How to grow a materialistic child

Trees_edited-1My grandfather grew up on a large piece of land in Poland.  His household (which included his parents, four siblings, grandparents, uncle and his family, and a caretaker) would rise early to tend to the animals, bake the daily bread, and commence a day of hard work around the house and in their orchard.  Clothing was hand sewn.  Toys were made from wood and whatever was available around the house.  People shared rooms.

When I stop by to visit with my grandparents these days, my grandpa will point to my iPhone and say, “Can that little machine tell me some Yiddish song lyrics?” or “Would that rectangle take a good picture of this?” The fact that I could take a photo and immediately send it to his sister in New York was mind boggling to him.

dog in wagonEach new generation of parents is amazed at what goods and experiences are available to their children.  I know I’ve tried explaining pay phones to my daughter and she’s interested in how that entire system actually worked, but she can’t really conceive of it.  Or going to a video store.  Or having to go to the library to find an answer to a question.  “Kids today” don’t seem to have much experience in actually waiting for things.  We have instant access to media and information.  Any product we could imagine could be dropped at our doorstep by Amazon, sometimes in a matter of hours.  It really is amazing how fast things have changed.

I also think our standards have shifted, mostly upward.  Rather than brew a pot of Folgers at home, many people pop over to the Starbucks drive thru as part of their morning routine.  Starbucks wasn’t even around a generation ago.  When much of the world has never had a hot shower, why do we think it’s “normal” to have luxury-brand clothing or to take a generator along when going camping? Should kids expect a trip to Disney World as part of the typical life experience?

Given this instant-access and materialistic culture we live in, how do we raise our children with restraint? What is the appropriate amount of toys???

Ron Lieber writes in The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money that “materialistic people focus more on stuff than they do on people and relationships. They genuinely believe that more stuff will make them happy.” Sometimes this comes out at a playdate when two children are fighting over one toy.  Sometimes it’s the whining and begging that we hear in the toy aisles of every store.  Lieber points out that much of their desire has to do with wanting to belong.

Lieber says it all begins with the example we set when we buy things for ourselves. Remember, it’s their job to ask questions.  Our spending choices say a great deal about our values, and children want to know why we make certain decisions… how much tv we watch, whether we prioritize travel over dining out or clothing, and where we go on vacation.

Setting limits is part of responsible parenting.  Just because Parent A allows their child to stay out until midnight shouldn’t automatically make Parent B “the strict one” because they want him home by 10:00.  Go ahead and say no to the latest gadget and disappoint your kid.

GiveawaysLieber writes that “feeling fortunate is good for kids… [research shows there are] strong correlations between gratitude and higher grades, levels of life satisfaction, and social integration.  There’s also a link between gratitude and lower levels of envy and depression.”

How do we foster a feeling of gratitude? At our dinner table, we take turns saying one thing that happened that day that made them feel fortunate.  Sometimes we change it up and tell how we helped someone that day.  Or something in our life that we are thankful for.

Another thing we do is try to give our daughter some perspective.  She doesn’t naturally encounter people who are in a different economic situation.  So I point out the homeless person standing on the corner and we talk about that for awhile.  When we go to the grocery store, I have her pick out a can of veggies to drop in the food donation bin on the way out.  Every Friday night, we put at least a few coins into a special box designated for a future donation.  Soon I’ll be taking her to the food bank to learn about what they do.  I would really like to figure out a way for her to naturally meet and befriend other kids who may not have as much as we do.

I have a very clear memory of my father taking us kids to deliver some Christmas gifts to a destitute family he knew of.  He wanted us to see the room where they all lived and how much they appreciated what we gave them.  That mental image comes to me sometimes when I’m deciding whether to purchase something.  Perspective.

This month, my daughter is invited to 9 birthday parties.  We select gifts for her friends together and it never fails that she wants one of the same thing.  I try to always say no, that it’s ok to want things, but we have to think about purchases.

We’re surrounded with the message that “more stuff” is necessary.  But is more stuff a good thing? He who has the most toys wins?  I am fighting it with all I’ve got.

What do you think?

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10 Responses to How to grow a materialistic child

  1. This is a biggie! In my family it’s certainly a source of tension. I think the strongest anti-materialistic thing I’ve seen is a hoarder’s house, choked with stuff. More and more is brought in all the time, without thought about where it’s going to be kept and if there is a need. I suspect we all start out emulating or maybe rebelling against our parents, and the key thing is the emotional investment we have in our possessions. The best things you can do are to show her how people can be generous, and un-concerned about having more. Does your daughter have the experience of saving up for something she wants? I think learning to wait is a very valuable experience, but it also tends to make you focus on the thing you want, so I suppose saving up for a special experience might be even better than saving up for a possession. Once I was bored in a hotel room alone, and I read the founder’s biography and was struck by how growing up poor motivated him to become as rich as possible. That is one side of materialism, but it had been beneficial for him, giving him purpose, but I suspect that meant he neglected other aspects of his life.

  2. Your mention of the 9 (!) upcoming birthday parties prompted me to share another parent’s approach to birthday gifts that we adopted during the elementary years: One birthday party invitation my now-16yo daughter received as a 1st grader specified that in lieu of a gift for the birthday child, we were each to bring one $5 gift; the kids would be playing a game, the invitation message explained, and each child would go home with one of these $5 items. Through the years, my daughter & I had fun deciding what kind of game she and her friends would play for the $5 birthday prizes. (Another bonus: no need to buy party favors!) Overall, the party was always about having fun together vs. focusing on the gift-opening. On the flip side, my younger daughter (now 12) was never keen on this plan, so we didn’t do it for her parties. Even though she didn’t participate in the same way, I think she still learned the values we were aiming to instill by de-emphasizing birthday gifts. Thanks for a thought-provoking post and for sharing the Lieber book!
    Heather Koshiol recently posted…Share: Ideation Process {part 3}My Profile

  3. SKJAM! says:

    According to a biography I read about Rose Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter); Laura often complained about how “today’s kids” were too spoiled and materialistic…at the height of the Great Depression.
    SKJAM! recently posted…Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot AlterMy Profile

  4. Naomi says:

    Isn’t that funny? It must be that we will always compare our own experience to the next generation’s.

  5. kimberly says:

    I was remembering my Grandma and Grandpa Jewell’s house on the farm. It was built by my grandfather and just the right size for a family of 7 but yes, no one had their own bed. And more importantly, if there was a toy, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t lying out in the living room. I remember they had a tiny stand with books on it, and as we’d crawl in two or three to a bed, I’d pick up a book they had on different kinds of fish. I’d read about swordfish and octopus, not that I’d previously cared about them, but just because it was the only stimulus there. I realized through your article that we also choose our interests in a very instant gratification way now. How mind opening this post was. Thank you again.
    kimberly recently posted…Day 55 – Winter GardenMy Profile

  6. Naomi says:

    I really like that idea. Since we’ve limited our daughter’s guests to 5 girls, it’s not that big a deal. I did tell her about a few of those type of things that people do and she was listening, so maybe when she gets older. Of course, her birthday is smack in the middle of Chanukah this year, so she’ll be getting lots of presents.

  7. Naomi says:

    Yes, the emotional investment must be the issue. My daughter gets emotionally tied to what I would consider garbage! If it were up to her alone, our house would probably be similar to a hoarder’s. I guess it depends on what you’re used to, what you have or don’t feel you have enough of, and responding to your environment. Maybe it’s a feeling of lack of control too?

  8. Naomi says:

    When I hear my daughter say, “I’m bored,” I always contrast it in my head to that type of life. I want her to be able to slow down and just watch the rain. Instant gratification is definitely what it is…

  9. Michelle says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Naomi. It seems a fine line to walk, to me, between material things and the values, that should remain timeless, of days gone by. My son is a young man who focuses on gratitude and the simple things. Perhaps this is because I spent time with him as a single and struggling young mother. He has also known privilege – though he doesn’t seem stuck on it. A good balance, I think, that we were fortunate to “dumb luck” into. Exposure to privilege creates a drive to work for those things. An appreciation of relationships, simple pleasures and gratitude creates a groundedness that I believe is essential in a well lived life.
    Michelle recently posted…Fresh StartMy Profile

  10. Naomi says:

    I agree with you that it’s helpful to know of luxuries as nice treats every once in a while and to appreciate absolutely everything. I think I need to say aloud more how grateful I am for specific events. Yesterday my daughter asked me what makes me happiest. While I was thinking, she said “You make me happiest.” Swoon.

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