We've all seen it-the guest at a birthday party upending his goody bag and crying: "Is that it?," the 5-year-old greeting her visiting grandparents with: "What did you bring me?" and the kid having a meltdown at Target because his parents refuse to buy him the latest Bakugan battle set. Sometimes these are other people's children; sometimes, God forbid, they are our own. Either way, we're left wondering if children today are more materialistic than in the past, and if so, should we be worried?
According to market researchers Packaged Facts, kids are certainly getting more stuff than they used to. Parents of 3 to 12-year-olds spent $58 billion on items like toys and clothes in 2007, 17.6 billion more than they did a decade earlier.
And studies suggest that yes, we should be concerned. According to child psychologist Donna Bee Gates, "Research shows that youngsters who score high on materialism scales are also high in depression, social alienation, and an overall discontentment with their lives. Therefore, a materialistic focus or attitude that contends that happiness is secured through acquisition is not associated with contentment or life satisfaction."
In her book, I Want it Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World, Gates describes how forces such as the desire to fit in with their peer group or boredom drive materialism in kids. Owning the latest Nintendo DS may seem a quick route to acceptance in the cool group at school-and parents often cave easily to their children's requests because of their own anxieties and guilt.
So what can parents do to teach their children that they don't necessarily have to own every single item their friends have?
Lynne Finch, an author and expert on children and finance, argues that a clear allowance system in which children are expected to purchase and budget for their own toys and clothes is important. She describes how her own daughter once tried to convince her parents that they should buy her some expensive boots. "I suggested she save her money to buy the boots herself," says Finch. "She saved for weeks and finally announced that she had enough. When I asked her when she wanted to go shopping, she thought for awhile and said, 'Now that I've got enough money I don't want to blow it all on a pair of boots.' She would have happily let us spend the money but when it came to her own money it was a different story."
Teaching your children to save and to budget will help them develop a rational attitude to material goods. However, learning to love the parts of life that don't come wrapped in plastic is an even more crucial childhood process, and here, according to Donna Bee Gates, parents play a central part.
"First," says Gates, "parents must be role models for their children in terms of demonstrating that career choices and happiness has nothing to do with spending money or impressing others. Parents can steer their children towards developing passions and talents.
"Less exposure to media is helpful too. The more television a child watches, the higher his or her scores on materialism scales. Parents can help to increase their children's media literacy; their understanding of the workings behind advertising, the ways in which programming can create the desire to amass goods, and programming that can actually be constructive."
Money Can't Buy You Mud
Ten ways to engage and entertain your kids that don't come with a receipt:
1. Get out into nature: go for a hike or a walk along the beach
2. Write stories
3. Play soccer or fly a kite
4. Have a "dance party" - dress up in silly clothes, put on some music, and shake your booty
5. Make "potions" in the park - fill old plastic cups with dirt, pebbles, and other magic stuff, plus water; or go on a hunt for "dinosaur bones" (rocks and twigs) and "fairies"
6. Let them help -painting a fence in the backyard, doing laundry, even washing up can be fun and fulfilling for younger kids
7. Create a scrapbook
8. Play board games: kids love anything from checkers to Scrabble
9. Tie-dye some old shirts
10. Bake a cake or try a new recipe