• What may seem an expensive gift for one family may be a trinket to another
• However, extravagance can easily create a sense of entitlement in children
Most parents want the very best for their children, but money is often a limiting factor in the type of gifts children get. What if money is not a problem? Can a parent give the child the world?
This is the debate Kenyans are grappling with after a mother gifted her son a mansion for his sixth birthday. The celebration happened in September. Mercy Maluli, who heads a celebrity fashion house, is quoted saying that she was fulfilling her son's dream of owning a townhouse. From the pictures posted online, the storeyed mansion could be worth tens of millions of shillings.
A few weeks earlier, on September 4, Kenyans were stunned when Kirinyaga woman representative Purity Ngirici and her husband gave their daughter a new Mercedes Benz for the girl’s 21st birthday.
“Tanya, my daughter. You are a blessing in our lives. You make me proud as a mother. You are our pride. Happy birthday,” the legislator said. Photos of the car and the accompanying birthday celebration were splashed online.
These two prominent personalities are not the only Kenyans to give their children gifts that most people can only fantasize about. In 2016, flamboyant singer Akothee gave her first-born child a Mazda Demio for her 19th birthday. Akothee is famous for spending lavishly on her children, including enrolling them in universities abroad.
Other than celebrities, Kenyan politicians, trade unionists and captains of industry are known to hold lavish parties for loved ones. The parties are held at exclusive resorts in Nairobi, Coast and the Rift Valley.
The gifts have drawn mixed reactions from Kenyans. “The value of the gift, I believe, should be determined by the maturity of the child,” says Gray Kassich, an IT administrator and father of one. “One has to be careful in gifting children as it can easily be an avenue of creating entitlement in their character.”
Gray believes gifting can be used to reinforce positive behaviour in children. For example, a child who cleans their room without being reminded can get a chocolate bar or a treat at their favourite local place. For special events in life, such as graduation or turning 16, Gray suggests age-appropriate gifts that create memories. "A bracelet, a watch, something that will brighten their day will do," he suggests.
As families have different levels of wealth, what may seem an expensive gift for one family may be a trinket to another. A mobile phone as a 10th birthday gift could be ‘normal’ in one family, but an extravagance in another. A car seems an over-the-top gift but, to some families, a car is not a status symbol but merely a means of transport no different from a bicycle.
“Homes and cars? Why not?” advocacy campaigner Faridah Bwari says. “Kids should be factored in the family wealth. They, too, deserve gifts as a sign of love and also to test how responsible they are. Being gifted [a house] does not mean the kid moves in or starts looking for tenants. It’s basically making him aware that once he is of age, that property will be his.”
For Caroline Wanjala, a mother of one, gifts to children should be guided by the circumstances and the child's maturity level. "Some gifts will leave the child without motivation because they will lose inner drive. That's why many super-rich kids end up in alcohol and drug abuse," she says.
Gifting often reflects the preferences of the giver rather than the actual needs of the person receiving. Findings published in the journal Psychological Science suggest that givers tend to choose the gifts they think will provoke the most enthusiastic emotional responses in the recipient. The gift-givers in the survey did not think much about the long-term satisfaction of the gifts to their recipients, only about the immediate reaction.
This explains why some parents give their children things far beyond the children's capacity to enjoy. The parent understands the investment, hard work and sacrifice that goes into owning a mansion. A child cannot appreciate the significance of owning a mansion. This is why critics say parents should look beyond the happiness they get from giving and first consider the child's level of maturity before deciding on a gift.
The emotional response provoked by receiving a gift could hide a deeper sense of disquiet the child may be feeling. In the magazine Psychology Today, psychotherapist Sean Grover writes that there is no link between material possessions and happiness. "Lasting self-esteem is rooted in a strong sense of identity, not materialism," he wrote. "Excess does not equal increased self-worth."
Many generous people may not openly admit it, but giving makes them happy. They choose gifts that create a buzz but not always serve the beneficiary's needs. As material possessions don’t bring happiness by themselves, the enjoyment gained by giving could interfere with the long-term happiness of the person receiving the gift. At the national level, similar criticisms have been made regarding cash handouts given by politicians.
Excessive gifting can raise children’s expectations and lead them to believe they will get more exciting gifts in the future. Their high expectations might not be matched by reality. The consequence is a disappointment.
It's not just the person receiving the gift whose expectations are raised. Other people in the family may feel pressured to keep up appearances by getting similar or bigger gifts for their loved ones.