- 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.

As in the United Kingdom, American parents feel pressured to buy their children the “right” brands - typically very expensive ones - so their children will fit in.

How to Save Your Family: Give Time, Not Stuff

Don’t blame the children: The materialism problem starts in the minds of parents. As the school year gets under way - and social pressure kicks in - it’s worth asking some pointed questions.

• Do we feel pressured to buy more and more things for our children to keep their social insecurity at bay?

• Are we worried about what other parents will think of us and whether our children are “cool”?

• Do we find ourselves giving our children less of what they really need - time with us and plain old outside play - to work longer so we can buy more things?

• What happened to last year’s most-wanted gadget or gotta-have-it outfit? If it’s buried somewhere, long forgotten, remember that before you swipe the credit card for the next “necessary” thing.

If you don’t like your answers to any of the above, make a plan to start spending more time with your children and watch how the requests for more stuff start to diminish. When you take the first step in becoming more involved in their lives, your sons and daughters will respond.

Give them some time to adjust if you have been neglectful in the past. It might take them a while to trust that you are going to be around for the long haul.

Whatever it takes, remember: What your children really crave isn’t the latest gadget - it’s you!

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosave yourfamily.com.

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