The bloke who masterminded the Live Aid concert in 1985, Bob Geldof, was once a working-class lad from a seaside town near Dublin. His first jobs included digging roads, canning peas and working in a slaughterhouse. In other words, getting his hands nice and dirty. So years later, when his teenage daughter asked him for money to buy clothes and shoes he told her to get a job and earn her own money. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Now, here’s the thing: was that fair or was that mean? By that time Geldof was a very successful entrepreneur who could easily afford to spoil his children. Don’t we get pleasure from giving our kids all those things we never had? Here in Brazil children are worshipped like demi-gods and middle-class parents are often more than generous with them. It’s quite normal to buy your son or daughter a new car, an apartment and arrange for them to receive a monthly allowance. Why not if you can afford it?
I met a young Brazilian woman recently who was keen to practise her English with me, having just returned from an 18-month trip around Europe. “What were you doing in Europe?” I asked. “Oh, nothing, just travelling around and enjoying myself”, she said. “But wasn’t it really expensive?” I naively asked. “No, not for me”, she giggled, “my Dad was paying”. On another occasion, in Rio, I had a teenage student in my class who told me – with a big grin on his face – about how his grandfather had taken him to a sports car showroom on his 18th birthday and said, “Pick one – you can have whatever you want”. It may be no coincidence that the student in question was the most obnoxious young man I have ever had the misfortune to teach.
For well-off parents there is clearly an issue: how do I say no when my children know I can afford it? Or more importantly, why should I say no? Don’t we work hard so that our children can have an easier life than we had? All their peers have the latest gadgets and designer gear, so why should we deny them the same?
Perhaps we should begin by asking some other questions. Like, what exactly do I want my children to learn from me? And is there anything I can give them that is more important than material goods and wealth? Let’s go through a list of things that we may be tempted to lavish on our cuddly little darlings.
A private education: Brazilian parents tell me they have to invest in expensive schools because the public ones are so bad. Maybe so. But a kid who is given lots of support and encouragement at home can do well in any school. And by paying, you are just perpetuating the divisive system.
A new car: Will buying a new car make your son or daughter happy? Maybe in the short term, but it will do little for their self-respect. So, how about helping them buy an old banger, once they have saved some money themselves? And insisting that they learn how it works so they can fix it up and maintain it. Wouldn’t it make them prouder?
An apartment: Some people work for 20 years or more to buy their first property; what an enormous sense of achievement and well-being they must feel when they finally get those keys. Giving a young person an apartment as a present, like it’s a box of chocolates, is not helping them: it’s denying them those feelings of joy in their accomplishment.
A year abroad: Travelling and living abroad is priceless, an invaluable opportunity to experience other cultures and, at the same time, learn about yourself and your own country. But to have it all paid for by mummy and daddy? Wouldn’t it be better for parents to give some money towards travel costs and encourage the intrepid youngsters to find a job and support themselves throughout the trip?
So perhaps the crucial question to ask ourselves as parents is: what is the most important thing we can give, pass on, bequeath to our children? Is it love? Many people would say yes. A loving family is the nurturing cell which allows children to grow into well-balanced and self-fulfilled adults. But love isn’t really enough – and doting, self-indulgent love can turn kids into brats.
I have come across quite a few oddball characters in Brazil who are obviously the children of rich, thoughtless parents: overgrown babies, wastrels who have never done a day’s work in their lives. They have little self-respect, poor manners and are hell-bent on spoiling their own kids in exactly the same way. Obviously, this doesn’t only happen in Brazil, but these are my own observations.
No, in my humble opinion, the most important thing your children can learn from you is how to be independent and self-reliant. That is the greatest gift you can give them. The ability to survive and grow without you, to make lives for themselves by their own means, in their own way. It’s not easy. We love them and want to be with them. But we have to let them go. And if they are well-prepared and resourceful, they will make it.
Besides, being a poor, mean Yorkshireman, I can’t spoil my kids, even if I wanted to!