Although the holidays highlight the need to control materialism, families can work to set good habits all year round. Here are some methods parents have found useful:
• Get the wish-list habit. Holidays are a perfect time to start. Explain that your child won’t be able to have everything on the list, so sorting them in order of priority is helpful. When children have to choose among alternatives, they have to consider what’s important to them. You can help them do some of this thinking aloud.
• Encourage saving. Children who get everything they want without having to wait lose the joy that comes with saving their own money to get some of what they want. Some children are ready by the age of 4 or 5 to begin saving for a special item on their list.
• Introduce hobbies that last. Collecting is fine, but encourage free and inexpensive possibilities, too, such as the bookmarks given away in bookstores, leaves, stones or shells. Postcards are inexpensive, and your child can write something about where she bought it on the back of each one. The best hobbies are those that encourage creative or inventive or persistent activity, not continuous buying.
• Opt for real experiences. Some families overplay the importance and value of things by making shopping a family event, a substitute for adventure, notes Jerry Stubben, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State University and the co-leader of a family-oriented substance abuse prevention program in which non-materialistic values play an integral role. Stubben advises teaching children to think “beyond what the rest of the world has produced and to make something for themselves.” The good feelings that come from surmounting a challenge, learning something new, producing something creative or helping someone often last longer than the temporary boost derived from buying something new.
• Prioritize spending. Not all material things are necessarily equal. Books, for example, are one of the better “things,” whether you buy them new or used, trade them with friends or borrow them from the library. Expose your child to good music, well-written stories and quality playthings that develop skills and imagination. And while appreciating that finer things can be good – quality of stuff over sheer quantity – beware that such an appreciation doesn’t turn into snobbishness. That’s only another kind of materialism.
• Be creative. Taking your child on picnics and hikes can be a wonderfully grounding balance to shopping and other more artificial entertainment. One evening, turn out all the lights, give everyone flashlights and camp out on a blanket in the living room. Challenge your child to help you find ways to keep busy and entertain yourselves without any high-tech distractions.
• Be charitable. The holidays – but really anytime – are good for introducing the idea of charity. Even a preschool child can benefit from having a little “giving box” into which you and your child put change to be given to a charity. Consider hosting a party for which guests are asked to bring a donation for a charity instead of a gift (you and the grandparents can still get your child a nice gift). Take your child with you when you make donations and explain why you’re doing it.
• Teach media savvy. Confront media influences with your child. Whenever you see commercials together, talk about how the company is trying to convince you that you need it when you probably don’t. When your child says, “Buy me that,” help him weigh the pros and cons of each potential purchase. Is it less exciting than it looks? Will it last? You won’t always convince your child, but you’ll open his eyes to the way we can easily be swayed by bright colors, sounds or seemingly overjoyed paid child models playing with some trendy toy. (see Commercialism: Keeping Kids Safe and Savvy)
• Give your child a broader context. By the age of 6, children can begin to understand the perspectives of other people. As your child grows, try to share with her a broader view. Point out that much of the world’s population has never even made a telephone call, much less played the latest computer games. Many millions of people walk wherever they have to go, with only an occasional donkey, bicycle or bus ride. There’s probably a neighborhood not too far from your home where you can show your child a glimpse of how little some other people have.
• Understand and combat peer pressure. School-age children want to look like their peers and own what their peers own. They need to learn that you’re not a soft touch for this, that they can spend their own money on such extras. They’ll be much more discerning if they see how hard it is to stretch an allowance or baby-sitting money to cover brand name clothes.
• Finally, look to yourself. Do you have multiples of every piece of sports, kitchen or high-tech equipment? Do you make negative remarks in your child’s presence about how people dress or how their homes or cars look? Do you ever buy goods for your child because you are bored or because you’ve been short of patience with her lately? If the answer is yes, perhaps you and your child can work on curbing your materialism together.
Published November 2009, Updated August 2012