All of Life’s Riches

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are relatively well off and can give our kids whatever they want. But how can we be generous without spoiling them rotten?

A: First of all, change your perspective: think in terms of giving them what they need instead of what they want. That said, if by “generous” you mean giving your time and love to your children, there’s no need to limit your generosity. The kids will benefit from spending time with you and your wife (and you will too), whether you’re just hanging out, taking walks, talking, or doing something more structured–none of which needs to cost anything at all.

If, on the other hand, you’re talking about financial or material generosity, be careful about how much money you give or how many big-ticket items you buy for your children. Your intentions may be good, but the results may not be.

Children who get everything they ask for–and even more they haven’t asked for–quickly develop a sense of entitlement and a need for instant gratification. They grow up expecting their every whim to be quickly satisfied and will probably become frustrated and unhappy when all their desires are not immediately met. In other words, you’d be creating demanding little monsters.

There’s also a social component to think about. If your kids’ friends or schoolmates aren’t as well off and don’t have as many material things, your children may find themselves not fitting in, especially if they brag about that new gadget you bought them, or the expensive cruise they went on. That kind of thing breeds resentment and can lead to your kids being ostracized, excluded, and friendless. (In some cases, though, they may acquire “friends” who hang around only so they can have access to whatever generosity your kids may choose to spread around. The net result is the same: no real friends.)

Regardless of your financial situation, I strongly urge you to practice moderation and good sense when it comes to showering your children with material things. It’s far better for them to earn a privilege or a special treat rather than have it handed to them on a silver platter. If they’re too young to have an after-school job but are begging you for a new toy, give them some household duties to perform or other age-appropriate chores so they can work their way toward that reward. If they are old enough for a real job (including babysitting, lawn mowing, tutoring, or anything else that brings in a few bucks), have them earn enough to pay for that new iPod or those concert tickets. Giving them the opportunity to make their own spending money teaches them valuable lessons in work ethics, getting along with others, and following directions–all things that will serve them well as they get older.

I’m also a big believer in doing volunteer work. With the holidays just around the corner, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to volunteer in soup kitchens and other places. But don’t limit it to November and December–people need help year ’round. This will give your children a chance to see first-hand that there are plenty of folks in their community who don’t have enough money for life’s basic necessities–let alone a new, touch-screen phone.

Teach your children about money. Get them involved in managing the money in their 529 college savings plans, have them sit with you while you pay household bills, and have them calculate the interest payments on hypothetical (or real) credit card balances. Again, valuable life lessons.

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