- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2011

Culture Challenge of the Week: Materialism

“I’m at a loss,” Tina said. “Whenever Carlos’ friends come over, they get bored - fast. They’ll only play the latest video game, so our old games just don’t cut it. Then they’re bored, so they leave.”

They’re just 11 years old. The boys’ time together seems driven less by friendship than by the selection of electronics at one home or another.

Carlos and his friends are drowning in “stuff.” Bored by stuff, driven by stuff, competitive about stuff - they are surrounded by stuff, and it’s not making them happy.

A new report from the UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, tells why.

Interviewing scores of children ages 8 through 13 in the United Kingdom, Spain and Sweden, researchers sought answers to a simple question: What makes children happy?

Not stuff, that’s for sure.

What matters most to children is spending time with parents and family. Building friendships with peers comes next, followed by the opportunity to do fun and interesting things, especially outdoors.

Materialism, it seems, is linked to less satisfaction and lower scores of well-being for children. While children may clamor for the latest toys and gadgets, that’s not really what matters most to them. In their eyes, there’s no substitute for time spent with their parents and families.

But some parents just don’t get it. In the United Kingdom, for example, parents felt driven to meet a highly commercialized set of consumer expectations. So they bought their children the latest toys and gadgets - and lots of them.

Parental time, however, was in short supply: Parents bought more stuff but spent less time with their children, hoping the material payoff in the form of all that stuff would compensate for the paltry amount of time spent together.

In fact, the pressures of materialism, especially among low-income families, can generate a vicious cycle. Parents feel they must work longer hours to provide their children with the top brands in clothing and electronics, and, in turn, they buy more of those things to make up for spending less time with their children. (Manipulating parental guilt is a very effective marketing tactic.)

Researchers reported they observed a “compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things both for themselves and their children. Boxes and boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions, which in reality were not really wanted or treasured.”

The more things children got, especially as they entered elementary school, the less time they spent outside being active and creative. Children who were less economically well-off fared the worst - their opportunities for outside play and creative activities disappeared as they entered school, smothered under the stuff that substituted for good parenting.

The research was based in Europe, but its findings dovetail with the American experience.

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