I Am the Very Mother of a Modern Major Whiner

Via My Burning Ears in the comments, I bring you this wonderful little story:

I bought my 17-year-old daughter driving lessons for her birthday. It was always assumed she would have my partner’s six-year-old car when she passed her test and that he would get a new, bigger car.

This seems very generous. What a lucky girl!

But she has decided she doesn’t want this car: it’s not cool enough, it’s the wrong colour and the pattern on the seats is embarrassing. She feels we should buy her a different car. I think she is being ungrateful; she’s lucky to be given a good car.

Oh. Well, if that’s how she feels, fair enough. My suggestion is you tell her that’s the car on offer and she can take it or leave it, but next week it’s going on eBay and if she wants it after that point she’s going to have to put in a winning bid.

However, many of her friends have been given “better” cars. One has a brand-new Mini; another was going to have her mum’s car but didn’t like it, so they sold it to buy her a new one, leaving her parents to share a car. Others have been bought used cars that are not embarrassing.

This is what happens when parents enter into social groups where children – or rather, the money lavished on them – marks one’s status. This is a lot more common than you think: next time you hear a middle-class mother talking about how well her eight year old daughter is doing in her tennis lessons, ask yourself for whose benefit the club membership was bought.

My daughter doesn’t need a car – her sixth form school is two minutes’ walk away and we have good public transport.

No, it’s a status symbol. But your daughter’s materialism and status-signalling didn’t come out of a clear blue sky. How much of it was learned at home?

We can afford to buy her a car, but I don’t think that’s the best thing to do.

Only now is it dawning on her that lavishing gifts on her ungrateful brat might not be the wisest course of action.

She has some money from a savings plan, which she’s suggested using, but she is supposed to be saving for university.

Depending on what she intends to study at university, buying a car might be the better option. After all, you wouldn’t want her to be £30k in debt in three years’ time and having to take the bus to McDonald’s each day, would you?

Also, if she did spend that money, it would mean an older car than the one she is being offered, which I don’t think is sensible.

Yes, but the car might be cooler. This is important. Why a grown woman feels the need to write to a national newspaper for help with this stuff is a mystery to me. What’s the girl’s father doing? The woman refers to a partner rather than husband. If he’s not the girl’s father, this might explain everything.

Am I being stubborn, or out of touch? I appreciate teenagers today have different expectations and more pressure through social media than I did. But I am struggling with this.

This has little to do with the daughter, and everything to do with the mother. The advice is also amusing:

We all want our children to know their own minds and show independence, but the moment they do – usually about things we may not agree with – some parents don’t like it. I want you to imagine your daughter at a work meeting (or similar) in a few years from now. She is offered a substandard contract or, at least, one she doesn’t like. And she digs in her heels and asks for a better one. You’d be proud, wouldn’t you?

I bet both the author and the mother have conjured up visions of the daughter becoming a high-flying power-skirt being headhunted for a senior role by several major corporations, issuing her demands for a bigger bonus and the corner office. In reality, she’s more likely to be presented with a zero-hours contract from Sports Direct which is about as negotiable as Annapurna in winter. In order to negotiate a contract, you need to understand your market worth and be able to convince the other party of the value you will bring to the table. An employment contract is, in theory, mutually beneficial – quite unlike the gift of a car. It is a poor analogy, and worse advice. When you’re young and inexperienced you need to do crap work for not much pay until you’ve figured out what you want to do, and start developing your market worth. Until then, simply saying “I don’t like it” and digging in your heels isn’t going to result in anything other than you living for a long time in your parents’ house.

It’s easy to say your daughter is spoiled and being bratty…

I’ve encountered greater difficulties cloud-watching.

It does not mean that you should just buy her another car. You shouldn’t. You have offered her the car and you should let her do what she wants with it. Give her the option of selling it and buying another car of her choice with the money. Let her learn about commerce and that to make something happen, she needs to have some input.

The savings fund is a difficult prospect. I don’t know if it’s in her name or yours; if she has sole control over it, there’s little you can do if she decides to spend it, and the harder you push or threaten, the more determined she will be to prove you wrong. When teenagers want something, they do so with a desire and tenacity that is immensely powerful. It’s not a good idea to get in the way of it. Instead, you need to approach it as you would a rip-tide at sea – don’t swim against it, but go alongside it until the pull subsides and you can swim to shore.

Okay, the practical advice is sensible. It’s a shame the author had to sugar-coat the root cause, though.

To help you process this, I would also ponder what this means for you. Don’t feel rejected by her not wanting the “embarrassing” car. This has nothing to do with you. Teenage behaviour can shine a light into areas of a parent’s life that may need work: if there is anything you feel insecure about, they will find it. Try to unravel what this means for you beyond the car.

As I said, this isn’t really about the daughter, or the car.

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22 thoughts on “I Am the Very Mother of a Modern Major Whiner

  1. Does John Square occasionally post here? He made some interesting points on TimW’s blog re the growth of car parking spaces as an issue in housing, based on his former professional life. About 20 years ago I noticed how many people who would once not have had a car now had one as a necessity – when is the point at which it became absolutely normal for low-wage workers like checkout assistants to drive to work? Especially for a couple in such circumstances to have one car each? The days of taking the bus or one partner dropping the other off before going to work themselves seem to have largely passed.

    Since then I’ve seen the number of cars in people’s driveways and parked outside on the street skyrocket, and almost all front gardens in my local area converted to parking areas. The last big front garden near me vanished a couple of months ago – a pity, it was rather pretty and this all must be terrible for drainage. Partly this trend must be because of young people living at home in their 20s and it being rarer for adults to share a car, but the rise in 17 year olds getting cars of their own – as opposed to buying cars of their own – can’t help.

    To be honest, this being the Guardian, I’m surprised the writer didn’t get an environmental dressing down, particularly since a car seems utterly unnecessary for this lass. It’s a really poor financial lesson for her too – cars are expensive things to keep, and if she is only going to make light use of it the cost per mile must be atrocious. When I’ve lived near work in places where shopping and the railway station are easily foot-accessible, I’ve saved considerable sums of money by dispensing with the car. Right now I’ve got to travel too far too regularly for foot or cycle to be an option but I’m aware of just how expensive the car is, and therefore how expensive are the choices that necessitate a car. A change in the travel profile of my work might allow me to go car-free again. The moment you start thinking the car is an obligatory part of adult life, even though you haven’t got anywhere you need to go with it, you lose the capacity to make those decisions rationally.

  2. “your daughter’s materialism and status-signalling didn’t come out of a clear blue sky. How much of it was learned at home?”

    It might have been all of it, but in the interests of fairness it might have been very little. These things are also learned at school and with friends, and I know lots of parents who are aghast at the values which their children have acquired despite being offered better models at home.

  3. It might have been all of it, but in the interests of fairness it might have been very little.

    Indeed, but it would be interesting to see what the split is, don’t you think?

    These things are also learned at school and with friends

    Yes, and I’m wondering what school she went to. I’d hazard a guess that those schools which parents see as status-signalling if one’s brats attend it are adept at inducing such status-signalling mindsets in the pupils.

  4. “These things are also learned at school and with friends, and I know lots of parents who are aghast at the values which their children have acquired despite being offered better models at home.”

    There’s an American psychologist who points at a pile of evidence that (American?) parents have much less influence on the behaviour of their children than do “peers”. If true, it means (it seems to me) that a large part of the parents’ job is to try to pick the peers the child will grow up among.

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nurture-Assumption-Judith-Rich-Harris/dp/0747548943

    http://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/

  5. If true, it means (it seems to me) that a large part of the parents’ job is to try to pick the peers the child will grow up among.

    Indeed, and most tend to interpret that as wanting their kids to be alongside the offspring of upper-middle class status-chasers. Which, admittedly, might be better than the violent offspring of a jailbird and whatever other thugs plague Comprehensive schools.

  6. If true, it means (it seems to me) that a large part of the parents’ job is to try to pick the peers the child will grow up among.

    I think this, far more than the quality of the teaching, has always been one of the main selling points of the British private school system – particularly that network of day schools that you can find around almost any medium-sized town upwards, with no national or international reputation, few entry requirements other than ability to pay and no earth-shattering exam results to show for it, that constitute the bulk of the “7% are privately educated” statistic. Whether it does the little’uns any good or not, whether that’s really the peer group one wants them to be growing up among, is partly a matter of taste and aspiration I suppose.

  7. I’ve always thought the idea that your school peers are important later in life to be laughable. Of all the guys I knew in private school, the only one I’m still in touch with became a mercenary. What I found mattered was who you went to university with: a man’s companions between 18 and 25 are very important, and I’m still friends with my lot now. Of course, getting to a good university might be dependent on going to a good school, but I doubt it’s your schoolfriends who will be helping you when you’re 40. Your university friends might well do.

  8. It’s interesting to see what the late Duke of Westminster (really awfully rich) chose for his children. His own schooling, from the Tel:

    Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor was born on December 22 1951. … The family home was a farm on the island of Ely on Lough Erne, near Enniskillen. Gerald enjoyed what he once called a “Swallows and Amazons childhood” with his two sisters … and in later life lamented the fact that the accident of inheritance had taken him away from the placid life of an Ulster beef farmer like his father.

    Having failed to gain a place at Eton he was despatched to Harrow, which he hated, leaving with only two O-levels. His talent was for sport, but a suggestion from George Cohen, manager of Fulham FC, that he should have a trial to join the club was vetoed by Col Grosvenor on the grounds of too much kissing on the pitch.

    His children’s, from WKPD:

    Unusually for the children of hereditary peers, Hugh Grosvenor and his sisters were educated at a local state primary school, followed by a small private day school, Mostyn House School, near the family home of Eaton Hall, Cheshire. He then attended Ellesmere College, Shropshire, a public school, from 2000 to 2009.

  9. “I doubt it’s your schoolfriends who will be helping you when you’re 40.” You’re completely missing the point, Tim. The psychologists aren’t writing about “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” See the links.

  10. There is a clear correlation between the intensity of virtue signalling from the Guardian set and their material wealth.

  11. @dearieme

    Thanks for that. Funnily enough, when I worked as a teacher we always had the opposite instinct about who was to blame.

    If a kid refused to do their homework, didn’t do any reading, hadn’t developed the basic “general knowledge” that comes from growing up in a home whose inhabitants have some minimal degree of engagement or curiosity in the world around them, then “what can we mere teachers do in such cases – it’s the parents who spend so many more formative hours with the kids!”

    Like many such intuitions I developed as a teacher, I’m beginning to wonder, given less anecdotal evidence, whether it was completely off-target.

  12. @MyBurningEars: my instinct was always that surely parental habits must matter a bit. Apparently the evidence should make me doubt my instinct. Fair enough; how much calibration against a variety of households can my instinct have been subject to?

    What if it’s (i) genes, (ii) “peers”, (iii) random noise and unknown causes, (iv) parental habits? Are teachers part of (iii)? I ask as someone who remembers a handful of teachers with admiration and gratitude.

  13. @dearieme

    Indeed. The thing that makes me curious about the result is that if folk like teachers are having a social effect, then assuming some kind of “dose-response” relationship it would be reasonable to suspect parents of having an even larger effect. It’s a longer, deeper relationship that lasts for more hours and covers a wider range of social contexts. In fact on those grounds one might still expect parents to win out over schoolpals. And then what about the effect of siblings (and perhaps birth order)?

    The general staff room consensus was that expectations were critically important, and this was why (a) it was so important that the school should try to set high expectations, but (b) why the school in many cases would fail on an individual level, since teachers mostly believe that a child’s expectations are set by their family environment. The best the school could do was to show the kids that another path was possible for them, but without parental support this was akin to leading a horse to water.

    The more sophisticated view was that schools laying down higher expectations would get better results, but primarily because it makes the school more attractive to higher-expectation parents – certainly when I taught at a more prestigious school, “my” results were flattered by the army of private tutors hired for the kids, and this parental attention clearly influenced those kids’ life-chances. But perhaps it did not influence their underlying personal traits.

    @HectorDrummond

    Massively expensive. Used to be even worse for teenage boys than girls, because of different risks posed, but because of Equality some of that pain has been shifted onto girls now. Or, let’s face the truth of the matter, the parents of said girls who are actually paying for the insurance.

  14. Gordon Bennett, mooch by to see if John Square has responded to MBE’s comment, and discover that TimN has a mate who’s a mercenary, and, worse, MBE was a teacher!

    Didn’t see that one coming.

  15. Anyway, with regard to the actual discussion;

    Assuming the fairly obvious point that kids get socialised and pick up different attitudes and behaviours within certain age ranges, I think what happens is that parents select for types of, and/or behaviours of, parents, not those parents’ children. As the child gets older, and moves through the state system to larger schools, this selection by the parents becomes increasingly difficult, if not actually impossible, so switches focus to the behaviours of children that you know your offspring befriend, so this can be a bit of a shock when darling Toby comes home with Shayleene in tow. So parents use private schools to retain the capability of that selection, it just gets shifted onto the school. For a price.

    MBE; yeah, sorry, the whole staffroom belief thing was bogus.Though it is probably useful that teachers continue to believe this sort of thing, as otherwise, they’d probably just give up and stick their heads in the nearest oven. Thing is, any given teacher will be teaching (at secondary level) each class at a ratio of about 30-1, and you might have 4-5 classes per day, or only about 3-4 hours with each unique class per week. If the school day ends at 3:15, then it is only about half (max) of the kids’ waking, “sociable” hours. For any year, it’ll be less. For any given child, you basically don’t have a snowball’s.

    Tim; for university friendships, by age 18, you have already developed the behaviours which got you to university, and so has everybody else there. It’s not exactly surprising, really.

  16. It’s not exactly surprising, really.

    I agree, it’s not surprising. But it’s always the “old boys'” network and the schools that get referred to, not the universities.

  17. Sweet jesus what’s the matter with these people?
    I just came back from visiting the in-laws where my brother in law was complaining about paying the huge insurance nut for his 22 yr old kid, as if it’s something we all do.

    You never, ever give your kid a car. Especially when they first get their license. I let my kids use mine, if I didn’t need it, back in the day. They wanted a car? Get a job and pay for one. No better lesson can be had than watching your bank account get hoovered out by repairs, gas, and insurance. There’s more to owning a car than just possession.

    Where I live, the middle/upper middle class dads tend to buy their kids the car they would have wanted at 16. Every now and then, they have fatal wrecks, killing themselves, their friends, or both.

  18. “But it’s always the “old boys’” network and the schools that get referred to, not the universities.”

    Well, give it time, old chap, give it time.

    Though I think it’s probably not going to happen anyway*. The “Old Boys’ Network” was, post-45, something of a myth, but it did exist prior to WWI, and struggled on for a bit afterwards. Basically, the school you went to almost pre-determined your career, but those careers were largely government based. So it begins to acquire this status from 1918 and through the 20s and 30s, at the same time as the Labour movement, and the party, become mainstream. Odd that.

    Though I imagine that John77 or someone will be along shortly to explain that the above is bollocks.

    *Or, at least not in the same way. Though, if you are correct about The Future Of The Corporation, there’s a potentially downright nasty interaction.

  19. “Where I live, the middle/upper middle class dads tend to buy their kids the car they would have wanted at 16. Every now and then, they have fatal wrecks, killing themselves, their friends, or both.”

    Yup. Round our way, there was a spate of that. Lasted about 8 years, seems to have stopped about 10 years ago. One lad (he’s now in his thirties) managed to write off a fair few BMWs and Audis that his Dad bought him, plus, believe it or not, a Lamborghini (that was his Dad’s), before he was 23.

    There was then a spate of parents buying old Morris Minors, Austin Metros, Ford Escorts, whatever, dating from the 80’s or earlier. At the moment, da youth seem to be in early 00’s Polos and Golfs.

    The parents’ are still bitching about the insurance costs, though.

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