If there's one thing that sets off a predictable groan among well-heeled urban teenagers, it's when their parents begin to say, "When I was young..." Eyes roll in despair and disbelief, and the mental shutters come down clanking. "Yeah, yeah, you always studied hard, came first in class and never troubled your mother."
However, there is no disputing the fact that such kids nowadays have more spending money than their parents had.
Preaching to children about their youthful, thrifty ways, and thereby making a virtue out of necessity is something relatively affluent parents in metropolitan India are well aware of. The grandparents of today's teenagers definitely had less money. And they spent it on services and events considered important - education, marriages, or helping out family in need. Eating out, designer watches, clothes, designer sports shoes - Rs.9,000 on a pair of sports shoes! - such spending was unthinkable, unacceptable and unforgivable.
At that time, India was moving - or was directed - towards socialist goals; middle and upper middle class people had very different attitudes from the parents of teenagers today. In current times however, more people have cars, music systems, televisions, computers, cell phones, microwave ovens - the gadgetry that is part of modern living the world over. Parents are willing to spend more - and offer more - to their children and on the service industry.
The question then is - are the teenagers among us spoilt rotten, are they careless, materialistic people who value money more than any other thing? No, say the teenagers; no, say educators; and no, say psychologists too. Instead, the trend seems to say that children today are lucky, and they know they are lucky.
So, what are teenagers spending their money on? Clothes, shoes, books are nearly always the parents' responsibility. The kids' money goes on frills - movies, eating out with friends, junk jewelry, music and video games. It may sound irresponsible, but many children are given money on tap, on actuals, as it were. Preeti, a parent, says, "I found that pocket money was not feasible. A single outing costs about Rs 300 - for, say, a movie and lunch. Wants vary from month to month, and I cannot just hand over wads of money."
Besides, each parent or set of parents will make different value judgments. Preeti wouldn't say 'no' to Rs 500 (1US$=Rs49) for books but she would say 'no' to Rs 500 on junk jewelry.
Supriya rues. "I'm very bad with money - my daughter keeps telling me to save!" There are individual differences however. Her older daughter does not overspend but the younger one does so cheerfully, and she's ready to borrow and spend, too. Supriya tried giving pocket money to her children but it didn't work, she says. She wouldn't let her kids spend on anything, so their pocket money kept mounting till it amounted to Rs 2,000 a month. At that point, she went back to the old 'money on tap' method.
What with birthdays and generous aunts and uncles, teenagers get plenty of money. Fourteen-year-old Priya exudes confidence, "Basically, you guys (parents) don't understand money." Her friend Tripti agrees. "I'm not earning but I've always had money. I never think twice about asking - you people haven't taught us budgeting."
Dismissing claims that the pressure of peers forces teenagers to buy expensive clothes and fancy shoes, Priya says, "Today, non-conformism is the key word. Some of us are into bohemian dressing, some go the label way and all of us love Sarojini Nagar bargains." Another delusion shattered. After talking to the children of today's middle class, one interesting fact emerges. Money, like the air they breathe and the water they drink (now, that is a scarce resource) is there for the asking.
Leena Aparajit, Head of Senior School at the DLF Sri Ram School, says that money as linked to self-worth is only relevant for younger kids. By the time they're in Class 10 (15 or 16 years old), they define themselves by what they are, not what they have. The kids like money, it is there and they cheerfully spend it. "They never pass rude remarks about people's lack of possessions or get overawed by others' wealth."
Do children of wealthy parents want to take the easy way, try to get by without striving? Not true, says Aparajit. Ambition and hard work is a common thread among the teenagers; they respect achievement and know that hard work is the key to success. Here, competitiveness and keenness would have to be seen as individual traits, and each child is different.
Do teenagers from wealthy families have 'an attitude'? "No, there is no co-relation at all," says Aparajit, again. Veni Bhardwaj of Ahlcon School, Mayur Vihar, shares her opinion. Arrogant, rude behavior does not come from money in the bank; it comes from parents' attitudes.
Further, says Bhardwaj, in any society there will always be gaps in what different people or families can afford. In a particular case, if the school fees itself is a burden, school trips and outings may be too much to afford. But, as the children grow older they are more understanding and accept their parents' ruling.
The other reality is that parents themselves are reluctant to deprive their children of certain opportunities. According to clinical psychologist Dr Avdesh Sharma, over the past 15 years there has been a marked tendency among parents to protect and indulge their children, even at their own cost. This feeling cuts across all economic backgrounds - 'My children must not be deprived in any way. I had it hard but I want to give my children the best of everything'.
A generation ago, parents thought nothing of saying 'no' to their children. Now, there seems to be a sense of guilt, a feeling that if they deprive their children, they will have complexes or be unhappy.
Pre-teens and teenagers understand money fairly well, opines Dr Sharma. In fact, parents directly hand down the values attached to money. They need to ask themselves if they use their money to get their own way. And whether their own affluence and possessions overawe parents. If this is so, children are quick to recognize the power of money and can go off the rails. Such parents may be direction-less themselves and may not be able to instill critical values in their children.
But what of the current depression in buying power? When the economy is taking such a bashing, how is it that the teenagers are still living in their cocoons, a land of plenty? Parents are reluctant to be honest with their children, points out Dr Sharma. Learning to cope with difficult times is an important part of growing up. If parents have to economize, they should be up-front with their children. If they fill in any shortfalls with love and understanding, children will understand and co-operate.
It may sound simplistic or just too good to be true, but money doesn't seem to be an issue for today's teenagers. To re-phrase that - there are few problem- teenagers, more problem-parents.
Perhaps, when it comes to money, the issue begins when the little toddler throws his or her first tantrum at the toyshop. Whether they give in or not, parents do set the beginnings of a pattern from then on.