How to Protect Your Kids from “Affluenza”

I attended an interesting dinner party a few years ago… Seated at the head of an elegantly set table for 10, the host dominated the dinner conversation with stories of his favorite subject: himself. He bragged about going to Formula One races in France. He name-dropped when talking about his celebrity neighbors in London. He went to great lengths describing all seven of his homes around the world.

And when I was leaving, he asked me my name (even though I had sat next to him the entire dinner) and then handed me a self-published book of large color pictures of himself smiling broadly beside the things he valued most – his possessions.

It came as no surprise to me when I learned that the adult children of my dinner host were troubled. They were raised by a father who showered them with gifts… but who rarely took the time to speak with them. They came to believe that happiness and meaning in life come from possessions.

And while these children continued to live a lavish lifestyle as adults, they were aimless, confused and floundering. They suffered from a terrible disease known as “affluenza,” a harmful or unbalanced relationship with material things.

The Big Lie 

Our popular culture inundates us with messages that tell us the more possessions we have, the greater our happiness. But it’s all a big lie. It’s a false promise. It lures people in and holds them hostage to the endless pursuit of “the good life.”

It keeps them striving for more “things” when they’re really just looking for fulfillment in the wrong place.

But having material possessions isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s the value we place on all that “stuff.” I have wealthy friends who own a yacht, a helicopter and an airplane. They love to travel the world. They work hard and enjoy their things. But their possessions are not the center of their lives.

What they really enjoy are the moments spent with family and friends. That is their main focus in life. They are generous with their time and resources with their loved ones. They have talked with their children at length about money, values and spirituality. They’ve built a strong family unit based on love, caring and respect. And their kids are thriving, personally and professionally.

What your children need more than expensive gadgets, elaborate travel or fancy cars is your love and attention. Your physical and emotional  availability gives them a sense of security, a feeling that is far more important to their well-being than anything you can buy for them.

When your kids know how much you value them, they don’t need to pump up their self-worth by impressing others with extrinsic things. They already feel fulfilled on the inside. But when your children don’t feel nurtured at home, they turn to material resources to help fill the void.

I noticed this recently when I talked with a teenage boy who kept getting into trouble at school. He boasted to his friends about his expensive toys. He was arrogant and rude to his teachers. He had a serious attitude problem.

But in my office he was different. He bowed his head and spoke softly. He explained tearfully that he felt lonely and isolated from his parents. Sure, he enjoyed everything his parents bought for him. But what he desired more than anything was time with his dad.

The Religion of Consumerism 

Some people get hooked by runaway consumerism and feel pressured and controlled by their drive for more. They often have no time or energy for what really matters most: loving family and friends, and contributing something positive to their community. They allow money, possessions and image to become the center of their lives and neglect the relationships that could actually make them happy.

As research from psychology professor Tim Kasser of Knox College has shown, people who adopt a religion of consumerism and materialism do not become more satisfied with their lives or more emotionally healthy. Often, the reverse is true. Materialistic people experience increased unhappiness. Strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of a sense of well-being. The result is often depression, anxiety, personality disorders, narcissism and antisocial behavior.

Four Steps to Success

A 30-year-old  man I know constantly reminds others what kind of car he drives, the fancy places he stays on his vacations and how much his wife spends on her clothes. I wondered why he always felt the need to do so… until I thought of his father.

His dad makes sure you know what brand of expensive watch he wears and that he flies first class. He loves to say that his wife’s favorite sport is shopping. And he seems proud to admit how much of her spending ends up on his credit card. This man places value on letting people know how much money he has and how much he spends. Not surprisingly, his son has thoroughly absorbed that message.

Children develop their value systems in large part by imitating their parents. If you want your children to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, you must teach them healthy values regarding money and materialism. Here are four steps you can take to do that:

1.   Understand your money values – Your money values are your emotionally backed beliefs, thoughts and behaviors about what’s important to you about money. Examine your attitudes and experiences regarding money and possessions. What do you want your children to learn about them? Are you living the values you want them to emulate? Remember, your kids learn from your behavior and the environment around them.

2.   Focus on relationship building – People who focus on materialistic goals often do so at the expense of gratifying personal relationships. Materialistic values often crowd out more meaningful pursuits. In contrast, psychological health comes from strong, positive relationships in which children feel close and connected to their families. When your kids feel accepted and secure, they’re less likely to turn to materialistic things.

No matter what your business and social obligations are, you must make time for your kids. The greatest gift you can give your kids is not the one wrapped up with a ribbon. It’s your time, love and emotional support.

3. Don’t keep up with the Joneses – Perhaps you’ve discovered that you’re caught up in living an ostentatious lifestyle. Maybe your own measure of success has come to mean having more or spending more than anyone else. If so, you’re fighting a losing battle. There will always be someone with more.

I’ve had clients who’ve spent $80,000 a month on clothes and accessories for just two people. And when they visited their adult children, they spent more time shopping than being with their kids. They were both unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves and each other.

True happiness comes from purposeful actions and concern for others. Take time to identify the relationships and activities that bring meaning to your life. Then structure your life around those things.

4. Address the issue of materialism – Kids need to be taught to value the right things. They need to know that personal fulfillment comes from kinship, kindness and compassion, not designer clothes and fancy toys. When you talk to your kids about consumption, status and money, it helps them become less obsessed with those things.

In one family I worked with recently, the father worked himself up from poverty to great wealth. But he never talked with his kids about money. He only created trusts to dole out huge distributions to each of them. His kids never had to work – so they didn’t. Now the father is ill and his children are trying to figure out how to run his businesses. But they’re woefully incompetent and irresponsible.

There’s no substitute for talking with – and listening to – your kids. It creates transparency and develops trust. If you’re uncomfortable addressing these topics with your kids, seek professional help. A skilled facilitator can help you structure dialogues about materialism and family values that can be remarkably beneficial.

[Ed Note: Dr. Joanne Stern is the author of the acclaimed book, “Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life,” and is a highly sought after international speaker who has appeared on many popular TV and radio shows. Dr. Stern is also a Family Relationships Strategic Partner with Bonner & Partners Family Office. If you would like to read more about Dr. Joanne Stern click here “]
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  • Kathy

    Great article, just a reminder as to how important our role is as a parent. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children and grandchildren.