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!