When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Here we are less than a month after Christmas, and I’m already buying my daughter new stuff. See, my wife and I recently took our daughter to see Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and to my utter nerdy delight, my kid is now obsessed with the character of Spider-Gwen, the female webslinger from the movie. At the adorable age of three, she’s learned to twist her fingers into the appropriate web-shooting pose, and she’s thwipping her way around our home.
As this is a welcome change from My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake, I was all too eager to buy her some toys of her new favorite character and even tracked down a hoodie to match Gwen Stacey’s. But after I ordered that awesome, movie-accurate garment, I did think to myself: What the hell am I doing? My kid has a ton of christmas gifts from just a few weeks ago, some of which have barely been played with, and here I am getting her more.
As an only child who’s likely to stay that way, my wife and I have talked about trying not to over-indulge our kid, but both of us have struggled to put that plan into action and I already see issues with it. Whenever we go to the store, my daughter will ask me to buy her at least a half a dozen different things. I don’t get her everything, of course, but rarely do we leave a place without something. I also see it at home, too, when commercial after commercial on Nickelodeon is for another toy or some sugar-packed candy, and my daughter will ask me for just about every item advertised.
In short, I could use some help in trying to redirect my kid from a trend that’s already started to take hold, and if I’m being honest with myself, I could use some advice in restraint myself.
Basically: How do I avoid raising a materialistic child?
The Expert Advice
Deanna Golden, a mall Mrs. Claus in Arizona: Part of what may help a child to be less materialistic is to realize that they have a pretty privileged life, and you can do that by getting them involved in serving others. A lot of parents go to a food bank or to a homeless shelter and have their children help others that way. I’ve even heard of some families who, shortly after Christmas, will gather up all of the gifts that the child received and ask them to choose one to give to charity, which is an excellent lesson in service.
To turn the question around, though, it’s not really about, “how do we not raise materialistic kids” — instead it’s about, “how do we not raise materialistic parents?” Many parents think, “I want to do more for my child than I had growing up,” and they want to get everything for their child. While that seems nice, that’s much more about satisfying the parent’s own gaps than it is about satisfying the child. So it’s really about teaching the parents not to be materialistic.
When it comes specifically to Christmas, I find that what me and Santa do when a child comes up and asks for a long list of presents, we tell them to ask for just one thing and that those other presents on your list can go to other children who aren’t as fortunate as you are. For parents, I encourage a similar message at home. Depending on the household, some kids receive one or just a couple of gifts from Santa, while other children are told that just about everything is from Santa.
Personally, I tend to think it’s better to have one gift or only a few gifts which are from him (and, of course, it has to be a toy). The reason for this is the child can know that they received the other gifts from their parents and other loved ones. From this and from what you tell them, the child can learn that during Christmas time, everyone is in the spirit of giving, and that they can be, too.
Adam Ditsky, CPA, father of two and financial advisor: When it comes to money, everything is relative. I have some clients that don’t think they’re raising their kids in a materialistic way, but they make $10 million a year, so their definition of that word is so different from someone who makes $75,000 a year. So it can be tough to define materialism at all. No matter your income level though, I think a good, core message for children to learn is regulation.
No matter if a kid’s allowance is a $1,000 a month or $10 a month, having something that forces the recipient to value whatever they’re being given is important. So when they spend that money, however much it is, then they have no more money for the rest of the month. This is an important financial lesson for kids to learn. So if your kid gets $20 a month and they spend it all the first day, and for the next 29 days they have nothing, they’ll learn pretty quickly how to manage things better. While the amount may vary, the message for the kid is the same: Money is finite.
A total free-for-all with gifts or money doesn’t teach them the value of saving or the value of money, and it also doesn’t allow for the experience and satisfaction that comes with saving for something bigger and more special. I believe that skipping out on these financial lessons and just letting your kid have whatever they want can contribute a great deal to the kid growing into a materialistic adult.
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: One strategy that you can use to curb materialism is to teach children to be grateful for things, so at the dinner table you can talk about something you’re grateful for that happened today, or you can have the child keep a gratitude journal. This way you can foster an attitude of gratefulness in their life. This has been shown to work — families who have done this have reported that they’ve found their children to be less materialistic over time and they also found them to be nicer people, being more generous to their peers and happier in general because they had more internal gratification.
This isn’t just about not buying stuff for your kids, though. There’s research out there that shows that when children are over-indulged, it actually has the opposite effect on their self-esteem. This is because it’s coming from external sources instead of internal sources. People feel better about themselves when they’ve worked hard at something, but if someone does everything for you, then a reward isn’t all that meaningful. This also relates to so much of the vacuous praise that some people feed their children with participation trophies and other things like that. These things have been shown to lead to lower self-esteem because kids aren’t working hard for them or putting in the effort to earn them. Instead, they’re almost coming to expect people to say “great job” or to reward them without it meaning anything. And then, when no one does this as they age up, they end up feeling bad about themselves — they can have less internal self-esteem and they will rely on others to make them feel good.
The same thing goes when allowing our children to fail. So many parents won’t allow their kids to fail because they do their homework for them or they fight with their teacher to give the child a better grade, but then they’re not allowing their children to learn an important lesson: When kids fail, they can learn how to improve themselves in order to do better the next time. These kinds of lessons are hard, but they’re essential in allowing your child to gain confidence and independence.
Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College, and the author of Hypercapitalism and The High Price of Materialism: One way to counter materialism is to limit a child’s exposure to materialistic messaging and even to intervene with the exposures they do get. Reducing exposure simply means having less time on the computer or in front of the television. I also encourage parents to visit resources like NewDream.org, which provides a number of great strategies for reducing materialistic messages. There’s also The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, where you’ll find a bunch of resources about how to reduce marketing messages. And then there’s the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has a resource that can help you develop a plan for your household to reduce screen time.
Now, in the 21st century, you obviously can’t escape all commercials, so one thing that can be helpful is to engage the child with those commercials but in a different way. Normally what happens is that those messages just soak into their head. They may see thousands of these messages everyday and the message they’re getting is, “If I buy stuff, then I’ll be happy.” As a parent, what we can do to intervene is to simply criticize it. For example, you can tell a child that this commercial is trying to sell them something, which they generally won’t know on their own before age 12. You can intervene and tell them that the reason why a commercial has all those colors and fun music is because they want to sell you something.
You can also actively criticize the ads and make fun of them. For example, when my kids were little, one thing we used to do was mute the commercials on TV and then make our own dialog making fun of the ad. By muting it, I was reducing their exposure, and by mocking it, I was pointing out how they were trying to sell something. By trying this yourself, you’d be engaging the child, and of course, kids love this kind of stuff because it’s mischievous and subversive. The important thing is, though, that you’re helping them to have a different cognitive understanding of the ad. So, where they may originally think, This is something that I want, now they’ll think, Those marketers are trying to manipulate me. This disempowers the advertising and empowers the child.
The other way to reduce materialism has to do with the human value system. On one end of the value system, you have intrinsic, self-transcendent goals. These relate to things like growing as a person; exploring your interests; connecting with family and friends; and helping your community. On the other end are materialistic, extrinsic goals, and these stand in direct opposition to those intrinsic goals. The way the human value system works is that it’s basically a zero-sum game, and both of these sets of values cannot coexist, so the more they focus on these intrinsic, transcendent goals, this will crowd out the materialistic goals.
You want to activate and encourage those intrinsic goals. One strategy to do that is simply talking about them with your kids and modeling them yourself. If you’re a father who spends all of his time working or being on a computer, it shows that what’s important to is to make a lot of money and shop on the internet or something like that. But if you’re a father who talks to their kids about their own interests and who models that what’s most important is spending time with their family and volunteering for important causes, you’re encouraging your child to foster those more intrinsic values.
We also know from a few studies that when people are exposed to scenes of nature, it can increase their focus on intrinsic values and decrease their focus on materialistic values. Now, it’s not enough to watch nature from a car window — instead, they have to engage nature and immerse themselves in it. Additionally, spiritual values stand in opposition to materialistic values. Spiritualism can activate a different set of concerns, like those related to community and to the idea that there’s something bigger than yourself. Part of this may be the fact that every major religion seems to have a message that’s in opposition to materialism: Be it Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha, pretty much every one of them say if you focus on materialism, you’re not going to have a fully spiritual life.
Tenzin Peljor, Buddhist monk: In every being that has consciousness, there’s an innate striving for happiness. So, for a child growing up, there’s a natural desire for happiness, and this happiness can be derived from two different ways.
One way you can experience happiness is from the senses, like enjoyable sounds, tastes and smells. Also standing in the warmth of the sun or feeling the wind on your skin and other things like this. Advertisements give you the idea that you can experience happiness by appealing to these sense pleasures and by consuming material things. This is our culture here in the West, and it can be very hard to find your way outside of it.
But you can also experience happiness from an inner source. For example, you can experience happiness by feeling gratitude, and from enjoying generosity by giving to and serving others. Love, generosity and compassion can create happiness, as can caring for animals and having benevolence toward others. Finally, concentration and discipline can be a source of inner-happiness, because if you use discipline to achieve something, it will boost your self-esteem. For a child, they need to have strong self-esteem for their own happiness, and for a child, this can come from recognizing their own qualities. This is why it’s so important to encourage your child and their abilities, kindness and love. These qualities can serve as an inner-source of happiness for the child, and this inner-happiness will far outweigh any external source of happiness.
For a father, I believe he should ask himself, how does he find happiness? Is it from outside, materialistic things, or is it from these inner sources? They should assess how much they’re able to maintain their happiness from these inner-qualities, because the child will learn from these examples. If a father gains his happiness from materialistic things, the child will do the same.