Q. Dear Bracha,

My teenage son is always comparing himself to his classmates and telling me about all the material things and privileges that they have that he does not. How should I respond when I feel he is asking for something that we simply cannot afford, or that I don't feel is necessary for a boy this age?

A. This is one of those examples where you are both right. Your son is right in his perception as he, in his teen years, is feeling the real pressure to "fit in"; nothing will fill him with dread more than standing out in the crowd in a negative fashion. You are right in that material things and privileges are decided by the parents and are based on many factors including financial means. You are also very correct in your assessment that he is asking for things that a boy his age does not "need."

What to do?

As they say—the ball is in your court! It is up to you as the parent to decide how you are going to handle the situation. As you analyze the variety of components involved I will offer you these suggestions. First, this is not a yes or no situation, rather it is an opportunity for your son to grow, to learn how to negotiate and take on more responsibilities. A parent's goal in the teen years is to help their child gain the skills to become an independent adult. Guiding your son towards adult responsibilities requires him to have practice making good choices and dealing with the consequences of making a poor choice.

Let me explain, in every category there is probably a line you will not cross. There are things that you do not want your son to do or to have; that is legitimate and it is a parent's duty to protect their child and enforce rules in their child's best interest. Do not give up one inch in this area! However, there are probably areas that are not so clear cut. What would your son have to do to make you feel comfortable, for you to feel he is safe, responsible and not heading off in the wrong direction with regards to these gray areas. Once you have had a discussion with your son and come to an understanding of why you believe certain things are important, then you can start to seek compromise in areas that are negotiable and he will know that your decisions are not arbitrary (P.S. He doesn't have to agree with you, but he does have to respect your decisions). It is up to you and your son to pinpoint areas of concern and itemize how he is going to show responsibility or earn privileges. In these cases where you have an agreement (preferably in writing—to prevent arguments), he is to live up to his agreement or the perk or privilege is removed, and it is the parents job to do so, this must be understood by both sides.

For example: With regards to clothing, you have a budget for him and no doubt a dress code. The dress code is probably non-negotiable, but with regards to the budget where can you compromise? After discussing things over with your son and no doubt pointing out brands that are good quality but may not be the "in" brand, can you reach a compromise? Perhaps you agree on a budget for clothing and he can spend it as he wishes, once the money is gone, no more clothes. If he needs more he will have to use his own money, if he doesn't have money, he will have to get a job to be able to pay for the clothing. If he doesn't have his own money and can't get a job, he will just have to do with out the clothing. Don't bail him out! In the above example your son will learn to negotiate, make decisions, budget and be responsible. If you bail him out, he learns to whine.

For other items, if you can't afford it—don't buy it. He can earn the money if it's that important to him. If it's forbidden for other reasons then discuss the matter with him. If your position is the same, then as long as he is under your roof he must abide by your rules.

I would put in a note of reality here: there are things that can come between a child and the ability to socialize and if he cannot have access to the items needed he will be excluded from his peers. If at all possible, try to determine what these real necessities are and if they are acceptable to you, and the peers are acceptable to you, try to make sure your son has what he needs. An example of this may be a bicycle. Without a bicycle in some communities, a child would be unable to be part of the social scene, literally left to sit on the doorstep while everyone else takes off. Another example: a child may want more allowance, your initial inclination may be no. Try to find out why. It may be that his friends are going out for things like pizza during lunch, if he can't pay for it…immediately he's out.

As it says in Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers): "Who is happy? He who is satisfied with his lot." I think this is what you are trying to teach your son and you are so right to do so. This is one of the greatest challenges of our society, as we see materialism is no substitute for happiness. It will be the greatest gift you can give your son, if you can teach him to lead a balanced life and not be pulled into the endless pit of a materialistic lifestyle.

Wishing you and your family all the best!