Marsha Bell has four sons whom she lovingly calls “spoiled brats.”
Months before Christmas, they started asking for $200 computer games, their own televisions, their own Nintendos, Bo Jackson tennis shoes that cost three times what they usually pay for shoes, a drum set, an organ, their own rooms, even a swimming pool.
The Bells, who live in Mission Hills, say they provide just about everything their children want, but they know that if it weren’t for a few strict rules and some longstanding family traditions, the boys’ Christmas wish lists would get way out of hand.
“Sure, they see what other kids have; they’re affected by peer pressure and the media hype on TV,” said Bell, a mother who works part time at a school cafeteria. “We just have to somehow put a rein on it.”
The Bells, like many upper-middle-class San Fernando Valley families, are dealing with a growing trend among youths who focus more on materialism rather than the true spirit of the holidays. To offset that trend, religious leaders, teachers, counselors and therapists are diverting attention to the value of giving--and deserving--presents this Christmas and Hanukkah season.
“We’ve created spoiled kids who find the holidays meaningless, except for what they can get out of them,” said psychologist Stan W. Ziegler, who has been treating Valley families for 11 years. “They’ve lost the pleasure of giving or receiving gifts. So many of them have credit cards they can use to get whatever they want at any time.”
Ziegler, based in West Hollywood, has a 15-year-old client who gets a $1,500-a-month allowance. He warns that such unbridled extravagance prevents children from making responsible choices and can often be seen as a substitute for parental love--leading to depression or drug abuse for the child.
“The trick is to spend time together as a family and give gifts that aren’t so materialistic--like making each other presents, doing household chores for the day or serving parents breakfast in bed,” Ziegler said.
At their two-story house on a suburban cul-de-sac, Marsha Bell can often be seen joining her boys in a basketball game, if their motor home isn’t parked in the driveway. Every year in early December, her husband, Jack, a regional supervisor for a tire company, and her sons, John, 19, Charles, 14, Zachary, 13, and Joey, 11, all help unpack the large boxes of Christmas decorations.
“One of us will design a scene for the mirror and another will put the lights on the tree,” said Zachary, who attends Sepulveda Junior High School.
“Then, we all sleep under the tree in sleeping bags on Christmas Eve,” said Charles, who attends the 32nd Street Magnet School.
The boys each draw a name of one of their brothers to buy one big present of up to $50, rather than buying three small gifts. The presents are hidden throughout the house, resulting in an elaborate Christmas morning treasure hunt with puzzles and clues leading to each one. The hunt is made easier for Joey, who has cerebral palsy.
“The time we spend together is more important than what we give each other,” said Marsha Bell, who is also concerned about keeping Zachary’s December birthday separate from the Christmas celebration. “It must be horrible to have your birthday this month.”
“I don’t mind,” Zachary said, smiling. “All the good toys come out around Christmas.”
Encino clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolosi said materialistic attitudes in children are a perennial problem.
“The message we get from ads is that the next toy, the next pair of jeans, the next truck will bring us happiness--it’s so far away from the celebration of the birth of Jesus,” said Nicolosi, who has been in practice for 15 years. “It’s impossible to keep kids from those messages. My kid is a spoiled brat who comes from a pair of upper-middle-class obsessive compulsive parents.”
At home in Thousand Oaks, Nicolosi’s 9-year-old son Joey is constantly revising his long list of gifts--although a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is always on top. Joey has a tree house, a pool and three versions of every toy--according to his father, who is often frustrated trying to teach his son values.
“We talk about the Nativity scene and set it up together,” Nicolosi said. “We’re also going to see my big Catholic family back East--my first time back in 12 years--and that will show Joey a way of sharing. You have to with 38 cousins.”
For the first time this year, Joey is going out on his own to buy his parents a gift with money he has earned by walking the dog and doing chores. “Joey’s real excited about getting us something,” Nicolosi said with some hesitation.
Greed and materialism are issues discussed at a seminar taught at private and public Valley schools by Berenda Hunter, a counselor who works for St. Anne’s Maternity Home in Van Nuys. In the seminar, given free to schools that invite her, Hunter adds up the thousands of dollars worth of tennis shoes in the class and then teaches the students to feel good about themselves as individuals, and not by what they own.
“We are creating little monsters,” said Hunter, a parenting consultant for 15 years. “When you give an 11-year-old a $75 M.C. Hammer ticket just because she asks for it, you are not producing what could be a productive adult.”
As a single working mother living in Agoura Hills, Hunter doesn’t spend as much time as she would like with her 10-year-old son Ryan. But when they are together, she said, they read books together, play, and talk about work and school.
Parental guilt caused because they don’t spend time with their children is something that triggers materialistic attitudes, said child psychologist Marga Rosa, who has run the San Fernando Valley Stepfamily Assn. in Woodland Hills since 1981.
“The child is given everything they could ever want, yet is being neglected,” Rosa said. “The problem is no one ever says ‘no.’ And it’s too late to do that when they get older.”
The idea of giving gifts must be instilled at an early age, said Dr. Herbert Blaufarb, outpatient director of the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic.
“You can’t raise a child to be compassionate only during one time a year,” Blaufarb said. “They have to know how to share and how to earn presents. There are times when you have to say the child can’t have that Ninja Turtle toy, and you will have to deal with the fact that the child despises you at the moment. You can’t raise a child with guilt.”
So many Valley parents have their own busy schedules and have little time together, said the Rev. Roberta Johnson, a youth pastor for six Lutheran churches in Van Nuys, Chatsworth, Northridge and Granada Hills. It’s standard among some of the wealthy families in her congregations to give new imported cars to teen-agers for their high school graduations, said Johnson, who drives a 1979 Thunderbird.
“But as busy as they are, some families take time to do something for others on the holidays that opens their children’s eyes to those who are less fortunate, like help feed homeless at a mission,” Johnson said. “The children are surprised to see that not everyone has two homes, four cars and a yacht, and they begin to learn that things have to be earned.”
The get-rich-quick attitude is shifting in America, Johnson said, and families are focusing on taking care of the environment and each other.
Teen-agers in danger of becoming spoiled by their wealth have completely changed their outlook after helping with a weekend church construction project in Tijuana, Mexico, said Dana Hanson, associate pastor at the First Lutheran Church of Northridge. Even Hanson’s 2-year-old has carried fresh-picked oranges to the altar to present to poor families in Mexico.
“You can see on their faces how much the act of giving brings them joy, even the little ones,” Hanson said. “If they say they want Nintendos and don’t care about poor people, the answer should be that wealth is only beneficial if it can help others.”
One of Hanson’s youth leaders, Tim Gulsrud, 15, who lives in Bell Canyon, said he is hinting to his friends that he would like to take them one weekend to help build the church in Mexico. He tells his rich friends at Calabasas High School stories about the people he has helped.
“My school has a reputation for being excessively materialistic. I mean, I know kids who get a Porsche for getting good grades,” Tim said. “There are a few of my friends I’d like to invite to show them what it’s like helping others like this, but I have to do it gently.”
But even a pastor’s family falls prey to the pressures of their peers, such as when the Rev. Larry Thomas’ children said they wanted the air-cushioned Michael Jordan pump tennis shoes that cost $135. Thomas, who has a congregation of 90 families at Holy Shepherd Lutheran Church in Chatsworth, told them that he would pay only the amount for the average cost of tennis shoes, but anything stylistic that cost more would have to be paid for by his children--two boys and two girls, ages 15, 12, 9 and 8.
“That way, we’re not saying they can’t have what they want; we’re saying they must earn it,” said Ann Thomas, their mother. “In our community, our children’s friends seem to have far more material things than we do, yet our children seem to keep their requests reasonable--most of the time.”
Another practice at the Thomas house is holding back 10% of all the children’s allowances and pooling their money to give to someone anonymously at Christmastime, teaching them the spirit of giving.
“The children decide among themselves who it goes to--sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s a stranger,” said their mother, who sent her children’s money last year to a Korean priest helping orphans. “They really enjoy giving it and they’ve never objected to giving away a portion of their allowance.”
But, she added, “of course, they have no choice.”