x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Wealth is important, but it doesn't build a child's character

A sense of entitlement will not help the children of "super rich" people find their way in the world.

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