Year after year, parents succumb to their children’s plaintive appeals for the toy or gadget du jour, only to trip over it in the middle of living room within hours of the purchase. And each time the cycle repeats, many parents wonder how they can refocus junior’s aspirations away from the material and toward the spiritual.
Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., has studied materialism and written several books, including “The High Price of Materialism”. His studies revealed that “compared with students who were more oriented toward self-acceptance, affiliation or community feeling, those who considered financial success a relatively central value reported significantly lower levels of self-actualization and vitality, as well as significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety.” All this is an academic way of saying money does not buy happiness.
How can a parent teach this lesson to the child who “needs” to have every new gadget they see on TV? Kasser notes, “Materialistic values are implicated in our role as parents. When they guide our behavior, our children will soak it up.” He offers several strategies for parents. Limit screen time on both the television and the computer. When children are exposed to advertising, help them understand what is happening by deconstructing the ads for them – for example, explain that the kids in the ads are just actors, acting happy to convince you to buy the product. Build up other values such as self-acceptance and the importance of family and friendships. Foster healthy aspirations to make the world a better place and, most importantly, model good values for your children. Finally, he encourages parents stay vigilant to make sure schools and extracurricular organizations do not permit advertising to children.
For the Catholic parents who want to encourage their children’s spiritual growth away from materialism, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudato Sí” offers many guidelines for the family. “In the family, we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say thank you as an expression of genuine gratitude for that we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed and to ask for forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings.”
The Holy Father presents, in modern terms, the Christian understanding of “quality of life,” one that is not defined by luxury and convenience but by the joy and peace that comes from living a life of moderation and the “capacity to be happy with little.” Many children and young adults already have an appreciation for the ecological benefit of reusing and recycling. Pope Francis asks that we apply this to our relationship to all living things to care for our world and each other. “Young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment. At the same time, they have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence, which makes it difficult to develop other habits. We are faced with an educational challenge.”
To raise a happier and more fulfilled child, parents must first examine their own values, priorities and goals in order to “make the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning,” writes Francis. Then, encourage children to focus on things that benefit others and their world. This will give them more self-esteem and make them happier than all the toys and video games ever made. As the Holy Father says, “the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart.”
Note: For help in diffusing materialism in children, Dr. Kasser recommends the Center for a New American Dream/Kids Unbranded newdream.org and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, commercialfreechildhood.org.