Moms: How Much Is Too Much For Holiday Gifts?

In Tell Me More's regular parenting segment last week, Host Michel Martin asked a panel of moms how much is too much to spend on children's holiday gifts. This week, mothers discuss raising kids who are thoughtful and grateful, especially around the holidays. Weighing in are moms Jolene Ivey, Aracely Panameno and Bassey Ikpi. Also joining the discussion is Sheri Moskowitz Noga, a psychotherapist and author of the book, "Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence".

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And Christmas is, what, four days away? And if you're like many parents you're probably still scrambling for that last minute gift to put under the tree or in the stocking. Last week we talked about the question of whether to go broke buying the must-have gadgets our children say they can't live without. But one of our moms, Leslie Morgan Steiner, said the issue is about more than just money.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author, Blogger, Businesswoman): I think that the other part of going broke can be sort of a spiritual going broke or being so focused on yourself. And my eight-year-old would really like to get a cell phone for Christmas. My 12-year-old would really like to get a really fancy iPhone. Neither one of those are going to get those.

But when they ask about it, I kind of let a silence fall and then I look at them and I say, and what are you getting mommy for Christmas? Because I pretty much guarantee you they have not thought for one second what they're getting mommy. And that really stops the conversation.

MARTIN: And that conversation got us to thinking, how do we make sure that we are raising thoughtful, grateful kids? Particularly those who are thoughtful and grateful during the holiday season.

So, to talk about that, our panel of moms, Jolene Ivey, mother of five and the cofounder of a parenting support group called the Mocha Moms. She's also a state legislator. Aracely Panameno is the mother of an adult daughter. And Bassey Ikpi is a poet and the mother of a four-year-old son. And also with us, Sheri Moskowitz Noga. She's a psychotherapist and author of the book "Have the Guts to Do it Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence." And she joins us from member station WDET in Detroit. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Representative JOLENE IVEY (Democrat, Maryland; Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.

Ms. ARACELY PANAMENO (Director of Latino Affairs, Center for Responsible Lending): Thanks.

Ms. BASSEY IKPI (Poet): Thank you, Michel.

Ms. SHERI MOSKOWITZ NOGA (Psychotherapist, Author): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Sheri, I'm going to start with you because you opened your book with some very vivid anecdotes. And I would like to, you know, ask, you know, maybe a generation ago, do you think this whole question of having an attitude of gratitude is a bigger problem now than it perhaps was in the past?

Ms. NOGA: It's a bigger problem now precisely because of the kinds of issues that you were talking about on the show last week. I mean, when I was a kid, I really don't know anybody who got a $400 gift for Christmas or Hanukkah or for anything else. And so kids are getting much, much more and parents are feeling pressured to give much, much more.

And there's also the whole cultural milieu where children are acting increasingly entitled. And the parents see everyone around them having entitled kids and think that they're supposed to be raising entitled children.

MARTIN: Let me just ask Jolene this. Jolene, one of the reasons I'm starting with you is because you have five kids, they run across a range of ages, the oldest being in college.

Rep. IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And the youngest being

Rep. IVEY: In fifth grade.

MARTIN: In fifth grade. So I'm curious to know whether you think over time you've had a bigger challenge of just maintaining an attitude of gratitude.

Rep. IVEY: Well, in some ways I think the younger ones might be easier or more evolved in that way because I became more evolved. I think that my oldest child, we probably did indulge him more because he was our first. And now that we have five, who can indulge the fifth one? Which there just isn't enough to go around.

MARTIN: Aracely, what about you? You have one child, but you also come from an immigrant background and you've talked in the past about how sometimes the cultures clash. Talk to me about that. Do you think that this is a problem?

Ms. PANAMENO: Definitely today it is. And what I tried to teach my daughter was that she was very much loved, but she was not the center of the universe. When I was growing up, my fondest memories of Christmas was the fact that we lived in a community in El Salvador and my mom would cook and made bread for the children that didn't have. We would have horchata, bread and pinatas that would be broken outside on the street. You know, they would be hung up on the light post right in front of our house.

And so it wasn't about sitting around a Christmas tree with expensive gifts or how many gifts I can get. It was about, you know, that memory of community and sharing with others and laughter. And so I tried to pass that along to my daughter.

MARTIN: Was it harder here? Did you find it harder in this country?

Ms. PANAMENO: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Because there was much more to have, or what?

Ms. PANAMENO: Well, developing a sense of community. I think that there are so many challenges. So one of the things that compelled to me about the topic is, for example, I think that many of our parents are challenged and we have two working parents at home, or a single mother like myself, who has to work outside of the home and juggle a whole bunch of responsibilities.

And so perhaps we don't have as much time with our kids. And so out of a sense of guilt, we try to give our kids more than we ever received or more than they should have.

MARTIN: Or maybe you just want to give your kids more than you had 'cause you didn't have a lot and that's one of the reasons - that was a motivator for you, perhaps to be successful. Could be.

Ms. PANAMENO: But I think that every parent's dream is to precisely provide more and to make life easier for our kids than we ever had it. But at the same time I think that we are challenged to provide a balance. And so being a part of our community, being part of an extended family, church, et cetera, very important.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? What have you observed? I don't remember whether you were born here or born overseas.

Ms. STEINER: I was born in Nigeria.

MARTIN: You were born in Nigeria. And, also, you're the youngest, I'll just simply say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you think? 'Cause I know every generation says that the next generation is spoiled. But what do you think?

Ms. STEINER: Well, what's interesting hearing the other moms speak is that when I was growing up, I was an only child for six years and then my sister happened and blew that out of the water. But my parents were in grad school so I was left alone a lot. They were studying or, you know, I had to sit in the office with them when they were working and all these different things.

So I made a conscious decision, when I decided to have my son, that he would have community around him. He would never feel alone. So we moved from Brooklyn, where it was just he and I in a one-bedroom apartment to back home with my parents, where my brothers are, and my mom and my sister comes home every day and my dad. And so he has a sense of community. My friends, you know, they're all aunties to him. So he's such a grateful child.

And I think it has a lot to do with how he observes. I live by the philosophy, the attitude of gratitude. I'm grateful for everything. And he's picked that up. Like, the other day, he was, like, thank you for feeding me when I was a baby. And I was, like, you're welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That is very cute. That is very cute.

Sheri, you mentioned that you have some research on this. Can you share that with us?

Ms. NOGA: Yeah. But first I want to address just something real simple, which is I'm not talking, really, about spoiled children. I'm talking about something much more serious than that. And I'm talking about children who are narcissistic. And children who are narcissistic are children who grow up to be adults who have trouble relating to other people with empathy.

There was a recent study of 14,000 college students and it showed that the current generation of college students are 48 percent less empathic than past generations. Now, that's serious.

There was another study that has shown that in the last 10 to 15 years, that the level of anxiety and depression in children has gone up significantly. And these studies completely speak to my experience, my anecdotal experience in my office. You know, it's wonderful to hear everybody talking about community, it's very, very encouraging because it's so much of what the problem is about is that kids are relating to things rather than to people.

MARTIN: But is it really fair to generalize the people who come to a therapist with the general population?

Ms. NOGA: I think it is fair to say that because, first of all, all the therapists that I know, and I know a lot of therapists. I work with families and children, we're all having the same experiences. And what I'm seeing in my office is the same thing I'm seeing outside of my office when I walk around. I mean, we're all seeing it. You know, you go into a restaurant, you go to a public place and kids are a lot - not all kids, of course, but way more kids than used to be in the past are out of control. Their parents aren't really stopping them.

Even just the conversation last week about, you know, should I buy my kid an iPad or not? I mean, there's nothing pathological about that conversation. That's a conversational that everybody's having. It's just, as I said, it's, like, really more of a cultural problem and the focus being on things and on material. And, you know, thinking that you can make up for time with your child by buying them things. I wrote about that in the book 'cause it's a common problem, that I hear parents feel guilty. Parents are really doing what they think is the right thing to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with our moms about raising thoughtful, grateful kids. Something that might be particularly on our minds at this time of year. We're talking with Jolene Ivey, Aracely Panameno, and Bassey Ikpi. Also joining us is Sheri Moskowitz Noga. She's a psychotherapist and she's author of the book "Have the Guts to Do it Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence."

So, Sheri, I'm going to ask you briefly to tell us why you think this is. Aracely had a theory which is that perhaps parents lacking time use things to make up for the lack of time (unintelligible). What's your theory on this? And then we'll get to the part of advice.

Ms. NOGA: That's a small piece of it, really. I think it's overall our culture has changed very drastically in the last 20 to 30 years. I mean if you look at our current economic crisis, you look at the current crisis with obesity, you look at people's immersion obsession with technology. To me these are all kind of symptoms of the same problem, which is that there's a culture of immediate gratification and a culture focused very much on attaining goods and being entertained and having pleasure. And because we're able to do those things maybe more easily, you know, to certainly, technology makes that easier for us than it was in the past. People are drawn to doing so.

And just because, you know, it's available doesn't mean that we need to have it or we need to be using it, we need to be obsessed with it. But that's kind of the way the world is running. So when it comes to immediate gratification, then the focus is really on things rather than on relationships.

MARTIN: Interesting. Bassey, what do you think?

Ms. IKPI: One of the things I was thinking was that we have a 50 percent divorce rate in this country. And what I've observed in the last 10 years, where my friends were getting married 10 years ago, they're not getting divorced 10 years later. And there's a feeling that if you only have this much time to spend with your child, you don't want to be the mean parent. You don't want to be the one that's doing the discipline. You don't want to be the one who's not, you know, giving them things that they ask for.

And both parents have that sort of divorce guilt coming on. I've seen it with friends of mine where, well, I only have them for this weekend. I don't want to, you know, I don't want them to be grounded the entire weekend. So, you know, they get away with a lot of things.

MARTIN: So, what's the answer? Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: I think that what helps, it's not really the problem so much that you give your child things. The problem is that you don't get your child to think about others. And they're not really the same thing. So I can give my kids something, but I need to get my kid to think about, well, how about the world around you? And how about specifically your friend who you know who might be having a hard time? How about, what would you like to give that kid for Christmas this year?

And the best Christmas my oldest son ever had, he tells me, was when he was younger and one of his friends was having a hard time and he said, you know, I really want to give him such and such a game because I know that they can't afford it. And I was so proud of him and he was so excited that day. It was the best to see him be excited to give something to someone else. So I think that the more we can do to get kids either if you don't have anyone in your circle like that, there's always the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, whatever.

I think that is helps if they can connect and actually know the child in some way or know the other person or help a neighbor - an elderly neighbor who needs their walk shoveled, or something - anything that they can do that gets them outside of focusing on themselves and helping someone else.

MARTIN: Sheri, give us some other ideas, if you would. And I just want to emphasize, your book address more than just indulgence. It also talks about discipline, things like that. But this is the season of giving. So I am particularly interested in your perspective on this whole question of overindulgence and how to - not to fall into this trap, which so many people seem to be falling into.

Ms. NOGA: Well, you have to be able to think for yourself and you have to be able to listen to your own gut 'cause I find that many parents, if they would listen to their gut, things would really work out well. Talking about the show last week where everyone came in and, you know, this conversation started and the question was, like, should you buy your kid an iPad for Christmas? And I heard you saying, everyone is saying no. Someone is mouthing the word no before they even sit down.

And, like, by the end of the conversation, people were saying, well, maybe if someone else buys the gift for the kid, or, you know, maybe the kid needs the iPad in order to keep up in school. And it was a very interesting example, I think, of what happens to parents, which is the fact that so many people are doing it causes people to lose the ability to think for themselves. Most people can answer these questions, just like at the beginning of your show last week, you know, people had an answer to that question.

They didn't really have to sit down and qualify it and figure it out and compare it with other people. Inside of themselves they knew the answer to that question. It's just when everyone else doesn't, you know, is acting like they didn't know the answers to the question, and suddenly, no one knows the answer to the question.

MARTIN: Bassey, what do you want to say?

Ms. IKPI: Well, I think that a lot of it has to do with the parent themselves. Are you being grateful? Are you being nice to other people? Just with my four-year-old, I didn't have to tell him to say thank you when he got things. He saw me say thank you. The most influence that the child should have should be the parent or the person who's raising them.

MARTIN: Jolene, what are some of the other ways that you think you can teach an attitude of gratitude?

Ms. IVEY: Well, first we should go back to - in our generation, Michel, the issue was expensive tennis shoes, remember?

MARTIN: That is so true.

Ms. IVEY: And I made a decision way back then my kids were never going to have tennis shoes like that, just as, like, a statement because it was ridiculous. And my kids - not really ever asked for them because they know that's where the line is. Now, when is comes to technology, it's probably a little bit different. But like I said, I don't think that those things are as important.

I mean, expensive tennis shoes are dangerous for children to have because, at least back in our day, people got killed over them. And I don't want my kid to own anything that's going to make them a target for someone.

So whether it's expensive tennis shoes or it could be an iPad, I don't want them set up to be hurt in any way because of possessions. But I think more importantly, as if you just train your kid to think about it and talk to them. I've certainly had varying degrees of success with my own brood. Some of my children are more grateful than others.

But, you know, one of my kids pretty routinely will say, mom, thank you so much for x. And it shows me that he really thinks about it. And I'm glad that he does 'cause sometimes he really makes me crazy and I want to kill him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: But he will say thank you (unintelligible) it.

MARTIN: He has that fine quality.

Sheri, one of the things you wrote about in the book, which I found interesting, is parents being on the same page around this. But I do want to ask you about parents who themselves did not grow up with a lot. And part of giving their kids a lot is that this makes them feel good because it makes them feel, like, successful. Like, you know, they can say to themselves, I didn't have this and I can provide this for you. I would like to ask, what advice would do you give when you see that dynamic? What do you say?

Ms. NOGA: Well, I think people are doing it because they really believe they're doing what's right for their child. They want to make their child happy. They're trying to be loving and generous and afford their children opportunities and common ground with other children. The problem is that it doesn't work and that parents don't realize that. There's so much research now that's being done about what makes people happy?

And, you know, I think pretty much everybody knows that things and money up to a certain level, you certainly need money to be happy, but beyond that it's not really that much money. People aren't any happier. So that's not what does it for people. It's not having things. It is relationships. And so my suggestion to parents is to focus less on the things that you buy for your children and the things that your children want materially.

But your relationship with them, which includes meeting their needs - their needs for closeness and their needs for discipline. You know, even if you're a divorced parent or a single parent, you know what? Your child still needs the same amount of discipline. A kid who is raised with discipline and love, that's the happiest kid you're going to get.

MARTIN: Sheri Moskowitz Noga, psychotherapist and author of the book "Have the Guts to Do it Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence" was with us from member station WDET in Detroit. Jolene Ivey, Aracely Panameno and Bassey Ikpi were with us in our Washington. D.C. studio. Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us and happy holidays to you all.

Ms. IVEY: Hey, happy holidays, Michel.

Ms. IKPI: Thank you.

Ms. NOGA: Thank you.

Ms. PANAMENO: Gracias. Feliz Navidad.

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