Last week, I returned from a week-long work trip. “Look what I got, Mommy!” screeched my 9-year-old. She held up a My Little Pony Book. “Where did you get that?” I asked. “From the book fair,” she replied. “The book fair I told you we were not buying from?” I inquired. “Yes,” she said as the realization that she was in trouble settled over her face, “but my friend bought it for me.” Then, my 10-year-old chimed in, “She bought me something too!”
I realize that the scenario above appears benign, or even lovely, given that another little girl was articulating her friendship through this act of purchasing. But, I was furious. I had told my girls that we weren’t buying anything this time because…well…we did not need to. An entire wall of their room is overflowing with books. Not to mention, they are consistently inundated with messages pushing them towards consumerism (schools are constantly selling sugary snacks, billboards bombard them in the car, television convinces them they need every new toy). When I pushed a bit further, I discovered this to be the case with the book fair. My girls said that a couple of their peers were making fun of them for not buying anything. My girls wanted to feel better, so they bought something. They aren’t the first to fall for the illusory promise of contentment through consumerism.
According to UCTV’s “Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance,” 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally. In 2012, Psychology Today reported that Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than on higher education. The Self Storage Association reports that there is a 7.3 square feet of self-storage space for every person in the nation. So, it is physically possible that every American could stand under the total canopy of self-storage roofing. We have a lot of stuff. Yet, according to the 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only 33% of Americans are happy. It does not take a course in advanced logic to recognize that all of our stuff is not making us happy.
At a fundamental level, we all know that stuff won’t make us happy. If it did, we’d all be high-fiving in the streets instead of spewing venom at one another on social media and wrestling in the aisles of WalMart. Researchers Luther and Latendress suggest that rich kids, the ones with all the toys and gadgets, are actually more depressed and anxious than their middle- or low-income peers. The truth is, the real needs of children are very limited. When left to their own devices, children play in and with their natural environment, they activate their imaginations, they problem-solve and have conversations with themselves and their friends.
That life, the one where kids are perpetually pushed towards self-discovery, is what I want for my kids. But, it is a battlefield out there. Everywhere you look, kids are being convinced that they “need” more than they really need. As parents, we are being convinced that our affection can be communicated through buying more stuff, throwing bigger parties, or keeping our kids on trend. I speak from experience. I’ve been there. When I was married, I had a life full of stuff. My kids had their own playroom dedicated to their stuff. None of that stuff meant we were happy and none of it made us feel any better when our lives fell apart. At some point, I realized that all the video games, fidget spinners, latest dolls, trendy shoes, sacks of plastic uselessness from parties, and what-nots were sucking my kids into an endless cycle of superficial gratification at the expense of their real happiness.
As Christians, we are quick to quote Philippians 4:13 (“I can do anything through Christ, who strengthens me”), because we want to affirm (or advertise) our power in Christ. Often, we use this verse as motivation to accumulate. Surely, the sight of Christians extolling the possibility of their dreams (cars, mansions, Yeezys) achieved through their belief is not isolated to my news feed or my life. Yet, we conveniently forget that the preceding verses, 11-12, admonish us to find contentment in our circumstances rather than through more things: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
As parents, our driving force is our kids’ long-term happiness. Given the overwhelming, observable, and Biblical evidence that consumerism does not facilitate (and can even thwart) their happiness, why are we so committed to it? Parents, can we fight this together? Can we remind our children that their worth is not tied to any extraneous purchase? Can we consistently have conversations about what kids really need? Can we talk to them about the difference between “need” and “want,” and how to practice discernment? Can we, please, commit to helping one another out of the cycle of consumerism so that we can set an example of true happiness for our children? I know that I am guilty of giving in to the impulse to purchase-away my anxieties. I could use some friends to remind me that buying cannot supplant believing and consumerism will never fill a spirit. I will do my best to help you too, so that we can all feel confident saying, “No, you don’t need to buy that,” even at a book fair, knowing that our kids will be better for it.
By A. Smith