“I celebrated my son’s fifth birthday with magicians, face painters, the works. I give him all the things I never had growing up. But he is no happier than I was, growing up. Rohan is always looking for the next new toy. What worries me is the thought that I am foisting a skewed set of values. Am I buying him things because I cannot spend time with him?”
“Does consumerism reduce character? As a parent, is it your duty to build your child’s character? What is the role of a parent?”
As with almost everything with respect to parenting, there are no formulas, else the world would be full of perfect children. One school of thought takes the “less is more” approach. In lectures and articles, steel baron Andrew Carnegie asserts that successful people have the “advantage of being cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty”. Carnegie goes further. He says there is “nothing so enervating, nothing so deadly” to great achievement than hereditary wealth. More recently, on his trip to India, Warren Buffett said, “Personally, I would much prefer not to be born rich.”
Most parents of this generation intuit that. We want to indulge our children but not spoil them. We want to give them the opportunities that were denied to us but don’t want them to feel entitled. We resist putting them on what happiness scholars call “the hedonistic treadmill” where they want more and more instead of being contented, even happy, with what they have. Simply put, we don’t want them to feel deprived but we don’t want them to feel rich either.
Carnegie believed that character springs out of hardship. Troubles test our mettle and conquering hurdles builds character. The trick is identifying what characteristics you want your children to imbibe. Most of us cherish this nebulous construct called “middle-class values”, but would be hard-pressed to define it. Some of it has to do with hunger, ambition and hard work; but most of it has to do with grace in the face of adversity, a porous sense of personal space, unconscious acts of generosity and never giving up.
Growing up privileged doesn’t automatically mean that you will become, as Carnegie fears, a wastrel. Witness Bill Gates or Anand Mahindra. Can children learn character in a comfortable setting, untested as they are in Carnegie’s school of poverty? Even if you buy into Carnegie’s theory, translating that into action is difficult. Does gifting your daughter an iPhone prevent her from learning the virtues of thrift? Where is the line between indulging our children and giving them a false sense of entitlement?