Richard Watts, a US-based lawyer who counsels the rich and famous and who, earlier this year, published Entitlemania: How Not To Spoil Your Kids, And What To Do If You Have, firmly believes parents should say “no” to kids much earlier and a lot more often.

I am relieved to hear this. I am not good at many things, but I am quite good at saying “no”, partly because my own parents said “no” to me quite often, partly because I don’t have the money to say “yes” often enough, and partly because I know that hearing “no” doesn’t often kill (I’m still here, after all).

But recently it worried me that I was better at saying “no” than “yes”. A friend – a richer, glossier, kinder friend – suggested that my saying “no” wasn’t good for my kids and that I ought to say “yes” to them more often (As in: Yes, you can have X, Y, Z).

She confided that even when money was tight, it remained imperative her children still got what they wanted, and what their friends had. I, however, in case there’s any doubt, am of the school of parenting that says if you can’t afford it, you – or by association, your kids – can’t have it. The maths is easy: It either adds up, or it doesn’t.

When I generously shared my parenting philosophies with her, she admonished me: “Why do you make your children suffer for your failings?” (my “failing” being my lack of disposable income). “Children must have the things they need and want. That’s your job as parent: To make sure they get them”.

Need and want? Need or want? This is a big part of the problem, says Watts. “There’s huge disparity between need and want: I need a new phone, I want the new iPhone 7,” he says. Spot the difference?

The richest person in the world, says Watts, “does not have the most. They need the least”. This may sound trite, but think about it. Children need to understand the distinction. I can’t have whatever I want, and I work. Why on earth should my kids?

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And besides, turning a need into a want on their own provides children with an excellent exercise in incentivising, in identifying passions, in focusing the attention.

“If you want to upgrade your phone to an iPhone 7, how about making some money so you can afford it yourself?” you could suggest. Nothing in the world feels as sweet as making your own money; don’t take that – the hunger – away from your kids. They will never spend your money as wisely as they spend what they earn themselves.

Hong Kong clinical psychologist Dr Quratulain Zaidi, founding director of MindnLife, believes we need to recalibrate our kids’ values – and not just the value of money – but also the value of respect, empathy, gratitude and hard work.

But Zaidi also understands the challenges of raising grounded kids in a world of instant gratification where keeping up with the Joneses is deemed paramount. ”We need to teach our children about delayed gratification,” she says.

Katrina Rozga, a clinician in the behavioural health and therapy department at Hong Kong’s Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre, admits it’s not easy saying “no”.

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“We live in a society where advertising directed at children is a billion-dollar industry, creating kids who want to buy, buy, buy and have the same things as their peers,” she says. That, coupled with parents who want to give their kids those things – usually stuff they never had when they were children – promotes a “yes parenting pattern”.

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But, Rozga warns, “the problem is that spoiling a child can have long-term effects; spoiled children can grow into spoiled adults – self-centred, inconsiderate, ill-disciplined, indulged and, ultimately, discontented, unfulfilled and unhappy”.

So how much is too much? And how much, especially, to give when you can afford to give more: That’s the really tricky bit.

“Children need to be taught boundaries, not have their every whim indulged, and learn to accept rules and consequences. A child who gets everything they want, when they want it, will never learn patience or how to deal with failure or denial. It’s important for parents to think of their children’s long-term happiness rather than their happiness in that one moment,” Rozga says.

Give your children memories instead, suggests Watts, not stuff. Memories of people, places, even memories of being mean and explanations as to why you need to be. It won’t kill you. It won’t kill your kids. They may even come away with a thing of greater value: An understanding of the value of the transience of “stuff” and the lasting impressions a good memory or a great lesson can deliver. – South China Morning Post/Anthea Rowan


* This story has been edited for length and clarity.