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David Baxter PhD

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Affluenza: Families Obsessed with Having More
by Jan Wilson,

Experts describe "affluenza" as an overwhelming preoccupation with material goods and the emptiness that too much "stuff" engenders.

The discount giant, Target, has a snappy advertising campaign that's been featured on television and in its stores. To the strains of the Roy Orbison classic, "You Got It," Target encourages consumers to come in for "anything you want" and "anything you need." While most of us can easily distinguish between needing toilet paper and wanting jewelry, when it comes to making purchases for our kids, the lines quickly blur. Does your child pass a store window exclaiming that she "needs" the latest American Girl doll or the newest limited-edition Disney DVD? Do you find yourself believing that your children need things that clearly will not affect their health, education, or welfare on any level? And despite all your purchases, do you find that your child is often bored and bases his self-worth on what he wears and how much he has?

"You can count true needs on one hand, and you've got an endless supply of wants," says Gary Buffone, Ph.D, a leading advisor to the affluent and author of Choking On The Silver Spoon (Simplon Press, 2003).

Buffone counsels families who have found that although their children have every material comfort, the children are still unhappy, unmotivated, and unproductive. Experts have coined the term "affluenza" to describe this overwhelming preoccupation with material goods and the emptiness that too much "stuff" engenders.

In their 2002 book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, John DeGraaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor (Berrett-Koehler) define affluenza as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste, resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

Buffone says, "I see affluenza is getting worse. I get more and more calls expressing this concern."

"What you are going to see is that there is going to be an increase in the number of wealthy families in the country over the next few years. You are going to see more and more of these problems."

The problem of affluenza isn't limited, however, to the upper classes in this country. Middle and working classes find themselves caught up in a spiral of never-ending shopping trips and out-of-control credit card bills, all because they are trying to keep up with the neighbors and other parents in their children's schools.

Kathy Vance, a 40-year-old mother of two in New York City, says that while it seems understandable that rich people will spend lots of money, "I'm more interested in why the parents who seem to be more strapped for cash will let kids have everything they want. It beats me." She adds that she finds it amusing that her middle class friends complain about storage when they've bought their children everything that is now cluttering their houses.

"By teaching (children) that they can have what they want when they want it, you are setting them up for a lifetime of misery. Sure, you might get a Prada bag, but you might not get the guy you want," says Jessie O'Neill, founder and director of The Affluenza Project, president of The Affluenza Healing and Education Foundation, Inc., and a licensed therapist.

O'Neill says that the major symptoms of affluenza include the inability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration.

"Over a long period of time, the more subtle symptoms would be loss of self-esteem, loss of self-confidence. Also, experiencing a loss of the inner life to a preoccupation with the external. 'I judge myself by how many, how much, how thin,'" she says.

Buffone also says another clue to whether your child has affluenza is behavior patterns that are outside of the norm for your child's chronological age.

"It's one thing for a six-year-old to throw a tantrum, another for a 12-year-old or 16-year-old," Buffone says. "These characteristics last through stages where you would expect them to age out."

Any parent has experience with children who fall apart when confronted with a challenge. But it's the unhealthy relationship with money that sets children and adults who suffer from affluenza apart.

"Children are very susceptible to picking up poor financial habits and beliefs from their parents. Even if a parent doesn't think his or her children are paying much attention to how they manage money, they should think again," said Francine L. Huff, author of The 25-Day Financial Makeover: A Practical Guide for Women (Fleming H. Revell, 2004).

"If a parent places a lot of emphasis on acquiring material goods, spending lavishly on entertainment or vacations, or just never seems to be able to make ends meet, their children will grow up believing that this is the norm, and are unlikely to see anything abnormal with their own behavior if it is similar," she says.

Nancy, 38, and the mother of two boys in a suburb of Boston, sees parents buying their children the latest toys and gadgets as a way to compete with other affluent parents.

"The kids in my community definitely have way too much—but I'm not sure I'd say they want too much. What I see most often is parents (and grandparents) buying things before their kids have even had a chance to want them. A lot of stay-at-home moms seem to have the time and inclination to seek out the "cool" toys and make sure their kids have everything, and have it before everyone else," she says.

"An enormous number of the boys had Playstations, Nintendos, and Gameboys in first grade. It's a competitive thing for the moms, oddly enough," she says.

Nancy Samalin, MS, parenting educator and author, with Catherine Whitney, of Loving Without Spoiling (Contemporary Books, 2003), says parents are sucked into overspending on their kids because of a reluctance to acknowledge that what kids really want from their parents is what always seems to be in very short supply—their time.

"At that moment (that you're shopping) you feel pretty good. I don't think that's what kids need. I think that we wish that this would be a substitute for what they really need because it's so much easier to write a check or give them your Visa card. When it comes to the things that kids need it's our interest, our attention, or occasional approval," she says.

Psychologists and financial planning experts agree that there are several concrete steps parents can take to cure affluenza, while their children are young. The first one is to consistently resist the temptation to provide beyond their child's basic needs.

Buffone says, "Parents get into trouble when they use more money than good sense when raising children. Parents have got to be willing to say no and that they won't put up with those kinds of demands." He counsels parents to "cure the plague of prosperity" for their children by not giving them more material comfort than they need, setting limits, making them earn what they get, and showing fiscal responsibility through teaching and example. This advice is not so easy to follow, however, in a society where even the simple act of spending time with the family away from work and school has taken on a competitive edge.

Jennifer King, a marketing manager and mother of three in an affluent Seattle suburb says that in her town, "family vacations are places like Mexico, Hawaii, New York, and even Europe. If you go to your grandma's during spring break you don't talk about it, because a lot of kids went to Whistler or Hawaii." She says, "When my daughter was ten she asked me, 'Mom, why don't we have a cabin?' She was genuinely curious—so many of her schoolmates had second homes she thought there was something wrong because we did not."

As a parent, you buy your children things because you love them and want to make them happy. But when your overconsumption taxes the family budget, turns your children into unappreciative snips, and makes you compete with people who are supposed to be your friends and neighbors, it's time to pull the plug and develop spending habits that reinforce values you want your children to espouse, and pass on, when they become parents themselves.

About the Author
Jan Wilson is a freelance writer and mother from the New York metropolitan area whose work has appeared in numerous national publications.
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