Worried about kids and materialism and the constant desire for more? Learn how to raise non materialistic children and instill important values.
Piles of holiday gifts. Extravagant parties. The desire for the latest toy and discarding the perfectly good ones they already have. Worse, looking down on other kids who don’t have the same things they do.
Regardless of how much a child has, it’s easy to value materials and use it as a measure of self-worth. Materialism also doesn’t allow children to practice the skills that will serve them better in life, such as gratitude, empathy and delayed gratification.
Materialism exists regardless of a family’s income. After all, anyone—from those with the least money to the most—can still want what they don’t have, and value them above other parts of their lives.
So I do my best to raise non materialistic children, no matter our circumstances. I’ve found the best ways include focusing on the values you want to promote and redefining what it means to raise your child into the adult you want him to become.
What makes children materialistic?
But first, what are the common culprits that lead children to value materialism? Research points to a few sources:
- From us. Parents model behaviors that kids adapt for themselves, like when you show joy from having purchased a new television, or when your kids overhear your preference for high-end brands. They learn we place high value on material items, especially expensive or extravagant ones.
- From unhappiness. Like adults, kids can feel a void in their lives. These empty spaces can be due to low-income, low self-esteem and comparing themselves to others. Left unhappy, kids turn to material goods for the initial rush and satisfaction they provide.
- From the media. Television and advertising sell you on the idea that you don’t have enough. They want you to seek more material goods (especially their items) to fit right in. With a wider exposure to expensive lifestyles, kids turn to items for fulfillment and assume these things will make their lives better.
How to raise non materialistic children
Thankfully we can do a lot to combat these sources and raise non materialistic children. Take a look at these simple but effective ways to do so:
1. Limit how much stuff you give
Imagine having one skirt. It’s a good-quality, beautiful skirt you’ve worn and cherished over the years.
Now imagine adding to your collection—maybe you have twenty skirts. That first skirt might start losing its appeal, its special-ness.
Take that number even higher—let’s say you have 100 skirts hanging in your closet. Now how much will you cherish that first skirt—any of the skirts, really—when there are 99 others?
Abundance is good… up to a point. After a while, your possessions become plain items you toss around with no meaning. Things aren’t cherished—they’re not enough. Soon, we’re on an endless chase for the next best thing instead of appreciating what we have.
Kids notice this. Keep toys and play things to what’s enough for your kids and nothing more. Think about whether you kids need the latest learning tools (they usually don’t).
Because the more you give, the higher the standards you set. Buying your son a toy car every weekend might bring joy those first few weeks, until he gets upset when you don’t come home with a toy. Rightly so—he has come to expect a toy every weekend and is upset when he doesn’t get one.
2. Encourage experiences over items
If you want your kids to be happy, ditch material gifts and give them experience gifts. Material gifts make us happy for three months before its novelty wears out, but the satisfaction of experiences last much longer.
Think about the first time you purchased your phone. I’m guessing you took all precautions to keep it clean and marveled at the new features you can use. Fast forward a few months later and you probably toss your phone in your purse and forgot its hefty price tag.
Then think about your last vacation, the date night with your partner, or the time you took your daughter to a museum. Those experiences make a more lasting impression compared to an item you’ll forget in three months.
I asked my son what his favorite part of the day was, and he replied, “Playing the pillow game with my brother.”
“Pillow game” involves both of them taking turns hugging a pillow and laughing after the fact.
Both had a good time for something they made up and didn’t need any material items (I won’t count the pillow). You won’t find a price tag on a play date with friends or a special one-on-one moment with you.
3. Require kids to earn treats and extras (or at least wait for them)
Should your kids want something that isn’t on your priority list, teach them to save or earn the money. Start a savings account for your kids where they can learn how to budget for big-ticket items.
With a limited income, kids are forced to make hard decisions on what’s important and what isn’t. They’ll also learn how much time and effort goes into making purchases, and that money doesn’t come instantly.
If your kids aren’t old enough to grasp the concept of saving, have them wait before you make your purchases. My eldest had been hankering for stickers for several weeks before I finally bought them. I could spend $2 to buy stickers, but I explained to him that I don’t want to use my money to buy stickers all the time.
4. Limit and deconstruct advertisements
The American Psychological Association recommends kids under eight-years-old not see advertising targeting children. This is for good reason:
“Research shows that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased.”
When your kids watch the latest ads about toy cars and junk food, they believe them as true.
The less television and advertising kids watch, the less they’ll take advertising as truth. They won’t feel like they need these items to have fun, have friends and feel good.
If your child happens to catch some advertising, deconstruct the message and encourage conversation. Let him know ads are trying to sell items, and discuss the ways they’re doing so. Talk about the smiling kids, the fast toys, bright colors and big text—all techniques advertisers use to get kids to buy their stuff.
5. Encourage gratitude and giving
Gratitude reminds children how much they’re blessed and thwarts the desire for more stuff.
Teach gratitude and giving. If your child has toys and clothes galore, remind her how thankful you are and for how much it took to give her these.
When she receives gifts, focus more on how cool it is that Aunt Jane thought of her when she gave her a new play set. Discuss how loved she is by the people who showered her with presents.
And encourage giving with your child. She can donate to charity, volunteer, or learn to share and give with other kids. An SSBE reader wrote how she tries to raise non materialistic children by taking her daughter out to shop, not to buy gifts for herself, but for other people.
When we give, we’re reminded that we still have something to give in the first place.
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Raising non materialistic children isn’t about shaming luxury or downplaying the joy of new items. I love the feeling of getting something new, and we need material items to survive and enjoy life.
But we can also help our kids shift the focus away from material goods and cast the sources of their joys wider.
Limit how much stuff you give, even if you have the means to provide them. And when you do, focus on giving experience gifts over material ones—these will have a more lasting impression and teaches your child to value special moments.
If your child wants something, have her earn or at least wait for it instead of giving it at her whim. Avoid exposing her to advertising, especially if she’s younger than eight-years-old (and talk about what ads are trying to do if she happens to see a few).
Finally, teach gratitude and the value of giving to others. This reminds her of how blessed she truly is with the life she has.
Raising non materialistic children is important for every parent, regardless of income. It’s our way to raise future adults who will value joy not from material items, but from experiences, from others, and from their own intrinsic selves.
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