Take a moment. What is your child playing with or doing right now? If gifts were part of the family’s traditions last month, are those tokens getting used by your children? How often?
Stroll through your child’s room and throughout your home. Are children’s books and toys well cared for? Are they broken and discarded or valued and treasured? Are your children engrossed in interactive play with the things they have or are they spectators to television or video adventures?
Many U. S. parents and teachers are decrying children’s apparent lack of care of and value for their clothes, toys, bicycles, electronics, books, materials, and so on. They are also reporting the strange paradox that despite being among the most materially blessed children in the world, U. S. children are chronically dissatisfied with what they have and have become nags and whiners demanding ever more.
Although nagging and whining children (or adults) are not modern inventions, there is a growing concern among educators and mental health professionals in the U.S. that the rise in disposable income has been a source of unfortunate learning for children. In a situation where material things seem unlimited, their perceived value is greatly diminished. The relentless press of advertising convinces children they must have certain items. They are impressionable and easily lead to believe. Because the avalanche is continuous, however, no one purchase satisfies the need. The need has not come, in most cases, from the child’s interests, experiences, or next developmental level, but from some clever “upgrade” to an attractive toy. In other words, no matter how many action figures, fast food trinkets, electronic pets, or video games are bought, the combination of well-meaning but indulgent parenting and modern advertising methods is a recipe for unhappy, careless children and frustrated parents.
If you are concerned about your child’s demands and lack of care for his or her possessions, here’s what must be done. Limit television viewing and watch some television with your children when you do permit it. Share your values about the products you see. Let them know the difference between a show and an advertisement – a very tricky line to draw in today’s marketplace – but important so that children understand that others are trying to sell them things, not just entertain them.
No matter what your income is, set real budgets for toy purchases. Learn to say, “no” or at least to require a child’s effort to earn a toy. If children had to clear the table and load the dishwasher for a month in order to earn a new “something” they would value that something. Learning the value of effort is priceless in a child’s life. By the way, make a “no” really a “no.” Think before you speak. Children learn to whine very quickly if they realize you can be nagged into a change.
Ask yourself, “For whom am I buying that toy?” Many parents buy the comic, candy, or toy to quiet a child down or to make up for being away or to reshape the experiences they themselves had as children or just because they have the money to do it. These are not good reasons and can lead to compulsive spending that harms the child understanding of the value of certain items and the family’s bottom line.
Toys that are not put away or are uncared for should disappear from the child’s world. After a few careful and serious warnings, parents should simply gather up toys and either permanently (preferred) or temporarily make them disappear. It can be fun to sit with a child and sort toys back into bins and shelves. This allows for some good modeling and skill building, but once the child is four or five years old, he or she should be able to put away toys and be held responsible (at age appropriate levels) for their care.
Toys that are damaged or lost through clear carelessness should not be replaced without a significant contribution from the child. The skills associated with taking care of stuff come only through suffering some consequences. If the consequences are eliminated, there is no learning.
Remember that child development is best accelerated through social interactions your child has with you and with other children. Parents are the best educational toys! Shared reading, board games, card games, throwing a ball, doing crafts, cooking, and conversations are your child’s best superhighways to elite universities. Having other children available as playmates is also vital. Children who have only adults as playmates are sorely disadvantaged in most same-age social situations.
Materialism is not a substitute for healthy relationships. Our most affluent suburban adolescent kids are showing troubling rises in many dangerous behaviors (e.g., drugs, teen pregnancy). Alienation seems the companion to plenty. Prevention is the best treatment. Fewer possessions can form a richer experience for children. The combination of high expectations and loving support is the best recipe for helping children learn the values and skills they need for successful lives.
Jane Close Conoley is the Dean and a Professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara,