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From extravagant birthday parties to brand-name clothing and the latest techno-gadgets, South African parents are increasingly playing a game of keeping up with the Joneses through their kids.

“I’m having a Barbie party,” says three-year-old Tasmin. Forty kids, tons of food for both adults and children and the requisite Barbie décor covering every conceivable surface.

The birthday girl is resplendent in a Barbie outfit complete with the Barbie branded shoes and hair
accessories. To top it all off each guest walks away with a bag of party cellphone, a handbag, jewellery... the list goes on.

Tasmin is just one of a generation of children whose parents believe in giving them everything they want while ensuring that their peers are unable to compete. Each year the party has to be bigger and better as each parent tries to one up the other.

It’s keeping up with the Joneses taken to the next level. But this kind of competitive parenting is not always healthy for the child.

Setting them up for failure

A study by Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft found that overindulged children tend to struggle delaying instant gratification, demand to be the centre of attention, have trouble developing skills– especially those related to self-care and dealing with others – and struggle to take personal responsibility.

Their sense of identity is also compromised, and they have difficulty determining how much is enough and what is normal for other people. Essentially overindulging a child is setting her up for a lifetime of struggles and disappointments, because the truth is life won’t always be easy and things will not always go her way.

In a separate study David divides overindulgence into three types:

  • Too much Too many toys, clothes, activities, sports, lessons, camps, privileges, entertainment.
  • Over-nurture Doing things for children that they can and should be doing for themselves at each developmental stage. It also involves excessive parental attention (hovering and smothering).
  • Soft structure Not having rules, not enforcing rules, not having chores, giving too much freedom, allowing children to dominate the family.

Guilt parenting

Gen Ford, director of the company Child Health Seminars, believes that competitive parenting is actually guilt parenting. “I think most of motherhood is about two feelings: feeling guilty for not knowing or doing better and feeling like a witch because you didn’t know or do better. You don’t want to be the only mom whose kid is not playing piano and learning to speak French at 18 months, do you?”

The guilt often stems from lack of time to spend with a child and a need to ensure that the child is able to compete with peers at school. “Our children are identifying with being free to choose, empowered and have a huge desire for wealth and to be identified as being important,” says Bev Milun, self-esteem engineer and author of The Survival Guide to Parenthood.

“The branding and marketing of what to own, what to play with, what to wear, what phone to speak on and so on is overpowering a lot of the time.” Advertising and marketing messages latch on to the feelings of disempowerment and low self-esteem that many children feel and amplify them, communicating the idea that if you own this particular branded item it will make you more well liked,“cooler” and ultimately more acceptable.

Bev says that the most worrying trend resulting from this commercialisation of childhood and the resultant guilty overindulgence by parents is the loss of individual and unique manifestations of
the self.

“There is an evident cloning and blending that is happening that loses the self in the sea of people
dressing the same way and having the same things,” she says. “Instead of empowering themselves with choice [kids are] actually choosing things that disempower them. These choices are made because that’s what everyone is doing, and they want to be like everybody. It’s not an empowered
choice because it isn’t necessarily their actual style or they don’t make a choice that feels good for them first.”

Children who do not follow this trend and have these items are sometimes “othered” in school, and this can often give rise to bullying, says clinical psychologist and mom Kevashini Govender-Naidoo. “These pressures on children are known to cause stress, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety amongst children, leaving them even more vulnerable to the pressures of commercialisation” she warns.

Pester power

Birthday parties are just one area where parents are increasingly competing to outdo each other, but this tendency extends beyond that once-a-year event. Call it pester power or the nag factor, it is hard to ignore the incredible influence that children, from toddlers to teens, have over their parents’ spending.

The result is an increasing awareness from the advertising and marketing community that children are a lucrative market. “Marketers have more access to South African children than ever before and are ‘co-parenting’ these children within their homes, schools and playgrounds,” Kevashini says.

Advertising and media messages promote materialism and aim to convince children that they need things to be happy. Little value is placed on the personal attributes that children should possess; instead emphasis is placed on external possessions.

“Children are also bombarded with images of how they should look and are left feeling dissatisfied with themselves,” she says. It becomes about obtaining those external ideals of princess, diva, rock star rather than striving to be kind or intelligent or honest.

Overindulgence, David says, is the process parents unintentionally use to instil materialistic values in their children. “We found that when overindulged children grow up they are more likely to become ‘externals’ rather than ‘internals’. Externals are focused on themselves by being concerned about wealth, fame, and image. Internals are focused on personal growth, relationships, and giving back.”

“Next year I’m going to have a rock star party like Hannah Montana,” Tasmin says proudly. “I’m going to have a big stage and a band and a cake with a guitar on it. It’s going to be awesome.”

Her mom smiles knowingly, already making a list of the items needed for next year’s extravaganza.

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