Grandparents Worry That Wealth Will Spoil Their Grandchildren

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My husband and I will soon be first-time grandparents when our daughter delivers twins. We are over-the-moon happy, but we do have a major worry. Both our daughter and her husband are successful bankers and make a lot of money. They have a full-time staff of a driver, a housekeeper and they each have a personal assistant. They plan on hiring two nannies, one for each baby.

We feel the way our daughter and son-in-law live is excessive and just not normal. We get so embarrassed when they send one of their drivers to pick us up at our modest apartment in Queens, where we raised our daughter. We worry that our grandchildren are doomed to being spoiled children who go through life feeling superior, entitled and expect everything to be handed to them. Are we worried over nothing? Should we say anything to our daughter and son-in-law?

Parents typically say they hope their children will be better off than they are. It sounds like your daughter and your son-in-law are successful beyond the highest hopes that you may have had for them. Compared to your financial circumstances their lifestyle may seem “excessive and not normal,” but a more accurate way to describe their situation is to say it is rare (a group comprising 40,000 to 3 million Americans, depending on how you define what it means to be affluent, rich and super rich).

You and your husband need to accept that their lifestyle is now commonplace for them. When they send a chauffeured car to drive pick you up, they are not doing it to embarrass or impress you, but rather, because this is their usual transportation. When you’re about to go somewhere, you think about subway schedules – and that’s your “normal.” Your daughter and son-in-law have a different normal – they’re thinking about how long it’s going to take their driver to get to them. No rights, no wrongs, just a different frame of reference.

Saying “Thank you” is all that is needed when they do nice things for you. When you want to reciprocate their kindness and generosity, you can do so in ways that are fun, special and within your budget, e.g., making them their favorite dinners, putting together a photograph album from an event you did together, hosting them for a Broadway show or trip to a museum. Focus on spending time together. This is something you can also make central in your relationships with your grandchildren. In short, I am suggesting you accept (and enjoy!) your daughter and son-in-law’s decisions and be gracious when they share their good fortune with you. If you want to say anything, tell them how proud you are of them and how much you appreciate all the nice things they do for you.

However, your concerns are warranted when you ask if there are any potential downsides to being a privileged child. For example, author and clinical psychologist Madeline Levine, Ph.D., researched the following question: Which group of children do you think will fare their teen years more easily – children of parents who are financially prosperous, or children of parents who are struggling financially?

Surprisingly and paradoxically, research conducted by Dr. Levine and other experts establishes that children from wealthy and affluent homes are at significantly greater risk of developing serious emotional problems precisely because of their privileged circumstances. That is, teens from affluent, well-educated families are less happy, less confident, and prone to higher rates of depression and suicide attempts than are their less affluent counterparts.

This finding may seem counterintuitive. It would seem that if children are readily given what they want, they will be happy, satisfied, well-adjusted, and have strong self-esteem as they head into and through their teen years. However, this is not always the case. The research indicates that the children of the wealthy and affluent are experiencing disproportionately high levels of emotional problems.

Dr. Levine explains, “Because money and material objects are plentiful in comfortable homes, they often become the default motivator when parents want to change their children’s behavior.” When parents use potential purchases to try to change their kids’ behavior, the results are often disappointing. In fact, many times when a parent promises to buy something the child wants “if you behave,” or “if you do your homework,” this may really mean the parent is frustrated and perhaps feeling that all options have been exhausted, leading to a fallback position: when all else fails, pull out the credit card and head for the mall or do some Internet shopping.

Other related points include the fact that shopping can give kids a false sense of security and control over their lives. A new purchase can create a momentary good feeling, but it is not actually a sustainable way to reduce stress. As soon as the thrill of the purchase wears off, the troublesome feelings of insecurity or inadequacy resurface, only to be replaced by yet another purchase to keep them at bay. And so the unfulfilling cycle of consumerism continues, over and over.

Many parents funding this unfulfilling cycle of consumerism are confused. On the one hand, it makes sense at some level that parents would unconditionally share their good fortune with their children. What good does it do to have money if it isn’t used to bring pleasure and delight – especially for one’s children? On the other hand, many parents find that somehow they never seem to be able to give their children enough. The kids keep asking for and getting more and more, and yet their behavior becomes even more challenging, and in many cases, outright bratty, with an increase in sullen demands. Somehow, in many affluent and wealthy households, the generous use of the credit card, which is supposed to be a problem solver, can be, in fact, a problem creator.

So what might affluent and wealthy parents do to address this issue? The simplest way is through the use of one word: budget. When it is consistently explained that budgeting requires planning and saving, a comment such as the following can become commonplace and accepted: “We did not budget for the new toy you would like, so we need to talk about it and plan ahead for it.” This kind of conversation helps children of all ages deal with disappointment, learn to defer gratification, and most important, it decreases the chances of children developing attitudes of feeling entitled.

Less affluent parents talk about budgets and budgeting out of financial necessity. Affluent and wealthy parents need to talk about budgets with their children out of developmental and emotional necessity, even though money is an abundant resource for them. Children from affluent homes need to appreciate that their fortunate circumstances are attributable to their parents, and that their main job in growing up is to acquire the education and tools to make their own way as adults. This basic understanding is critical in helping reduce the risk that many affluent teenagers face by virtue of being raised in financially secure homes.

Depending on your comfort level, you and your husband might decide to discuss with your daughter and son-in-law the research discussed above. They may have their own concerns about the impact of wealth on their parenting and be open to you sharing what you have learned. At the very least you can make discussions about planning, budgeting and saving a natural part of your relationship with your grandchildren.

Note: To see my summary of Dr. Levine’s eight major findings from her research on preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families, go to: http://www.rancourtparenting.com/4.html.

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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