How to Discourage Materialism in Your Kids
- Tuesday, June 18, 2002
During the early grade-school years, children grow more interested in the material world than they were back in kindergarten. Of course, at any age, kids vary widely in their acquisitiveness depending on how strongly materialism is emphasized at home, whether through exposure to TV or by older siblings or parents themselves.
But, in general, many 6- to 8-year-olds are motivated by a combination of a young child's basic greed for fun toys, an increasing awareness of what other kids have, and the desire to fit in by having the same things themselves. After birthdays and holidays, the question shifts from "What did you do?" to "What did you get?"
And a more sensitive child may start struggling with feelings of shame if his friends tease him because he's the only one in class wearing anonymous discount-store sneakers. Here are some ways to discourage materialism.
What you can do
Set a good example. At this age, kids still look up to their parents more than to their peers, so you're the best role model for helping your child cope with our complicated material world. If you want to discourage him from developing an insatiable appetite for possessions, let him see you behaving with restraint and wisdom. Take him along to the shoe-repair shop, and explain why it's worth re-heeling your favorite shoes instead of buying new ones (you save money, and besides, your old shoes are so comfy). Don't let mail-order catalogues take up all your reading time, and comment that while you like his aunt's new SUV, your 6-year-old station wagon still runs just fine. Enjoy window-shopping together without buying anything to show that while it's fun to look at store displays and gather ideas for gifts and other purchases, you don't need to buy something every time you go to a store. But save the lecture: A few off-hand comments explaining your views will get the message across.
Turn off the TV. From cereal boxes to Saturday morning cartoons to clothing emblazoned with store names and Disney characters, advertising is everywhere in our culture. But television probably wields the greatest influence on children, who watch commercials as avidly as they watch programs. Kids also make up a huge portion of consumer spending, as buyers themselves and as forces affecting their parents' buying decisions.
In fact, according to James McNeal at Texas A&M University, last year alone America's 27 million kids, ages 8 to 14, spent more than $14 billion. Toy company executives know this, and they advertise relentlessly during children's programs. Limit your child's exposure to TV commercials, and he'll be less likely to develop a lengthy wish list. Children's public television, while it's not strictly commercial-free, offers quality programs with much less advertising.
Don't fulfill every request. Children who get everything they ask for don't learn to handle disappointment, and they don't learn to work -- or even just wait -- for things they desire. Do yourself and your child a favor by saying no to unending requests, even if that provokes tantrums in the toy store at first. Enlist the aid of friends and grandparents -- who often delight in "spoiling" your child -- by suggesting they buy only one gift at birthdays or holidays, instead of half a dozen.
Teach your child about money. Grade-schoolers can learn about the value of possessions by paying for them themselves. Giving your child an allowance provides him with cash and you with the opportunity to teach him how to use it His cries of "Oh, I want that!" at the store can be met with, "That costs five dollars. Do you have enough of your own money to pay for it?" If you want to institute spending rules, set them up right away so he knows from the start that, for example, half of his money should go into savings and half is his to spend as he chooses.
At this age, children should also understand that some expenditures -- like groceries and rent or mortgage payments -- are necessities, while others -- like yet another Game Boy cassette -- are optional. When he whines, "But I want a new scooter!" you can respond sympathetically, "I understand that you want it," but then explain why he doesn't truly need it: "You already have a good scooter, and they're too expensive to collect." This teaches him that there are logical reasons behind purchasing decisions. It's wise to avoid bringing adult feelings of failure or resentment into the conversation.
As Paul Coleman, a family therapist and author of How to Say It to Your Kids puts it, "This is not a time to say, 'Well, I'm sorry, but we give you the best we can, and you should be satisfied with that!'"
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