That incident reminded me of the Marshmallow Study done in the '60s. A group of four-year-olds was offered one marshmallow but told that, if they could wait for 15 to 20 minutes, they could have two. The theory was that those children who could wait had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse. It was observed that those children who could do so did well in school and in life 20 years later.
Many of us who are now parents grew up in the '60s and '70s when we did not enjoy many material comforts. In my family, we would eat chicken and meat only during festive seasons. I remember going to Chinatown once a year to buy a dress for Chinese New Year. A birthday would warrant an egg and, if times were good, a plate of noodles.
In our eagerness to give the best to our children, often we tend to give them what we would want or had missed out on. We would not blink an eye spending S$300 on a themed birthday party, for instance. And providing music or ballet lessons is not enough now; we have to have deportment lessons or equestrian lessons too. I have seen children as young as nine with their own personal iPhone.
We have a policy in our household. Our children are not allowed to ask us to buy anything for them when we are shopping at the supermarket or department store. They are not allowed to buy anything that has been mass advertised, and we would never buy them any branded merchandise.
We feel that, as long as our children are provided with a basic nutritious meal, there is no need to eat fast food. A simple pair of jeans that can be bought from the neighbourhood shop is sufficient, without the need to pay five times the price for a branded label affixed.
They were taught from young to distinguish between needs and wants. We would never give in to what they want no matter how loud their protest but we would not spare a dime to provide for their needs.
Here is the million-dollar question: Are we parents able to distinguish between what our children need and what they want?
We have a few simple guidelines. Firstly, some wants are created by advertisers, and children with impressionable minds can be hooked by slick presentations. If we give in to their demands, our children will grow up believing that, if they make enough noise, they will get what they want; and they will believe that what is advertised is always good.
Secondly, we are very clear on what our children need in life. They need to establish a good relationship with their parents, communicate with their family members and friends and bond with the community. Thus, we would never buy communication devices that would allow them to play games at the dinner table. We have seen some children who are preoccupied with their iPhone at parties - it deprives them of the chance to socialise and they become insular.
Finally, we always remind ourselves that we parents are in control. A firm "no" often silences our children when they throw tantrums. The greatest disservice we can do to our children is to give in to their whims - we would be helping to develop children who are ill-disciplined and spoiled.
M Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled discusses the elements of discipline, which include the ability to delay gratification. As long as Maslow's basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied, we should focus on helping our children to grow into mature, loving human beings who can contribute to society, not little emperors who would terrorise it.