Raising Unmaterialistic Kids in a Material World

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With so many children glued to their screens and obsessed with a pop culture that thrives on labels and material excess, is it any surprise that materialism in adolescents is on the rise?

As parents in the adult-making industry, our goal is to raise inherently good, kind, and respectful kids. But thanks to advertising, music videos, and social media assailing kids with messages that “having more is better”, parents of generation Z kids (those born after December 2000) now have to be mindful of outside influences defining their children negatively, such as materialism.

This begs the questions: In an increasingly material world, is it possible to raise un-materialistic kids?

According to experts, yes. But that also depends on your idea of materialism.

“It’s perfectly natural and totally normal to want things, to covet things. If, as humans, we didn’t see things we wanted and went for them, we wouldn’t survive as a species. A certain amount of materialism is part of life,” says Ron Lieber, a NYT columnist and author of the bestselling book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.

A fascination with materialistic items is part of growing up and exploring the world.

Dr. Ola Pykhtina, licensed psychologist and Art & Play Therapist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, agrees that a certain level of materialism is both normal and necessary. “A fascination with materialistic items is part of growing up and exploring the world,” she says.

But occasionally wanting something isn’t the same as constantly wanting things. There is a growing need amongst adolescents to own the latest gadget or designer sneakers or T-shirt, or whatever it is that they deem necessary to be satisfied in life or fit in or look cool. This is where social media comes into play. We can’t deny its pernicious effect on children.

Lieber likens it to people putting their best foot forward. “Instagram is a sales tool. It’s a catalogue of ‘awesomeness’ – a series of awesome events meant to make others envious,” he says. “And because children don’t have enough life experiences, they tend to think that if they have what others have, or do what others do, they’ll be happier.”

Not that social media should take all the blame. After all, materialism isn’t something we’re born with. It’s not hardwired into our brain from birth. It’s a learnt behavior, something that is taught. Therefore, we can reason that kids first learn to be materialistic from those who raise them. So it starts with you and me.

“Children are more exposed to materialism nowadays and we adults are responsible for this. That is why it is our responsibility to look within and examine our own values and lifestyles to see why our children may lose focus of what really matters in life,” says Dr. Pykhtina. “How much do you, as a parent, give importance to ‘materialistic’ things in your life? Children grow their roots of understanding from within the family and this plays one of the most important roles in the development of a young mind, which is why reflecting on our own habits and preferences is a good starting point.” For example, some parents misuse materialistic things such as gifts to compensate for lack of time or attention.

Materialism isn’t something we’re born with. It’s not hardwired into our brain from birth. It’s a learnt behavior, something that is taught.

Where then, do we draw the line between what we can afford to give and what we should give?

Lieber believes that we have to start talking about the difference between wants and needs, and to do it in every category of spending in our homes. A simple way to do this with younger children is to use what he refers to as the ‘want/need continuum’. You simply draw a horizontal line with ‘want’ on one end and ‘need’ on the other and then draw a vertical line at the point where you’re willing to spend.

Lieber uses the smartphone (a common debate in many households) as an example. “Smartphones for kids are a want, not a need. Kids need voice service and texting ability since that is the way we communicate nowadays,” he says. “They do not need internet access on the go. If they want that, they should pay for it themselves.”

The bottom line is a trade-off. As adults, we make trade-offs all the time, even if we have money, Lieber points out. And that’s something we need to be teaching our children. “We want to set things up so that they have everything they need and only some of the things they want, but not enough so that they don’t have to work for it.”

Teaching and showing gratitude is also a great way to offset materialism. A study entitled ‘The impact of gratitude on adolescent materialism and generosity’ by McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang found that fostering gratitude in kids decreases materialism. The scholars found that gratitude makes individuals feel more supported, which strengthens feelings of security and satisfaction in their lives, therefore reducing materialism. Surveying 870 adolescents in the US between the ages of 11 and 17, they measured their gratitude by testing how thankful these adolescents were for the people and possessions in their lives, using statements that the participants had to agree or disagree on, such as: “It’s easy to think of things to be thankful for,” or, “when I grow up, the more money I have, the happier I’ll be.” The results showed that the more grateful the adolescents were, the lower the level of materialism.

A family gratitude ritual (that doesn’t have to have any religious connotation), like toasting at the dinner table, is a good way to teach younger kids to express gratitude. “It helps to take attention away from the things that you want, that you yearn for, and it brings the focus where it belongs – on the things that you have,” Lieber says.

Investing in experiences is another good way to teach kids the pleasure of doing things versus buying things.

“All happiness research shows that doing things trumps having things,” Lieber says. “Kids may value the experience over money – like soccer practice or story time with their parents. The family mantra should be that doing things is better than having things. And, yes, sometimes doing things is more expensive, but it’s about tilting your family’s perspective.”

Dr. Pykhtina agrees. “Interestingly, in my experience working with children and families, it is not a rare occasion when children ask parents to do activities together rather than to give them gifts.” She suggests family activities that highlight how fortunate our kids are, as this instills a sense of gratitude. “Watching documentaries of how other children live across the world, engaging in volunteer work, or encouraging them to take care of animals is another way to develop empathy and help children learn to look beyond materialistic things. Teaching them about recycling and buying eco-products at home helps too. The idea is for your kid to find pleasure in using materialistic things to serve the community and improve the life of those in need,” she says.

While we only have so much control over what our kids are influenced by outside of our homes, we still hold the ace – because children are mostly shaped by what they are taught rather than what you have bought them. So, next time your kid is throwing an epic tantrum because you didn’t get them that expensive thing they really wanted, pat yourself on the back. You’re acing this parenting thing.

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