up boxes and painted them gray. The partygoers attacked it. "I took a Saturday to spray-paint it, and I made it out of trash, really. It was very impressive, but totally collaborative and it didn't cost anything," he says. "If you can keep a grasp on reality, it doesn't take much to blow them away."
The Harris family was forced to examine spending habits when Rachael and husband, Kevin, were laid off within six weeks of each other while she was pregnant with one-year-old daughter Jasmine. Though both are back working full time, their finances still haven't fully recovered. "My husband and I were both really guilty of buying our first daughter every item of clothing that looked cute," she says. "My children are thankfully very young and have no idea how much things cost. Now I gladly accept hand-me-downs from friends and family. … My children are too young to remember my pre-frugal days, so this is completely normal to them." Harris shops consignment sales for clothing for the girls, bargain shops for "anything and everything."
"Who doesn't like to see their kids happy?" she asks. "Of course I like to see them excited about a new toy. … Our financial picture at this time dictates that we can only buy small indulgences for them," she says, like an occasional treat or toy from the dollar section at Target.
"They are more appreciative of the things they do receive since every request is not automatically met."
For most parents, it's much easier to say yes to a child than it is to say no, says author Nancy Samalin. Children use what she calls the sandpaper technique -- they wear you down -- to get what they want. "I have to remind parents over and over that they have to be the party pooper of their child's life."
$$$ Nowadays competing over who has what isn't just happening among twelve-year-olds on the day after Christmas, but also with parents and neighbors and even in-laws. Denise Powers says the pressure to keep up with the Joneses intensifies if you're a stay-at-home mom. "Our society has this false perception of what a mother is capable of," she says. The bigger-better-best standard is "what you're judged by. If everything is perfect, you're successful."
The stress for your child to have just as much as, if not more than, the neighbor's kid down the street results in a troubled parent who will do nearly anything -- even if it means sacrificing his self-worth -- to stay ahead for the sake of his child's happiness and possibly status.
"Parents who overindulge don't feel a sense of confidence or empowerment in who they are," says Hanson. "They have the ‘empty bucket' syndrome where they constantly have to fill it up with things and events that reflect a particular image. That sense of self becomes empty unless they constantly keep that bucket full."
To make extra cash, Powers often babysits for friends. The money she earns goes directly to things for the girls. "I don't spend money on myself," she says. "I [babysit] so I can spend money. They love pretty clothes from Gymboree and dress-up clothes. The little one will only wear pink."
For now, Hanson doesn't see the overindulgence stopping anytime soon, and therefore parents will continue to bear the repercussions. "If parents knew the level of stress it would cause their own child and themselves down the road, I don't believe they'd overindulge their kids," says Hanson. "They just don't know it's hurting their child and themselves."
Rachel Sutherland is a Charlotte freelance writer.