Friday, March 14, 2014

Are Children Spoiled or Just Forced to Rely on Christmas?

If you have been to a family Christmas with any family that has small kids, between the ages of around 7 to 13, you have probably seen this scene. The child excitedly tears into a gift, dreaming of all the exciting bounty that lies inside. Suddenly, he stops, crestfallen. He looks up, tears in his eyes, and whines, "this is the wrong one! This isn't what I wanted!" The parents, deeply embarrassed by their child's behavior, try to settle the situation, apologizing to the deeply offended gift giver, trying to explain to the child that they should be appreciative and thankful. Meanwhile, everyone in the room is thinking that this kid is an ungrateful brat. Perhaps a phrase like "entitled little snot" comes to a few minds.

Is this child and entitled little snot? Or, is this child responding in a very reasonable way to a very poorly thought out economic dynamic?

My education background is economics, and that is what I have my degree in. Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited needs. It studies why people do what they do to get what they want and how an economic system teaches a person to behave.

Let us consider this from an economics perspective. What do you do when you want something? You buy it! If it is too expensive, you may save up for it then buy it. However, let us imagine that you don't have money. I don't mean you are broke. I mean that you do not have access to the concept of money. You can't earn it. You can't save it. You don't have it. (Or if you do have it, it is such a small amount as to be irrelevant.) If you want something, the only way you can get it is to ask someone for it. Sometimes you can ask for something and get it, most of the time, you will not, and the more often you ask, the more negative the reaction you get it.

However, there are two times a year when you are allowed and even encouraged to ask for things you want. These times are Christmas and your birthday. You are asked, nay, hounded for a list of what you desire. This list, you know, will be disseminated to family, friends, friends of family, family of friends. You will get many things on this list.

For a more in depth explanation of
opportunity cost, you can read
this article.
There is a limit, to what you will get. There is a finite number of people who will be buying you gifts, and, it is likely that they are coordinating so that two people do not get the same gift. This brings into play an economic concept called "opportunity cost". Opportunity cost is the highest value alternative option. In other words, if you have $5 in your pocket and get a burger with it, the cost may be $5, but the opportunity cost is the next thing you could have bought with that money.

If you want 10 things and there are 6 people buying gifts, then you will not get 4 things you want. The opportunity cost of the 6 gifts that you get is the 4 gifts that you do not. That's fine, and you understand that you will not get everything on your list, but if you get 6 things from the list, then they all have high value to you and you are happy.

What if one of the items is wrong? What if you asked for a Pathfinder Player's Handbook and you get a D&D Player's Handbook? The item is not what you asked for and it has no value to you at all. One might say, "it was a present, you should still be grateful. After all, it was free." But it wasn't free, was it? It cost you one of your gifts. That D&D book that you didn't want cost you the Pathfinder that you did want. Likewise if one of those six gift givers gives you a pair of socks or a nice sweater. Not only did you not get what you wanted, but one of your precious, highly limited, irreplaceable gift slots is taken up with something that you didn't even want in the first place. That sweater cost you, in terms of opportunity cost, the most exciting of the items on your list that you did not get.

When you get upset about this, are you an ungrateful little brat, or a person who realizes that the next chance to get what you want is 6 months away, and it is entirely likely a similar mistake will be made again, and there is not a damned thing you can do about it?

Many parents limit most gift giving to birthday and holidays, which makes sense from their perspective. Most kids get about $200-$500 of presents for each. What does a 9-year-old need more than $1000 of presents a year for? Indeed... if they are the right presents.

Many parents also do not believe that children should be paid for chores or doing their homework. This makes sense from the perspective that you want a child to understand that there are somethings that need to be done because they are your obligation.

These two very reasonable concepts come together to a very negative result. Either a child only gets gifts for birthday and holiday in which case, the whole "joy of giving" concept is entirely lost on them, since the pressure to ask for an receive the correct things is intense, or a child gets gifts throughout the year, learning that the way to get what he wants to is cajole and bamboozle mom and/or dad to get what he wants. Neither of these systems teach a child what you would want them to learn.

Very nice, but would not trade an
iPhone for it.
We consider gifts to be delightful things because they are either highly thoughtful things we could not get ourselves, such as hand made or unique items, or they are something we like that we could get ourselves. If grandma gave you a handmade sweater, you'd really appreciate the thought that went into it. But, what if getting that sweater meant that you couldn't get that new iPhone. You'd be a bit less appreciative. There is no pressure to receive the right gifts for an adult, under most circumstances. If you don't get what you want, you can just go to the store tomorrow and buy it for yourself. Most children have no such option, and they should, in the same structured and limited form that adults have.

Obviously, you can't just go to the store and buy everything you want. You have limited money. Teaching a child the value of work and money means allowing them to experience that same situation. Telling a child that they cannot have something that they want does not teach them any valuable lesson except that he should learn to settle and do without: a terrible lesson to teach a child. Telling him that he can't have what he wants then eventually caving in and getting it for him is an even more terrible lesson: "if I ask hard enough I can get anything I want."

Instead of "no", the answer should be "here is what you will need to do to earn it." Perhaps a structured system in which chores are assigned a specific value and the child can accrue credit, taking on additional chores to earn additional credit. Yes, I know, adults don't get paid for doing chores, but unless you're going to suggest the kid go work at the factory, there must be some method to transmute work into satisfaction of desires for the child to learn how that process works.

What are the benefits? First, the child learns to associate hard work with getting what he wants. Second, you don't have to figure out what the balance is between privation and spoiling, the economy you create does it for you. Third, you never have to say "no, you can't have it," instead saying "sure you can have it, and this is what you have to do to get it." Fourth, Christmas can be about what it is supposed to be about, instead of it being some kind of high pressure acquisition exercise.

Post Script: adults do get paid for doing chores. They get paid in the value of having a clean house, clean dishes, clean clothes, etc. What's that worth? Ask any cleaning company how much people are willing to pay to have chores done, and you'll see that it does have economic value. The child does not yet recognize the value of the chores, and may not care as much as you do about the benefits of those chores even if he does see the value.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mike!
    We do have a pay-per-chore system, and it seems to work pretty well. Though, right now there is the back-and-forth of 'do you want to feed the cats for 10 cents?' 'no' 'oh well, I guess I'll go feed the cats'
    Your postscript reminded me of a book I saw titled something like "you can afford a cleaning lady, a divorce is way more expensive"