My Son the Materialist: Raising a Grounded Child in an Insta-gratification World
I have a materialistic kid and it’s bugging me. To be clear, he’s not only materialistic. He’s smart, funny, playful, social, curious and all the other things a 7 year-old should be, but man does he like “stuff.” My husband and I are not particularly materialistic - we try to model the importance of “giving” over “getting” - and while our kids definitely get toys and goodies, we try to be conscious about keeping it in check.
We live in a world where popular culture has always reigned supreme - the coolest jeans, the newest phone, the most expensive sneakers - it’s nothing new. The one thing that has changed for younger generations is the instant access; the feeling that all of this “stuff” is in reach and available at the touch of a button. My son knows that if he finds a toy he likes on Amazon, he can click “put in cart” and then “purchase with one-click” and bam! Just like that his wish comes true (does he even know that money was just spent?). When he’s playing Minecraft, the constant lure of other “mods” or “worlds” that he can purchase is at his fingertips practically begging him to spend more more more. God forbid he should have to wait a few days or weeks for something to arrive - the concept is simply baffling to him.
So the question is - is this a problem? I think it is and here’s why: Study after study shows that materialism and wealth do not bring happiness, in fact quite the opposite. When having possessions becomes equated with happiness at a young age, over time the accumulation of goods can foster feelings of depression and emptiness. Possessions will never be able to compete with friendship, community, compassion, adventure, family, mastery of a skill and self-esteem when it comes to providing happiness and fulfillment. Yet, our kids are living a good chunk of their lives in a digital world of constant material temptation and half the time they’re not even aware of the effect it’s having on them.
So for those of us who have little burgeoning materialists on our hands, what can we do to make sure it doesn’t get out of control? Here are a few tips that I use with my kids, so far with good results:
- Start teaching your child the value of money at a young age. You may fear that giving your child an allowance when they’re young will only lead to more spending, but in fact, when done right, giving an allowance teaches kids how to be smart spenders. In my home we follow the three jars method. My son has three jars - “Give” “Spend” “Save.” Every week he gets $4 (this amount will scale up as he gets older), $1 goes to “Give, $1 goes to “Spend” and $2 goes to “Save.” I learned this method from a wonderful book called The Opposite of Spoiled, by Ron Lieber. The idea is that the three jars opens up the conversation and instils the habits of how money can be spent. My son knows that his “Save” jar is for really special things that are more expensive and he’ll have to be patient (it’s so hard!). He’s also learning what giving is all about and he has a “Spend” jar for the little fun things. Does he want to spend his save money on tons of dumb little toys that will break in 10 minutes? Yup. But every time he wants something the three jar system gives us a way to talk about it and bit by bit he’s starting to understand the value of money.
- Try to keep exposure to advertising to a minimum. Advertising really does work - especially on young minds. Have your kids watch shows that are recorded or streaming without ads whenever possible, but when they do watch ads, use the opportunity to educate! Nothing will help your child navigate the constant messages of “buy buy buy” more than being media literate. Kids need to understand that large companies are trying to sell them things at every turn. They need to learn that what they see in a TV ad or a billboard is not real, it’s a fantasy made to entice them. Even the super fun social media Apps they use are simply ways for companies to gather data for advertising purposes. You don’t need to harp on this, but there are really interesting conversations to be had and mysteries to be revealed when you’re trying to “decode” an advertisement to see how it’s working on you.
- Model giving as much as possible. Whether it’s volunteering, helping a homeless person, donating gently used items or sending money to an important cause, share these moments with your child. They may or may not show an interest, but you are teaching them that there is much for them to be grateful for and that giving is just as important as getting.
- Have your child pick out birthday presents for their friends. This is a small one, but I think it goes a long way. For years I always bought gifts for my son’s friends and then told him what I’d bought. This year, I asked him what he thought his best friend would want for his birthday. Right away he had an answer - the jersey of his favorite soccer player! He was adamant that this should be the gift so we went online and picked one out together. When the jersey arrived my son COULD NOT WAIT to give it to his friend. His friend loved it and for the first time I saw my son experience the joy that comes from giving in a meaningful and personal way.
- Practice gratitude. My children are lucky and they need to know that. They have a loving family, a warm home, food when they’re hungry, a wonderful school, good friends, new clothes, health, and yes, toys. When they complain about “needing” something new, I make sure to ask them whether they “need” it or “want” it? There’s not much they need, that they don’t already have and so I point out the difference. Every night before bed, we sit together and share something that we’re thankful for in our lives - it might be friends, it might be Minecraft - doesn’t really matter, it’s the awareness that counts.
My son is only 7 and I know the material temptations will increase as he gets older; once he has his own phone, his own cash flow and his own time. So my job, as I see it, is to prepare him now (while I still have his ear) so that he’ll find his happiness in what really matters instead of just what looks pretty.
Do you have any tips on handling materialism in kids? Please share - I’d love to hear them!