My 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.
Each 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.
Lieber 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?