Life Lessons: Priceless


   Not long ago, my 7-year-old son, Jacob, got a Webkinz dog as a favor at a birthday party.  We were happily ignorant of the meaning of such a toy, a stuffed animal that comes with a code which, when plugged in at the Webkinz website, allows virtual play in an animated world of characters.  We set it up and Jacob had lots of fun with it for about two days.  Webkinz are, apparently, the Cabbage Patch dolls of the young ‘Net set’. 

   Unaware of their popularity, I bit my tongue and allowed Jacob to take the little critter to school the following Monday after warning him that, if it got lost, he’d be out one Webkinz puppy. Jacob is pretty responsible with his belongings, so to me the conversation was really just a reiteration of my own freedom from liability in the matter. But that afternoon when Jacob got off the bus, his face told me things had not gone well. He had taken the toy out in his classroom during snack time and set it down next to him while building it a Lego house. He turned his head, and when he turned back, the chihuahua was gone.  Not only incensed that there was a brazen, 7-year-old thief in his class posing as a friend, I also felt torn. One part of me thought, “This is a good lesson that he’ll remember for a long time,” while another continued the thought with, “But if it doesn’t turn up in a couple of days, I’ll buy him a new one since he’s so upset.” 

   Luckily for me, the little fuzzballs are hard enough to get hold of that I had a few days to think over my plan. If I buy him a new one, I pondered, will he still remember the lesson? What else will he learn? That he needn’t be responsible for his things; that money flows as freely as water in our house; that Mom will always save him from his mistakes; that everything is replaceable. Yikes! I stopped searching for Webkinz and instead told Jacob that if he really wanted a replacement, he’d have to buy it with his own money, which he earns by doing household jobs during the week.

   Today’s young people have an incredible sense of entitlement, even though most parents I know use incentives to get their children to do things they need them to do. When I was a kid, I would earn money by helping with the laundry, dusting the furniture, clearing the table, and taking out the garbage.  But I’m sensing a shift in today’s incentive plans, and it might be a problem for the same reason as my almost replacing a lost Webkinz.  I’m talking about the growing trend of rewarding (read: bribing) our children for things that our own parents would have expected of us without question.

   I recently learned of parents who pay their kids for scoring goals in team sports, finishing all of their vegetables, picking up their toys, and behaving themselves in public.  While this may seem like a valid means to an end — after all, some loose change is nothing to today’s four-dollar-latte generation of parents — it is not the cost that concerns me.  My fear is that these children are not really learning to do their best in sports, eat a healthy diet, or clean up after themselves.  Forget the old saying, “Any job worth doing is worth doing well.”  These kids are learning that “Nothing is worth doing if I’m not getting paid.”  So it’s no wonder why recent polls of teens show that an obsession with material things is growing, and that being rich is more important to young people now than ever before.  Indeed, one poll showed that 80 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in America list ‘getting rich’ as a life goal.  To what do experts attribute such a shift? Parents’ behavior.

   When adjusted for inflation, parents are spending 500 percent more money on kids today than a generation ago, and are slowly teaching them that their very existence entitles them to a multitude of material riches. Most parents are proud that they can give their children more than their own parents were able to give them, but we can’t lose sight of the end our children are being led to by these means.  Like replacing a lost toy to save my son from tears, paying off our kids may buy us some peace and quiet, better report cards or a few extra minutes in the supermarket, but it won’t benefit the kids in the long run. 

   If we let material things replace what our children crave most — our time, our praise, and the resultant earned pride in their actions — they will be materially rich, but with an emptiness inside that they don’t know how to fill, even after they’ve secured that high-paying job and sports car.  Giving our children expectations to rise to, and rewarding them with star sticker charts, an extra story before bed, and even a pat on the back and an old-fashioned “atta boy”, shouldn’t fall by the wayside just because they can.  Earning them through upstanding behavior and hard work will teach our children more about their own abilities, and give them more happiness and personal satisfaction, than a full piggy bank or a new toy ever could. Though worth little on the open market, in the eyes of our children, these rewards are priceless.