They’re dreaming of a pricey new iPhone for the holidays. You want to pay the mortgage. How to talk to teens about the cost of the gifts they want.
By Steven Schlozman
When I was 15, the total cost of all my prized possessions didn’t cross $500. That’s including some really great vinyl albums, a better than average stereo system, and a not very good pre-owned electric guitar.
As we head into the holiday season, this kind of mildly annoying nostalgia is a good place to start for parents who are trying to get their minds around the cost of the stuff on their kids’ wish lists. You could easily lay out more than $500 before you finish your first purchase.
Best Holiday Gifts for Teens
Where will this madness end? That’s what anyone with teens is wondering. That new iPhone costs a thousand bucks. How do we teach our kids about the value of a dollar if a lot of the stuff they own and want costs more than we earned over the course of three or four teenage summer jobs?
If you’re struggling with conflicting feelings about consumerism during the gift-giving season, here are a few things to keep in mind:
The things kids want just plain cost more.
Teens aren’t spoiled or ungrateful when they request these “big ticket” items. To them, these items aren’t really big tickets. Remember, the teen brain is particularly susceptible to savvy advertising. Remember that great movie A Christmas Story? All Ralphie wanted was a Red Ryder BB gun. Which is a heck of a lot cheaper than an iPad.
Your kids’ friends already own pricey things.
This is regardless of socio-economic status. Without question, technology is driving this phenomenon. According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of adolescents have access to a smartphone. Many of them also have computers, video games, expensive headphones, and virtual reality headsets. If we draw a hard line, we risk being out of step with the prevailing culture.
Not all devices are useless gadgets.
Sure, these toys provide speedy and constant access to the daily social dramas that are central to adolescent development. But computer applications and programs are also increasingly necessary for school work and other required activities. These devices are integrated into our society. We won’t get anywhere by dealing in absolute refusals.
Negotiation is essential.
Some of us worry that the way our parents set limits is no longer effective with today’s generation. That might be true. A “no” is likely to be met with substantially more objections than we gave our own parents. That’s not necessarily bad. Research shows that shared autonomy in decision-making leads to a healthier, less angry parent-teen relationship.
Explain your reasoning.
Some parents will buy more for their kids than others. Some will make their kids share in the costs. Some parents will simply draw the line and say no. These are all reasonable responses, as long as you help your teen to appreciate the reasons behind the responses. Your teens might not seem like they’re listening, but they are. Talk to them like adults. That’s what they crave more than anything.
What’s the takeaway?
How and when to get this stuff is a collaborative decision. That’s actually the best way to teach your teen about cost and value. Show them the numbers. Help them understand the responsibility and the finances behind these acquisitions. That will help to prepare them for the purchases they make on their own when they don’t have you guarding the credit cards. That’s the best gift you can give them, even if they don’t thank you until they’ve got kids of their own.
Dr. Steven Schlozman is associate director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.