For more than four decades, the American Council on Education and UCLA have together surveyed nearly one quarter of a million entering college freshmen in the United States, asking them to rank their primary life goals. In 1965, 82 percent said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential, while only 42 percent said that earning a good living was essential. In contrast, in 1998, only 35 percent endorsed the finding of meaning as a core goal, while 74 percent ranked being very well-off financially at the top of their list.
In what is termed by psychologists "The American Paradox," researchers have found that while (corrected for inflation) Americans are twice as rich, there has been no corresponding rise in levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. In fact, during the same period of time that real income has doubled in the United States, there has been a doubling of the divorce rate and the rates of adolescent suicide have tripled. In what some mental health experts term "affluenza," the rate of depression in affluent adolescents has increased substantially. It appears that when children are taught to value money instead of more enduring sources of meaning, such as religion, family and friends, their risk for leading empty, unfulfilling lives increases significantly.
While an excessive emphasis on the importance of money risks a focus on superficial materialism, it is also important to teach children about the value of earning money through their own efforts rather than consistently feeling entitled to receive money from their parents for whatever they want or need. There are numerous ways that overindulgence can negatively impact on a child. Not only can possessions come to lose their value, but children are at risk of failing to learn the crucial benefits of self-discipline.
A powerful indicator of this dynamic is the difference many educators observe in the lost and found sections of schools in affluent communities as compared to those in communities that are financially less fortunate. Electronic games, toys and expensive coats worth hundreds of dollars often go unclaimed in the lost and founds of the wealthy schools, while very little of value goes unclaimed in the schools in the less affluent neighborhoods. When possessions are so easily replaced that they have little value to children, we are in danger of producing spoiled and overindulged children.
Psychologists emphasize the crucial importance of teaching children how to learn the connection between effort and reward. When a child demands possessions with no corresponding requirement to earn it, he or she is deprived of learning self-discipline -- a skill that is essential to leading a successful life. The Jewish attitude toward money clearly emphasizes the importance of understanding the value of earning money through one's own efforts rather than receiving it as a gift. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Orlah 1:3) speaks of "nehama d'kesufa," "bread of shame," regarding the psychological discomfort that individuals feel when their basic needs are met without any effort on their part. The Talmud explains that one who eats the food of another is ashamed to look at his benefactor's face.
A corollary of this psychological truth can be found in the words of Rav Kahana: "An individual prefers one portion of his own over nine belonging to his friend" (Bava Metzia 38a). Finally, in an insight that helps explain the high rate of depression in affluent adolescents who have everything handed to them on a silver platter, the Talmud teaches us: "The world looks dark to somebody who depends on the sustenance of others" (Beitzah 32b).
It can be helpful for parents to monitor the content of the conversations that their children are exposed to around the home. How much talking is there about goods and possessions? Is the focus of adult conversation often centered on new construction in the home, the need to buy a better car or computer? If this is the primary focus of parental discussion, then children are more likely to learn to value materialism over more meaningful values.
Help your children learn to distinguish between wants and needs. When planning to buy them gifts for birthdays or Chanukah, help them write wish lists that require that they prioritize what they want -- making clear that they will not get everything that they ask for.
If your child has frequent tantrums when not given what he or she asks for, help him or her (after a calming-down period) to identify the underlying emotion feeding the tantrum. What are the underlying issues? If the child is bored and wants a new toy to combat the boredom, what are other ways of helping tolerate this frustration? If the issue is that friends have this toy, discuss the underlying feelings of social insecurity, etc.
Remember that it is fine to say "No," and fine for your child to be upset. Children learn very valuable, lifelong lessons by being required to deal with the frustration of not getting everything they need or want.