Keeping Up

I recall seeing in a superb documentary entitled “Affluenza” a young black woman who lived in the projects of a large city; she was bothered about the fact that her son had wanted a pair of expensive basketball shoes because his friends all had them. She could barely afford to put food on the table, much less buy expensive shoes for a growing child. But in the end, with help from her sister, she gave in and bought the shoes at considerable sacrifice. The story was echoed in some comments made by a “non-traditional” student in an ethics class I taught years ago. She also wondered aloud “what is a parent to do if her child wants something all the other kids have and she thinks it’s a waste of money?” The amount of peer pressure is immense and parents don’t want to deny things to their children.

I was lucky enough to live in a small town when my sons were growing up where the kids were happy to ride cast-off bikes and wear their older brother or sister’s outgrown clothing. They most assuredly didn’t demand designer clothing or expensive basketball shoes. So in many ways we never had to deal with the sort of peer pressure those kids in the stories felt — or the pressure their parents felt to keep up with their neighbors. But when our sons wanted something we simply couldn’t afford or which we thought was a waste of money we simply said “no.” Our thinking was that this is part of life: it’s a question of building character. It makes the boys better men in the long run. But is this simplistic? Or unfeeling?

Parents decide that the children ought to do without but all their children’s friends are displaying the latest fad and the kids feel left out. The kids can’t understand about priorities — even when it comes to putting food on the table — and the parents don’t want to deprive their children and see them unhappy. As noted above, I have always maintained that the parents should hold the line and simply deny their kids the toys, clothing, or games the other kids enjoy when the parents know it is a waste of money. But the kids I see around me seem to win out in the end nearly every time. A conscientious parent doesn’t want to spoil the child — or spend money on something frivolous that the child will probably toss aside in a few weeks. But at the same time she doesn’t want to see the child unhappy.

I am going to take a page from that stellar blogger newsofthetimes and ask other people what they think about this. I regard it as a real dilemma in parenting and one that I am not sure I “solved” satisfactorily. What about others who have faced it: what did you do? In a way, it is one of life’s little tragic situations — you can’t win for losing. Whatever you do it will be OK from one perspective and wrong from another. I don’t see a simple answer!

Sheldon’s Problem

In one of my favorite episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Laurie Metcalf plays a large role, Sheldon Cooper has had a miserable day because his Mom spends the day with Sheldon’s friends. She would rather do that than go to a lecture with him and listen to him trip-up the Nobel Prize-winning speaker. She tells Sheldon she would rather to go to Hollywood so she can talk to a wax statue of Ronald Reagan and thank him for his service to his country!  At the end of the day Sheldon has caught a cold and lies in bed while his Mom rubs Vaporub onto his chest and sings “Soft Kitty.” Near the end of the scene Sheldon tells his mother that he regrets that he hasn’t been able to spend time with her on this trip. His mother asks, “And whose fault is that?” Sheldon replies, “Yours.” Funny, yes. But also a bit sad. In Shelden’s world it is always the other person’s fault. Increasingly this seems to be the same world we all live in: when things go wrong, it is always someone else’s fault.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of The Country features a heroine, Undine Spragg, who marries Ralph Marvell a man with little money but “Old New York” family connections. The marriage goes terribly wrong because Undine cannot control her spending and, like her parents, her husband can’t say “no.” Undine, like Sheldon, blames her husband: the failed marriage couldn’t possibly be her fault. And that is the problem: Undine is a self-absorbed, spoiled child.  No one has ever denied her anything. And despite the fact that these are fictional characters, they both reflect a common feature of our culture.

We may not have Sheldon’s problem — which would require extensive psychological counselling. But more and more of us have Undine’s problem: we are spoiled rotten and our attention is turned inward. I suspect there is a connection here. I have spoken about the unwillingness of so many of us in this culture to accept responsibility for our actions. The problem is widespread. But while I have never discussed the possible causes, I think there is a definite connection between our increasing preoccupation with ourselves and our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions.

As we become increasingly self-centered and others become reduced to a means toward our personal ends, and those around us (especially our parents and teachers) confirm this preoccupation with self by gratifying our every wish and telling us how wonderful we are, we grow in our sense of entitlement. We are thus subjected to ego enhancement at every turn. As the ego becomes enlarged, and the world becomes our world, it becomes harder and harder to accept the fact that we may have caused the things that go wrong in that world. It simply cannot be our fault: we are too wonderful. It must be someone else’s fault.

Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s Syndrome, which may not be treatable. Undine Spragg is simply a self-absorbed, spoiled brat. But her problem may also be untreatable, since she has reached adulthood and it has developed into a character flaw. These are fictional characters, but they resemble us in important ways; as their condition becomes widespread among the population at large, our society takes on the character of those who comprise it. We are used to seeing people duck responsibility and indulge themselves at others’ expense. A few people complain, but on the whole, it’s what we do. It’s who we are.

In 1810 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend John Langdon in which he spoke of kings; he said, in part, “. . .take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and they [become delusional and self-absorbed].” We are all kings today, with little or no political power, but with more power over the things that affect us directly than even the kings of Jefferson’s day might have had. Let us hope we don’t all turn into Undine Spragg.