Consumer culture is making our children unhappy. The drive to have the latest stuff, and to look ‘hot’ is associated with a downward spiral of poorer peer relationships and lower self-esteem. And it is starting from the age of 8 – if not sooner.
In a recent study of 1000 children aged 8-14, researchers found that kids wanting to be popular felt like they needed to own the right clothes, toys, and gadgets to fit in, but that the desire to have those things led to worse, rather than better relationships with friends, and poorer psychological wellbeing.
Ironically it is often the children who are already struggling who turn to these extrinsic sources in the hope they’ll find new friends if they look cool enough. The approach appears to be unhelpful.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Slick, appealing multi-million dollar sales campaigns from well-refined marketing departments of multi-billion dollar companies are better than ever at making us – and our children – believe that owning a certain product or possessing a particular look is the answer to feeling good and being popular. While adults are not immune, our children are particularly susceptible. They want to fit in. They want to be cool, and they want to look like (and feel like) those they admire. Social media amplifies the desire.
Materialism is not the answer
When our children pester us for a new product, we should remember that ‘stuff’ will not usually solve the problem. One morning my daughter refused to go to school unless we purchased her a new school bag. After careful listening (and a LOT of patience) she helped us to understand that a new schoolbag was essential because she had no friends. When pressed as to how a schoolbag would help her with her friendship challenges, she replied, “If I have a new bag with the cool brand on it, then the other kids will notice it, and they’ll talk to me.”
Acquiescing to materialistic demands is like trying to destroy a tree by hacking at the leaves. While ever we ignore the root, the tree will keep growing, and the challenges in our children’s lives will continue to appear.
Tips for parents
Here are my top tips for parents who want to help their children understand that having the right gear or the right look won’t make the difference they wish it would:
Be an example
Our children follow our lead. If we always have to have the latest, coolest gear then chances are that our children will want it too. We set the example, and if we buy the lie that having nice things is the highway to happiness, our children will fall into step behind us. Get clear on your values, because the kids will catch them.
Listen and understand
Your child’s wellbeing is worth a few minutes of listening. It can be tempting to issue a flat-out ‘no’, and it can be just as tempting to say “sure, why not?” But remember that the desire for stuff is often a plea for recognition and popularity – and buying into consumerist culture offers a short-term fix at best.
Be flexible but not indulgent
Take each case on its merits. Sometimes you’ll give in and other times you won’t. It may be that a request is unrelated to popularity and consumerism, and your child simply has a need or desire for a really great product. If so, it’s worth considering. If the issue is all about looks and being cool, then a discussion followed by a gentle “no” or “not now” or “what other options are there” would be appropriate.
Avoid handouts where possible
Help your child appreciate the cost of things by inviting their contribution to the purchase or having them wait for a significant event (like a birthday). While this is not likely to reduce materialistic tendencies, at least they’re recognising that nice stuff costs money and takes effort to earn.
What if my child doesn’t understand ‘no’?
- When your child is absolutely convinced that a new ‘goody’, (or for older kids, a new surgical procedure) will be the answer to their happiness and popularity issues:
- Listen. Always understand the reasons for the request. The desire for the goody is usually being driven by something else.
- Don’t offer to save them. Instead, problem solve together and let them come up with appropriate solutions that YOU feel good about.
Sometimes your child may really need a new backpack. Other times, what they need is a new school. When we use consumerism as a coping mechanism, we might get a short-term fix. Unfortunately, research shows it’s ultimately detrimental to our children’s wellbeing. What builds relationships and wellbeing is time, focus, and understanding. Not more indulgent stuff.