Thursday, April 10, 2008

People Throw Money at Cute Children

I was just listening to a podcast of a Studio 360 episode from a couple of weeks ago, about the concept of cuteness. I didn't finish listening to it, so I don't know if they discussed cuteness and money at all, but it reminded me of something I'd been meaning to write about, which is that cute children always seem to inspire financial generosity.

One recent example I can think of in popular culture was in La Vie en Rose, the movie about Edith Piaf. As a child, she's trying to help her father as he performs in the street for whatever coins might be tossed his way. It's not working all that well for him, but the minute little Edith starts to sing, everyone puts in a coin or two when the hat is passed. (That example might have more to do with musical talent than with cuteness, as Edith is kind of a sickly little kid, but still...)

In my own life, I have been seeing the effect of cuteness on family finances. My niece and nephew are truly adorable-- I know I am not totally objective here, but they really are incredibly cute, in looks and in personality. One day, my sister and her husband brought them to a local restaurant. When they finished their meal and asked for the check, the waitress told them it had been taken care of already. An elderly couple who had been sitting nearby were so impressed by the kids' charm and good behavior that they paid the bill on their way out, without sticking around to be thanked.

Of course it's not just anonymous strangers whose largesse benefits my sister's family. I've written before about the assistance they receive from my father-- as much as he seems to worry about supporting his own retirement, he pays for the lease on a car that is more or less permanently loaned to my sister, since she and her husband only have one SUV and a motorcycle. He is also paying for my niece's preschool, after finding out that my sister had put the first term's bill on a credit card. And who knows what else he chips in for.
My sister and her husband aren't poor-- though they only have one income, it's probably a fairly decent income to cover basic needs, but they are constantly spending money to go to weddings, renovate and decorate their home, eat out or order take out food, make payments on the motorcycle and their large mortgage, etc. They don't live extravagantly: they live what most Americans would see as a pretty normal middle class life. But they are being subsidized in doing so because people want the kids to have a nice childhood. They could lower a lot of their expenses without hurting their children's quality of life, but given that they are already dealing with paying those bills, no one wants them to cut corners in ways that would affect the kids.

I myself am susceptible to this: I love giving my niece and nephew books, toys and cute outfits. I worry about their future education and have thought about setting up college funds for them. They are just so adorable, I don't want them to be deprived in any way. But I am realizing that I need to be careful about it. I don't want to get all moralistic about my sister's behavior, and it's not my place to withhold money to penalize her for choices I disagree with. But I don't want to be another person who is reinforcing the message that it's ok not to live within your means because someone else will always pick up the tab for your kids' sake.
I know it is tough to maintain a certain standard of living for a family, much more so now than it used to be, it seems. Part of my goal in saving money is to make sure I never have to depend on anyone else for support, and also to be there for my family members if I'm needed, which I suspect I will be. But I'd feel better about it if I knew it was because of true necessity, not just to subsidize certain lifestyle choices. I wouldn't hand my brother-in-law money and say "Hey, don't sell your Harley, here's a little something to help you make the payments on it!" But if I pay for my niece to take ballet lessons just because she looks adorable in a little pink tutu, that is effectively what I am doing.

Anyway, I love my niece and nephew, and my sister and her husband. They're all good people. Hopefully once the kids are older, my sister will start working again and they'll be able to manage their family budget without assistance. But in the meantime, I want to take advantage of these precious years when the kids are such cute little munchkins: I'm going to start bringing them along whenever I go to an expensive restaurant, in hopes that some stranger will pick up the check!


Chocoholic said...

Interesting post. When I was growing up, my mom didn't work and while we were comfortable, I didn't get everything I wanted. They had one car that they bought used. My dad worked in maintenance so his vehicle for that was company provided, but he could only drive it to and from work and on the job. I didn't get every toy I asked for or all the "cool" clothes other people had. We didn't take expensive vacations. My parents took me to Disney World once as a kid and we camped out in Florida instead of staying in a hotel. You know what, I look back on my childhood and think how great and happy it was. I remember doing things with my parents not things they bought me.

I look at people like my cousin, who has never paid for her own car, her parents bought here them, and has a lot of debt. She got pregnant in her early twenties and moved in with the father of her child. My aunt and uncle bought her a new vehicle because the car she had "wasn't big enough for a baby." She broke up with the guy and moved back home with her little boy and my aunt and uncle are still paying for both vehicles. The are always buying her kid toys. It is hard to strike a balance between taking care of someone's needs and enabling them to spend more than they have. Unfortunately, my aunt and uncle have done the last case and are partly to blame for they way she is because of how they raised her.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think babies are as cute as they are so they will be treated and coddled as much as possible. Think about the point you made -- if babies weren't cute, it would be a lot harder to put up with all the things they put you through. But if a baby wakes you up by screaming in the middle of the night, and you are flustered and annoyed, the moment you see the baby's toothless, slobbery smile, it's easy to forgive them and bring them into your arms. Anyway, I'm the same way with my dog. She is the cutest 12-pound thing to exist, and I always find myself buying her new toys and treats and things. Does she need them? Not at all. She shreds most of the toys to a quick death. She eats regularly. I just see her cute little face and can't resist. And the stores know it -- have you seen the Target pet aisle lately? Oy vey.

Tiredbuthappy said...

As the mother of an exceptionally cute child (not the most objective judgement, of course), I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my family's largesse.

Recently my son was having a crying jag because he was overtired and hungry. In his litany of woes ("and I don't want to go home and I want to watch another video and I don't want any dinner and you didn't tie this thing right and I need another tissue") he mentioned a toy dragon he saw at a toystore a couple of weeks before and had been asking for ever since. His father and I had been telling him that for the next special occasion (birthday, Xmas, or sometimes we buy him a small toy when we're going on a trip to keep him entertained in the car) if he still wanted that dragon, he could have it.

Well, my mom watched these crocodile tears coming out of his blue eyes and said, no problem, I'll take you to the toystore tomorrow and buy the dragon for you.

Great, thanks, Mom. That helps. We already have a problem where he thinks he can have a new toy just by asking for it, because he gets so many gifts from his Auntie and other people.

I knew she thought the toy would be 3 or 4 dollars, but the one he wanted cost more like $20. So I slipped my mom a ten before they went to the store.

Because of course she can't afford to buy things like that and she knows it. She's trying to be a more careful budgeter, since she moved recently and can't sell her old house and has no liquid cash to either buy a new house or retire in a couple years.

It annoys me that my family has no self-control when it comes to buying things for my son. My father spends A LOT on the kid at holiday time. Often it's close to $200 for Xmas and his birthday (which is right before Xmas).

It's upsetting on a lot of levels. For one thing, it teaches my kid to expect tons of expensive toys. For another thing, it takes away some of MY pleasure in buying gifts for my son because Grandpa always outdoes me. For another thing, it causes problems between me and my partner, because my partner wants me to be more firm with my family and tell them not to buy my kid so much stuff, but I have a hard time doing that. My father and also my sister show their love with their wallets and always have. I can't change them. It just makes me feel ungracious, and makes them feel rejected, if I try to put my foot down and limit the amount of $$ they spend on me or on my kid.

And of course, they buy things we don't want. Lots of things we don't want. Large, age-inappropriate toys that we then have to deal with long after they've gone home.

Lately I've been more successful at steering my father's purchases. I give him a very specific list, and he either buys the stuff or I buy it and he pays me back. Then I can buy less expensive accessories that go with the big gifts he buys.

And does my son play with all his expensive stuff? Yeah, for about five seconds. Then he is asking us to help him make something out of the cardboard box the toy came in.

Wow, this is a long comment. Clearly you touched a nerve.

People: Please resist spoiling cute kids! You're not helping them, and it's the parents who are going to look bad when the kid turns out to be a whiny lazy person with a sense of entitlement.

Anonymous said...

Your sister is receiving what the author of the millionaire mind books calls 'economic outpatient care'. The sad part is that while your father thinks he is helping them, in the long run he is really hurting them because they will never learn to live within their means and will constantly be dependent upon a handout. Maybe it would be better if your father contributed money to a 529 account for the kid's college education instead of buying them more stuff now.

Unknown said...

I have a 6 y/o and recently we went out to dinner and some stranger walked over and gave him silver dollar b/c he was so well behaved (guess they should see him at home. When he was younger and we would go out to dinner, waitresses and waiters would give him icecream and other desserts simply bc he asked. I would say no and they'd say "it's on the house." I tell him no on a lot of toy requests b/c I can tell that he thinks it is as simple as saying he saw something on tv and wanting it. Even when I tell him no, he waits til he gets on the phone with his dad or other family members and asks for the toy. Next thing I know, he's getting a package in the mail that is that same toy. I always had most things I wanted as a child, but on special occasions. Not just b/c it's Monday and i want it. Sometimes I will put the packages up and save them until he does something that he should be rewarded for. But its amazing at how people just love to give kids things. The problem comes in when they aren't little cute kids anymore and they are spoiled adults who feel a sense of entitlement.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, it seems like everyone here is reading a lot into this. We all give gifts to our nieces and nephews, or expectant parents, or newlyweds, because we want to support in some way our own families and the new generation. I don't think that the little subsidies mentioned here have as big an effect as all that. The fact is that children in families that have a lot of money receive even more. What extra stuff did we all receive as kids, for being "cute?" I want my niece and nephew to have all the chances possible, despite occasional irresponsibility on the part of my brother and sister in law. I don't want the kids to be punished for that. Having the opportunity to take ballet lessons, or to take a special trip is a wonderful thing for a young person. Also, it is easy to judge people and families from outside. But financial decisions are not the only important ones. It is easy to think they could be making more if both parents worked, and then their kids would have more opportunities. But maybe the kids would be worse off in other ways. Maybe the economic equation doesn't work out for the family once the cost of daycare is added in. I would think that it would be very rewarding to know that a little bit of money that you won't really miss can make such a big difference for the niece and nephew. I like your blog a lot but I don't see eye to eye with you on this post.

Tanya said...

To the poster who mentioned starting a 529 account: I've had one open for years for both my kids. Neither the uncles nor my mother are willing to contribute. They don't want the kids to think that they didn't "give" them anything, which irritates me to no end. Especially when my mother is concerned. When I asked her to contribute to the college accounts her immediate response was: "Well, what if they don't end up going to school?"

And the MIL gave my 6 yr old daughter a $50 gift certificate to Borders for her most recent birthday. $50 in gift certificate form? To a book store? I would have much preferred that money go to the college account.