THE SUMMEROF1995 WILL BE REMEMBERED IN THE ANNALS of Fitzgibbons family history as ground zero in the inter-generational money wars. The sides stacked up like this: two reasonably well-heeled working parents with ancestral roots in the Immigrant Era and the Depression versus two teenage members of the PC, CD, AOL, GMC, MTV, SAT, GAP generation.
The skirmish actually began way before summer. It started in March, when parents everywhere are faced with an annual, if dreaded, rite ot spring-the agonizing and costly process of scheduling 12 weeks of summer activities for their school-aged kids.
Our boys Brendan and Colin are now 13 and 16, the latter’s most significant birthday to date having fallen in early June. 1 had assumed that along with his newfound freedom to drive unencumbered by a bossy adult, Colin would also work.
But that was before I learned that he planned a) to undertake a body-building routine in preparation for varsity football that would require a gym membership, a special diet, boxing lessons, and a personal trainer; b) to attend a special study session for college-bound juniors who aspire to improve their SAT scores, which required five weeks of tutorials for two hours in the middle of the day; and c) to play summer baseball (unofficially required for those intending to play varsity baseball ) every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening from 5 to 9. When would that schedule leave time for a summer job?
Money and Messages
Meanwhile, the total bill for Brendan-basketball camps, water sports camp, lacrosse lessons, outings (to Wet ’N Wild, Fan Fest, Six Flags, the Ballpark in Arlington), weekly video and computer game rentals, calls to Domino’s during the day (that one really gets to me), and, of course, tickets to every post-PG summer movie-was threatening to top four figures.
Suddenly money, specifically bow much should be given, earned, saved, and spent by whom and for what, became a topic that we could no longer ignore.
Though consumption-itis hits families long before they have teenagers, its impact on both kids and adults becomes acute in the adolescent years. A close evaluation of what we were spending on our children, what we were requiring of them (or not), and the messages and values communicated therein raised some troubling issues.
We diagnosed an early case of what has been called afrluenza-an affliction that experts say is spreading as a generation of Haves and Have-Mores screws up their kids by giving them too much-wiping out, in fact, the very notion that one might have “too much.” Hasn’t the notion of reasonable limits been lost by the Park Cities mother whose fifth-grade daughter owns some 65 Barbie dolls? The woman confesses that she once bought Barbie the 15th or Barbie the 34th an outfit from a store on Lovers Lane that makes special couture outfits. In retrospect, she wonders if things got out of hand. “It was something I would have worn myself,” she says. “I can’t believe I spent $165 on a doll’s dress.”
While we’re on the subject of dolls, what else but marketing wizardry can explain the success of the American Girls Collections? Each of the five dolls in the collection comes with a set of books that tells her story. For example, there’s Felicity, whom the catalog describes as a “spunky, spritely Colonial girl.” Felicity stands 18 inches high and costs $144 with the six books. Okay, a bit of a splurge- but there’s more.
Each of the six stories has a theme-Felicity’s School Story, Christmas Story, Summer Story, etc.-and of course Miss Felicity must have a complete set of furniture and clothing to fit with each theme. Imagine her entertaining friends without the tilt-top tea table and chairs ($95) or dashing off a pretend letter to another of the American Girls dolls-Addy, say, or Kirsten-on anything but the Windsor writing chair (S55). And leave us not forget other accou-terments including the riding habit and hat ($24), the tall-post bed ($98), and the $150 clothes press. The complete collection rings up at about $1,100-for one doll.
There’s no end of seductive voices in the stores and on the tube, calling out to little consumers still on training wheels. But if the supply is misguided, the demand is equally at fault. Today’s youth culture comes with dollar signs at every CD rack. Guess hang-tag, and CompuServe bill. And for good reason. According to David Elkind (author of The Hurried Child and Parenting Your Teenager), teens enjoy the largest disposable income of any age group in America. The pressure to keep up with one’s peers is intensified by pervasive and sophisticated marketers (among whom, I confess, I now work) who see teenagers as a lucrative cohort and are skilled at making them want.
And want they do. A summer issue of The Dallas Morning News” fashion section quoted Dallas teenagers on fashion trends. “Shoes have got to cost S100 or I can’t wear them,” said one. “I like Nike because it s popular and something I’ve got to have, ” revealed another. Kids from schools all over town report pressure to buy Nike, wear teal Birkenstocks, carry Dooney & Bourke, drive the latest stud status symbol-the truck-and much, much more.
I overheard a chilling conversation between my younger son and a friend on the way home from a church youth group retreat last June at our house at Cedar Creek Lake. “I think everybody liked the house okay,” Brendan confided, obviously relieved that the ordeal was behind him. “Thank goodness no one asked me why we don’t have Jet Skis.” (This is after my husband and I have missed work to provide 30 kids with 36 hours of water-skiing, tubing, knee-boarding, Ping-Pong, volleyball, basketball, tennis, et al.) “If they had,” Brendan is saying, “I was just going to say we haven’t had time to buy them yet.”
Suddenly this summer, my two seem to have an endless need for what they refer to as “flow” (cash, get it?), With the 16th birthday came a third vehicle, more gas, higher insurance premiums, and alas, a $90 speeding ticket and its companion course in defensive driving. With no structured time at school or work came the unlimited entertainment opportunities detailed above. With erratic schedules came frequent needs for fast food at odd times. Money virtually flew out of my wallet. Even their weekly lawn chores, conceived as an earning opportunity, cost me $25 to $50 a week.
If our household is a combat zone in the battle of the bucks, Dallas has to be one of the major theaters of the war. Despite the tempering of past recessions, we live in what surely is one of the most money-conscious communities in the country. With 17 regional malls and seemingly endless shopping centers, Dallas-Fort Worth ranks number two in the country (just behind Phoenix) for the highest per-capi-ta inventory of retail space. According to adolescent psychologists and a new breed of “wealth counselors” who advise families on how to make affluence a good and not an evil, we need look no further than the mirror for the source of the problem. We the baby boom are the folks who gave consumerism its start in the post-war years, despite having been reared by parents who generally had more sense than to think that life is not complete without Surround Sound.
Indeed, our buy-in to the compulsive consumption now gripping our kids seems to be virtually total, at least to the extent to which we can afford it. I heard a radio commercial recently that went right to the heart of the “I want, therefore I get” ethic. In a kind of hip monotone, a woman drones on about how (I’m paraphrasing here}… “of course my 5-year-old had to have a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Action Figure so we went to the mall and bought the Action Figure and the Action Figure broke an hour after we got home with it so of course we went right out and bought another Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Action Figure but not to worry because our new credit card was just made for inevitable situations like that…”
Money: The Last Taboo
The voice suggested a life-style that more and more of us share. Parents who work long hours are too tired and too guilty to fight the material appetites whetted by their children’s incessant exposure to TV. To make up for the lack of time they’re putting in or simply to keep up with the culture around them, today’s affluent parents are increasingly reluctant to say no. Affluenza, say the experts, is the result. With little understanding of the value of money and the struggle and sacrifice that goes with providing it, how are our kids going to create that same level of prosperity for themselves?
I confess that I had given the subject of kids and money little thought until recently. We had never been too sure about what to do about allowances and car purchases and Nike tennis shoes versus their Payless equivalents. We put our foot down here and there, we required minimal chores, we gave allowances according to a formula Brendan produced from Zillions Magazine, a sort of Consumer Reports for kids. It suggested giving a dollar a week per grade. In the seventh grade, Brendan got $7; as a sophomore, Colin received $10. We supplemented their income on a regular basis and required little accounting from them.
Other than that, money was almost as taboo a topic as sex. From time to time Brendan would ask questions about how much money we made or how much the house cost. We were horrified. We thought he would tell all his friends. As a result, he sees little distinction between what Jason Kidd has and what he should aspire to.
According to Neale S. Godfrey, author of Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children, we should have been leveling with our kids about money a long time ago. Though she cautions against giving kids more than they can handle at too young an age, she urges talking about money often and early in their lives. Godfrey writes that she started her two kids on an allowance when they were 3 and 6. “When children learn that Mommy and Daddy go to the store and buy things with money, then they are ready to learn more about money,” she says.
By the time they’re teenagers they’re ready to earn their own money and manage it wisely, experts say. Despite the fact that 75 percent of teens have some type of job, the subject of teenagers and work has become a divisive one, and not just in our household. Some psychologists warn that today’s jobs, most of which are in the fast food industry, don’t offer kids a satisfying experience and may in fact turn them off to the whole notion of work. Kids who work during the school year often find that their grades suffer, and studies have shown that in schools where lots of students hold jobs, teachers compensate by lowering standards and assigning less work. What’s more, some argue that plenty of “flow” may be even more harmful than a poor report card. Says David Elkind, in Parenting Your Teenager, “It may lead teenagers, unencumbered by adult responsibilities, to engage in a level of consumption that is inconsistent with obligations they will face in the coming years.”
Other experts argue that work is valuable for an intangible reward-self-confidence. I second that. In our negotiated peace this past summer, Colin worked from 8:30 to 12:30 at a tree farm (in between a 6 a.m. run with “Buddy” the trainer and SAT prep class). I saw him gain a maturity that only mastering a new situation among strangers can offer.
A New Approach
NOW THAT HE HAS A LITTLE MONEY IN HIS POCKET HE IS EXPECTED to help subsidize his lifestyle. We are renegotiating allowances according to guidelines in Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees, emphasizing long- and short-term saving, spending wisely, and selling aside a portion of the take for charity or church. Brendan, an impulse buyer and devotee of infomercials (“Mom, I swear the Ab-Flex will help you lose weight in three days and it’s only $75! Of course il works! It’s doctor-tested!”} will have to learn to avoid the emotional lure of new things. Colin hasn’t wanted much until now-but he really wants now that he can drive. His disposable cash is going toward what he calls his “thump fund”-money to buy large and deafening speakers that will make his inherited mini-van “less of a Mom car.”
My conversations with other parents about curbing the materialistic tendencies of their young revealed at least one reliable solution to brand-itis. Several parents told of offering to pay, say, $40 toward a pair of tennis shoes. If the kid has to have a certain Air Whatever, he or she cas fork over the rest. After you get past the fact that tennis shoes for your children are going to cost at least $50 even at a discount store like Payless, that seems a reasonable compromise.
Like every other form of parental discipline, our new approach to money will require consistency of effort. As one friend discovered, making the rules and regulations stick can be painful for parent and child. Ten-year-old Elizabeth had to have a real pair of Birkcnstocks, so her parents insisted that she pay half. After she had pretty much depleted her savings, disaster struck a week later when she lost her retainer at a Mexican restaurant. “We had told her that if she lost it she would be responsible for replacing it,” Elizabeth’s mother says. “So she calls me sobbing from the back of the restaurant, wailing that they won’t let her into the dumpster. It’s hard to listen to your child sobbing, but she had made the decision to part with her savings for a pair of sandals and now she sees the consequence of it.”
If these lessons are tough to learn, they will pale in comparison to waking up one day in the real world with little experience in how to pay for it. There’s an axiom that the third generation is the generation that blows the family fortune, and it’s easy to see why. Being supplied with every creature comfort that money can buy from birth on is a sure ambition-killer. And without ambition, how will our kids compete?
It’s a daunting prospect. But I am armed with new fortitude and hope that we can turn attitudes around at our house. Then Brendan ambles over to my computer table to ask what 1 am writing about. Afraid that he might be uncomfortable at 13 being a subject of this article, I explain the topic and say I hope he doesn’t mind my writing about him.
Without pause he asks, “Arc you getting paid?”
“Yes,” I reply, “and it’s kind of like fun money since I have another job now.”
“Good,” he says. “You can put the money toward Jet Skis.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE PEROTS
How five wealthy families raise their kids right
AGGRESSIVE MARKETING campaigns. Peer pressure. Mommy Guilt. Forces conspire, it seems, to push us toward the cash register, outfitting our kids with the newest, biggest, coolest accouterments. While adopting the principles of Shaker simplicity seems a bit extreme, we do need to draw the line somewhere. We turned to the experts for advice from the trenches.
MARIANNE STAUBACH, mother of five, the youngest of whom leaves for college this fall
“You have to have your priorities straight in your role model as a parent. If, to a parent, things are always important, children pick that up at an early age. It’s not things that matter, but it’s people, relationships, your faith. The children have to see that. If I had to do it all over, I would ban T.V.s altogether.”
KATHERINE WYNNE, mother of 13-year-old Christopher
“I’m a communications person; my biggest message is to talk to your children about anything. Some of Christopher’s questions have really made me wince and squirm but I always answer them analytically. Do your best to be straight with them.
“When situations come up, talk about them. I used to drive a Mercedes, a very old one, and I went to pick up Christopher and one of his friends from school. They got in the car, and the other kid said, ’Oh, cool car!’
Christopher said ’It’s only a Mercedes, it’s not a Ferrari.’ We had a long talk about values after that. I sold the car soon after that and got an American car. Our talk really sped up the process of selling the car.”
ROBERT MURCHISON, father of four, all 7 and under
“We do have an allowance set up-they get a couple of dollars a week. We do not buy our kids toys except on Christmas and their birthdays; if they want to buy a toy, they need to use their allowances.
“Culturally, the legacy that we’re forced to establish is one of materialism when in fact our legacy should be our children. That is how we should look at one another- by what our kids have turned out to be.”
BARBARA CARPENTER KENDRICK.
mother of one boy, 6 “Just be very involved; know their friends. It’s hard for parents who are working, but try to be involved in their school, their activities.
“My son wants something at every store; we prepare before we go into a store and talk about it. If we’re buying a birthday present, I remind him that we’re doing this for his friend. Before the party, I remind him that his friend will be getting a lot of gifts We’re also real involved in our church; it’s a good foundation for him.”
NANCY PEROT MULFORD.
mother of three boys, ages 6, 3, and 1
“I think we need to help our children develop a social conscience at a very early age. Also, let them do extra jobs around the house to earn a toy or game-parents can make a mistake in robbing the child of the opportunity to learn the value of reward after hard work.”