Op-ed and Comment


Wealth is important, but it doesn’t build a child’s character
Shoba Narayan
Mar 24, 2013
Save this article

The number of “super rich” people in the UAE will increase by 53 per cent over the next decade, The National reported last week. This news produced in me a deep strain of geography-envy. People who live in the Gulf states can take comfort in the fact that they are in the right place in the right decade.

You may not all end up multimillionaires; then again, you might. Here, then, is an uncomfortable question that comes from a transparent desire to puncture this particular bubble: is your increasing wealth good for your children?
Don’t get me wrong: I am neither Spartan nor Puritan. I understand that economic growth from generation to generation is a normal, and even desirable, thing.
What worries me – and other parents, I would wager – is that along with the toys and gizmos we buy for our children, we are also foisting on them a skewed set of values.
For my friend Caryn Halbrecht, a property investor based in Stamford, Connecticut, the “most heinous” moment occurred a few years ago when her son, Alex, then 10, asked her how much money she was going to leave him.
“I nearly passed out, and quickly began asking myself what I could possibly have said or done to make him believe that he was entitled to my hard-earned money and was in no way planning to earn his keep,” she recalls.
Halbrecht quickly disabused her son of the notion that he was going to “inherit” anything, telling him that she was planning to leave everything to charity.
“Of course, I didn’t exactly mean that, but at this point it seemed wise that he believes that,” she said. “Thinking anything else would do him no good at all.”
Halbrecht’s cure for what she calls “entitlement syndrome” is similar to that of the US first lady, Michelle Obama.
Halbrecht gives her boys, Alex and Jay, chores around the house and insists that they remain responsible for their possessions.
If her children lose something valuable such as a camera, it isn’t replaced right away unless they buy it out of their savings. If they want an expensive game or toy, Halbrecht usually says “no”. If they want it badly enough, they pay for it from their allowance or wait for their birthday.
Like US “first kids” Malia and Sasha Obama, Halbrecht’s sons are expected to make their beds. They also put away clothes, set the table, bring in groceries and shovel the garden path when it snows. (This approach is a bit harder for those of us who live in the East, where household help is readily available.)
Saying “yes” to chores is one aspect; saying “no” to objects is another. I have spent tortured moments in the toy store, explaining to my children about why they cannot have this or that video game or toy.
Each time my daughter discards her last acquisition for the next new thing, I feel a pinch of disquiet, as if her love of material possessions somehow reflects on my degree of parental success in building character.
Help for parents in this situation is at hand. Academic Martin Seligman, who developed “positive psychology”, took inspiration from his young daughter, Nikki. In interviews and articles, Seligman recounts the epiphany he had when Nikki announced that if she could learn to stop being a whiner after age five, he could learn to stop being a grouch.
Seligman decided to concentrate on developing children’s positive traits, rather than focusing on curing negative ones, and he founded the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center (PPC).
What is heartening about Seligman’s story and his research is the notion that virtues can be taught and learnt. Indeed, the PPC outlines 24 character traits, such as courage, perseverance and creativity, along with course material and methods of cultivating them.
A groundbreaking project called the Penn Resiliency Project teaches late-elementary and middle-school children techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision making, social problem-solving and relaxation. All of this lends credence to the notion that character can be taught.
The super-rich of the UAE might be well-served by attending a parenting module at U Penn. Better yet, given the resources available to them, they could start a branch of the centre in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a Memoir


  1. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am encountering issues with your RSS.
    I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to join it. Is there anybody else having similar RSS problems? Anyone who knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanx!!


  2. I think these ideas have changed a lot over the years.

    Firstly in India there is very little focus on self-sufficiency. For example the availability of household help (or the women of the house doing the work) means the house people never learn to appreciate cooking or keeping things clean. This perpetuates throughout school and college (even in IITs where you feed the mind but pay little attention to diet or cleanliness). Ed Begley (noted actor and environment activist) wrote that everyone should try to keep a plant at their home, even if it s a shoebox, so they get some sense of how things grow.

    Secondly the discussion is always on “money” and “values” and “entitlement” but not on achievement or work. Puzzling since the whole philosophy of Gita is on doing work and not focusing on rewards. Parents vaccilate between money (as a corruptive concept) and philosophy (so called values, as a euphemistic nod to austerity). The real idea to convey to children is that achievement is happiness unto itself.

    Many parents devolve this concept into “gifts for grades”. The idea should focus on the activity of learning/achievement, not just the end grade. Terry Tao (child prodigy and now math professor) explains this as positive encouragement for “effort”, not “talent” or “end goal”. This is the right way to get to the Buffett-Zen: “more” is good only in “more good work” not “more money”.

    In the end, parents would do well to impart basic self-sufficiency so their child can keep themselves in any environment. A lot of physiological values e.g. diet, attitude, self-nurture come from this. (As an example, appreciating cooking by practising it will help in maintaining vegetarianism etc.) Secondly parents should focus on work-based achievement as all the higher level values (e.g. egalitarian, equianimity, generosity, self-actualization and lack of prejudice) depend on it.


    1. Dear Rajit:
      You make some excellent points and I agree with you. Do you have kids? Just curious. I am trying to implement all that you describe, but am finding it hard. Thanks for your note.


      1. Yes, one precocious daughter. (So yes I can identify!) I live near San Jose and a bunch of parents are having a heck of a time tackling these issues. Our main problems are:

        (a) We also need to re-educate / re-tool ourselves in current styles of education etc. We did school and college in India under a totally different mindset, but are using the St. John’s college model to re-tool ourselves to better identify with the educational (i.e. aspirational and not pedagogical) needs of our children.
        (b) No systematic way to identify what our children are really capable of. In some cases it is obvious i.e. visible talent in art or music or sport or specific academic subject. We are trying to partner with the human psychology / behavior department of local college, but given the pathetic state of under funding, this is very difficult
        (c) Once (a) and (b) are accomplished i.e. parents prepared and kids “spotted” there is no non-disruptive way to further the kids. E.g. have to go to specialized art/sport/music “school” in a different state.

        I’ll also point out that we parents are not taking a factory-like approach here. Our goal is to be fully aligned with the desires and interests of the kids even when the interests change or fluctuate. So there is an invisible but tangible undercurrent of psychological involvement to “track” the progress and ensure kids are happy doing what they do.

        I am happy to engage in more detail offline (email or phone) as I am deeply interested in how you guys in India are dealing with all this?


        1. Rajit:
          We are consumed by a), b) and c) that you outline. You seem to have a gifted daughter so your challenges and pleasures are different from mine. I am part of a parent community here and while we discuss parenting ad nauseum– Madeline Levin’s “Price of Privilege” was a recent book that we discussed, there is no systematic way that we are “tracking” as you say. Like much in India, it is extremely ad hoc. That said, my daughter is doing this mentorship thing where she is connecting kids in the US with underprivileged kids here in India. One of her mentors is a San Jose girl. Don’t want to name the child for privacy reasons. If your daughter wants to mentor a child, please ask her to email “bangalorementor@gmail.com”



  3. Just watching your interview in NDTV 24×7. I was thrilled to see you. I have a polite request. Can you mail me a copy of the book please? I am keen to meet you for a few minutes. For me you are very interesting and I believe there is lot to learn from you. Look forward to your responses. Regards Radhakrishnan Pattabiraman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s