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Ask the Expert: My Teen Wants What His Friends Have. Do I Have to Buy It for Him?

Dear Your Teen:

Are there negative consequences to buying expensive gifts for your children? I was raised during the 1970s and my parents didn’t always get me what I wanted. Sometimes I was envious of my friends, but now understand they were freeing me from that compulsion to “keep up with the Jones.” I appreciate that life lesson today. I don’t feel compelled to be showy or have the latest gadgets.

Things seem a bit different today. I am told there are a lot of 10-year-olds running around with iPhones. So if my 12-year-old wants an iPad mini for his birthday, should I just go ahead and buy it? Is spending $300 to $500 on your child’s birthday frivolous? Or can I spend the money without worrying that I am somehow sending my tween the wrong message.

ANSWER | Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

There are indeed many tweens with iPhones and iPads these days. However, that doesn’t mean that you should feel obliged to give one to your own child. Many parents do not realize that gift giving is, in part, what shapes children’s values. As we look beyond the external act of giving gifts, the research on child and adolescent development tells us that the message behind gifts also resonates inside kids.

For example, when you give a child a gift because “everyone else has it,” how does the child internalize this message? Usually, it means they’ve discovered a method of getting what they want by using a pretty lame argument.

None of us can possibly afford or obtain all the material things that everyone else has.

When we give in to these kinds of demands, we encourage our kids to envy others or to feel entitled.

Every family has different financial resources. If you normally spend $300-$500 on a birthday gift for your child and you believe your child would benefit from an iPhone or iPad, then it’s a decision you will need to make. But if you normally spend much less on your child, then this might be a time to teach the value of hard work.

Perhaps you put half of the money toward a digital device for a birthday gift. Co-create a plan where they will earn the remainder. The upfront money goes into a savings account, and you help your child plan a strategy for earning. Then your child purchases the gift when the money has been earned. With this scenario, you are not only giving a birthday gift, but you are teaching values and skills that will be used over and over again.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and Fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University. She studies how youth become engaged with meaningful goals and blogs on positive youth development at Roots of Action and Psychology Today

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