One of the lessons I’ve learned from being a father of two is that the relationship between happiness and ‘things’ for children is established early on. You won’t be able to completely sever the mental connection between happiness and the accumulation of stuff, either. As a parent, you’d like to see your children spurn the exciting kiddie t-shirts and the cool beeping toys, but it’s a battle you’re going to lose unless you keep them in a van down by the river, separate from civilization.
Children are naturally attracted to exciting toys, just as adults are. Things that flash and play music and show us interesting pictures are tempting at any age. We send our son to a Waldorf school, which strictly prohibits the use of electronics in the school (no TV, no computers) and strongly discourages their use in the child’s home (which we, sadly, have not honored as we should have).
My son’s classmates are generally the children of – for lack of a better word – bohemian families, who emphasize local/organic eating, vegetarianism, simple living and so on. At the same time it’s clear that all of these children know who Spiderman is. It’s hard to avoid pop culture, and the pop culture is what sucks them in to consumerism. I add to it – I’m a fan of Batman, and both of my kids certainly know who that is by this point.
But it’s not all bad. I’ve realized that fighting consumerism is a losing battle (unless you’re willing to grit your teeth and fix up that van…down by the river). Parents can, though, teach their children a few key lessons – and take some decisive actions – to teach their children they are more than the sum of the things they own.
Don’t hide the world from them – or them from the world. I don’t like soda – I quit drinking it years ago and only have it a few times each year. I hope my children never develop a taste for soda, and I won’t keep it in the house. At the same time, I know I can’t keep them from it. I hate guns and gun violence on TV, and I’ve mostly succeeded at keeping them from seeing it. But I do let them drink a Sprite once in a while at a restaurant. I will let them pretend to play swords or even shoot “shrink rays.” You can’t assume that you’ll prevent your children from being exposed to ANYTHING, no matter how repellent you find it.
Eventually, everything you dislike – politics, illegal or unethical behavior, horrible foods, and on and on – will be in front of them. Prepare them for it. Be interested in their interests to combat those things. After the millionth reading of I Am A Rabbit or Frosty the Snowman I’ve come to appreciate my parents’ efforts to stay interested in my interests growing up (and they still do). If your kid likes dinosaurs, spend a few minutes reading up on dinosaurs and surprise them with some cool facts. Are they interested in painting? Help them learn how to clean brushes. Do they like stories about dragons? Read stories about dragons.
Get out of the way. Children can’t develop self-confidence if you slather Purell on their hands every time they play with dirt. How confident will they be when they leave home for college if you’ve never let them spend the night away from home? How vulnerable will they be to binge drinking and drugs if you’ve forced your teen to come home at 8 pm on weekends and never let them touch a beer? Sometimes you have to let your toddlers go down the slide and skin their knees. Confidence is developed by failing and and trying again, not by having a parent swoop in to the rescue at the last minute.
“Neither a debtor nor a lender be”. In Act I of Hamlet, Polonius utters this phrase, which was relayed to me endlessly by my grandfather, and then my mother. I know it seems harsh. Sometimes we need debt – think mortgages. Sometimes we’ll be lenders – think family in need. But I think this phrase rings deeply and profoundly true to anyone who reads it and understands it. There may be exceptions, but debt is to be avoided. Lending to family in need may seem like a good idea, but if you can, just give. Don’t lend money, ever, unless you are prepared to lose it. Don’t ever incur debt – ideally not even for a mortgage but that is sometimes unavoidable. Teach your children this financial lesson and you have taught them 99.9% of what they need to know about personal finance.
My children, for example, are not each just the child of two parents. They are a person. I made the mistake for years of defining myself by my job, which was an easy error to make. It was exciting – it took me around the world, it gave me a corner office overlooking Central Park and it paid me huge amounts of money. I allowed myself to think I was my job. But you know what? I quit that job eventually and someone else is doing it now. I am still me. It took me a while to rebuild my sense of myself after quitting, but I knew deep down I was not just my job, or my money, or my things. Don’t ever let your children grow more attached to things, and don’t pressure them to be a doctor, or an astronaut. Even the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ can be dangerous: it implies they need to ‘be’ a career, or a job. Let them be themselves when they grow up. My son has a great answer for this if anyone asks him: he wants to be a person.
Dance. This is the best advice and the one I often forget; if truth be told this advice is as much for me as anyone. If you teach kids from an early age to love music, and to stand up and wave their arms as soon as they can, they’ll be happier. There are few activities more universal or more releasing than dancing. It doesn’t have to be ballroom, or anything structured. Just jump around. It combines music (happy), exercise releasing good endorphins (happy), being in the moment without distractions (happy), and just being together (happy). Too often as adults we’re tired after a long day, but trust me – if you did nothing else with your kids but dance, they’ll be happy.
Don’t fight consumerism, or the onslaught of information, or the modern world. Don’t cling to ideas about your own idealized childhood. Just try to throw a few little roadblocks in front of the consumer convoy, and maybe you’ll disrupt your children enough that they’ll veer off the interstate and end up on the scenic highway.