David J alerted me to an article which says that Australian kids are taking luxuries for granted:
Yesterday’s luxuries have become today’s necessities, giving children a bad case of “affluenza”, parenting experts say.
Increasing wealth, cheap toys, gadgets and time-poor parents have produced a generation of children who often can’t tell the difference between need and greed, according to analysis from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
And this means kids take for granted things that were once considered luxuries – like having a bedroom of their own, their own mobile phone, a TV or computer in their room, and having the latest gadgets such as iPods, iPads, PlayStations and Xboxes.
The idea behind ‘affluenza‘ is that people in the Western world try so hard to get material things and money that we become stressed, overworked and wasteful. Therefore, the theory goes, we should not try so hard to attain material possessions in the pursuit of happiness, and the idea that consumerism brings happiness is a fallacy of Western capitalist society. I presume that if parenting experts are saying that children suffer from affluenza, the hypothesis is that parents are stressed and overworked in trying to provide material benefits for their children when these things are not the things which make children happy or fulfilled in life.
Here, I’m just going to think aloud about this concept, and my own ambivalence with regard to it.
Needs vs. wants
When my daughter was about 2 years old she used to say to me, “Mummy, I neeeeeeeeed chocolate!” I would reply to her, “No dear, you don’t need chocolate, you simply want chocolate. There’s an important difference.” [Although at least Eaglet No. 1 is not like Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, who apparently told her father that she needed a six-storey mansion with a garden in Chelsea for her dogs to play in.]
Basically, the things we all need to live are clean water, adequate food, adequate health care, safety and shelter. Once you have a situation where any of those basic needs are not being met, you are needy.
The question is then what we need beyond those basic needs to live happily. Arguably, for instance, I do not really need a computer. I can quite easily write down my thoughts on paper, as hundreds of generations did before me, before the advent of computing. However, if I want to blog, and work from home some days, and submit electronic manuscripts to journals, I need a computer or access to computing services to achieve those goals. A computer makes my life much easier, and opens up my options for communication. So really, I do need it if I want to be able to live in the modern world.
Scarcity makes the heart grow fonder
It is true that if you don’t have a thing, it makes you appreciate a thing vastly more when you do get it. You know what it is to live without a certain thing, and you can clearly see what a difference it makes. Whereas if you’ve always had a thing, you are more likely to take it for granted. Economists and marketers know this: it’s the simple principle of scarcity economics – make a thing scarce and people want it more. And if you value something, you are less likely to waste it, and more likely to use it efficiently.
But people presume a peculiar kind of virtue in not having things. (Even Jesus thought so: “The meek shall inherit the earth”). For some reason when I read that article cited at the beginning of the post, I was thinking of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, which could be seen as a fable about affluenza. I read it recently to my daughter, and was struck by it. In that book, the virtuous hero Charlie starts off with almost nothing – not enough to eat, no warm clothes, inadequate shelter. The other four children who win Golden Tickets are provided with everything, and, unlike Charlie, they take the excess with which they have been provided for granted. Augustus Gloop is a glutton who gorges on more food than he needs. Veruca Salt just has to demand a material item and her father gives it to her. Violet Beauregarde chews too much chewing gum, and her parents cannot deny her. Mike Tevee watches television all the time so that he ignores real people. The other four children are portrayed as spoiled, repulsive, ungrateful and wasteful. In the end, Charlie triumphs and becomes heir to Willy Wonka’s factory.
The thing that struck me as an adult was that there is an immense irony underlying the story: Wonka’s factory could not exist without capitalism. The Golden Ticket ploy is in fact a marketing coup which leads to immense consumerism on the part of children around the globe, as well as unparalleled commercial success on the part of the factory. The factory depends upon children like Gloop, Salt, Beauregarde and Tevee for its immense capital, which it can then use to invent more amazing lollies. (I see a similar sort of irony when I see people like Dick Smith railing against consumerism and excessive population, when of course, Smith established Dick Smith Electronics and made a fortune trading off people’s consumerist impulses (as is pointed out in comments to the Catallaxy piece here).)
If there is a peculiar kind of virtue in being deprived, would I want to deprive my children of things? The answer is no. I want them to have things.
However, I also want them to appreciate what they have, and to appreciate the fact that not everyone else is so lucky. I want them to realise that you have to work hard if you want to achieve things, and you can’t just expect to have things delivered to you on a plate. I do not want to give into my children’s every demand. As I often say to my daughter (most recently last week when she told me she wanted a ZhuZhu Pet Princess Carriage), “I’m sorry, but you can’t always get what you want.”
(Said carriage for the benefit of people who do not have five-year-old daughters!)
The nub of the problem
The problem with providing children with everything they want is not really consumerism, in my opinion. I don’t care if a parent chooses to give a child an in-ground trampoline or a PlayStation. That’s the parent’s choice. I am enough of a liberal with a small ‘l’ to think it’s not my place to police those kind of choices.
However, those parents should realise that the difficulty is that if you give your child everything she asks for, she will think the world always works like that. She will not appreciate the advantages that she has, and will not realise that she has to put in effort to achieve things, nor will she realise that other people are not so lucky. She may well be selfish, and she may lack empathy for others in different and more difficult circumstances.
This made me think about a number of conversations I’d had recently. Conversation 1: a friend has a colleague who is very privileged. He has great difficulty thinking of anyone else’s needs or in functioning like a normal person, and he consistently fails to take responsibility for his actions or to think of others. Conversation 2: a friend was telling me about a research class she recently gave to university students. One girl wasn’t listening, and my friend chided her. “It doesn’t matter,” said the girl. “I don’t intend to do any research myself; I’ll pay other people to do it for me.” (I hope she was joking, but I suspect she wasn’t). There’s a part of me which wants to take these two kids and slap some sense into them. Are they kids who always got everything? I suspect so.
The issue is not that these kids have lots of stuff. It’s that they have a sense of entitlement, that they believe that they don’t have to work to achieve, and that they do not think of the needs of others. Their parents may have thought they were doing them a favour by giving them everything, but actually it has done them an immense disfavour. When they get into the real world, where Daddy and Mummy can’t buy them results, the wheels fall off. And they are unable to interact appropriately with other people because they are selfish and self-indulgent. So you need to deny your children sometimes if just to teach them about real life.
My daughter had a funny conversation with me the other day. Apparently there is a naughty boy in her class who is in trouble for misbehaving, being rude and disrupting the class. Eaglet No. 1 said to me, “Mummy, every day he has a lot of money to spend at the tuck shop, much more than anyone else. You know what? If I was his mummy, I’d tell him he could only get the money if he behaved well in class. Then he might learn to be good.” Clever, clever girl, she’s gotten the idea already…now where did she learn that?
Part of the difficulty in the world is that some people have more, some people have less. Sometimes (often?) that distribution doesn’t seem altogether ‘fair’. [I think it is my preoccupation with equality is what differentiates my own views from SL's, incidentally. She is concerned with liberty, and I am concerned more with equality.] Why should a spoilt young woman ‘need’ a mansion in Chelsea, while thousands of other children are starving to death, or can’t get adequate water or health care?
Still, I am enough of a pragmatist that I do not think we can get rid of inequality. We all have different skills and advantages in life. SL and I were wondering off-blog whether the reason why some smart people are not receptive to arguments about equality is because when teachers create ‘equal’ groups at school or university, the smart kids end up carrying people who aren’t clever. School and university has a tendency to put you in groups where everyone is notionally at the same level, but one of the reasons I am allergic to group work is because my experience of such groups has been so uniformly bad. When I was about eight, I already knew communism wouldn’t work because people are not all equal in that kind of way. Hey, I’d been last picked in sport since I was five years old, so I knew that I was not as physically able as some others. There is equality and equality. I’m never going to be the equal of an Olympic sports champion.
I think some kind of hierarchy is built into society – all we can do is to try and mitigate the unfairest effects as best we can. I do not want a vastly unequal society, where a few have a lot and many have very little.
The real question is…do you bring down the haves so that they are more like the have-nots, or do you bring up the have-nots so they are more like the haves?
The problem with affluenza
I sometimes feel that those who protest against ‘affluenza’ think that we should all be brought down to the status of ‘have-nots’ (although I also suspect that they exempt themselves from the category of those who should be brought down because of their own moral and intellectual superiority, it is only ‘bogans‘ who should be so limited). Similarly, some love to rail against environmentally unsound McMansions (how dare the lower class have a spacious and comfortable house, bigger than middle-class people!) There is a part of me which agrees with Melbourne academic David Nichols: this is all about class. One can’t hate the lower class if one is left-wing and righteous, but a righteous left-winger can legitimately laugh at and hate the lower class if they are relabelled as ‘bogans’ instead. So, some of my problem with articles such as the one cited at the start of this post is that I think the broader agenda of ‘affluenza’ critics is in fact a deeply conservative one. It’s almost a version of ‘sumptuary laws’ – an attempt to regulate who is and who is not allowed to consume certain goods and services.
The truths of affluenza
On the other hand, I have seen people in the law who work and work and work. Their children have every single toy that moves and beeps, but they seldom ever see their parents. I wonder what the sense in this is. The children may have all their material wants satisfied, but that is no substitute for parental love and affection. What are the parents trying to achieve?
And sometimes, even with my own kids (who do not have as much as some others I know), I get angry that they have so much. If they don’t play with something for a certain amount of time, I do a cull, and give away stuff to charity because two kids don’t need all that. There will be other kids who need it more. It is wasteful to have so much.
Also I think it is good to have to work for something rather than just be given it (even if it’s having to save up for something you really want by doing Saturday morning jobs or something like that). You do feel differently about something that you’ve earned rather than just been given on a plate. By putting labour into the getting of something, it’s almost like there’s a little more of yourself in there than there otherwise would be (is that too Lockean?).
I think I want everyone to have more, as opposed to reducing existing entitlements and choices. Yes, there is always a downside to such an approach (spoiled children, people who don’t appreciate what they’ve got, the potential of waste). But I’d rather that than the downsides of people not having enough. The downsides of not having a ZhuZhu Pet carriage are obviously minimal. But at the other end of the spectrum, the downsides of not having necessaries in life are pretty much fatal. And, like my example of computers above, there’s a whole bunch of things which are not necessary for subsistence, but which are really, really useful for participating fully in modern society. The bottom line is that I think the reason we have enough time to worry about stuff like consumerism, our effects on the environment and the like is because we’re not living hand to mouth. Development has its downsides, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives (yes, I’m a fan of Amartya Sen).