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4 Tips for Raising Non-Materialistic Children

Follow these strategies to teach your kids gratitude instead of greed in today's me-me-me world

As I was standing in the Target checkout line before picking up my kids from school, my eyes landed on some fitness-tracker watches for kids—only $4! My kids were in awe of my Fitbit; with envy they would watch me put it on and tell me how so-and-so at school had one. I wasn’t about to buy them Fitbits, but these were perfect.

As soon as the kids climbed into the car, I happily presented the bands. My son thanked me and ripped open the package. My daughter studied her package with a wrinkled forehead.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She met my gaze and said miserably, “I wanted a Fitbit. This says something else.”

Total mom fail—and not because I had gotten her an off-brand fitness watch. The fact that my second-grader even cared about the brand is what disturbed me. Where had I gone wrong?

We often crave possessions to fulfill an emotional need.

Research published last year in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows a recent spike in materialistic tendencies in children—middle-schoolers in particular.

“Establishing an identity is a pivotal stage of middle school years,” says Georgina Flores, licensed professional counselor-intern at CCD Counseling and the Family Tree Program in Denton. She notes that kids will use what they have—name-brand shoes, clothing, phones—to distinguish themselves and maintain status among their peers.

Kids may also develop materialistic attachments in an attempt to fill a void. “We often crave possessions to fulfill an emotional need,” Flores explains.

Materialism may be on the rise, but there are steps we can take now to discourage materialism from rearing its ugly head down the road.

Validate in a Healthy Way

“We live in a very busy world, and sometimes parents try to connect with their kids by buying them stuff, which is their busy way to love them,” says Jessica Ausmus-Rogers, psychotherapist and owner of Solutions Counseling in Mansfield. While not all gift giving is bad, it’s possible to give your child something tangible without promoting materialism. “Find a heart-shaped rock, write ‘I love you’ on it, and give it to your child,” Ausmus-Rogers suggests. “This tells them, ‘I thought of you today. You are always on my mind.’”

Flores adds that parents need to teach their children that their worth doesn’t stem from something tangible. “Our kids are often validated by ‘If you do good, you will get a new toy.’ Therefore, if they do not produce, they are not worthy,” she explains. When rewarding your kids’ efforts, try alternating material items with nontangible rewards, like verbal praise or control of the TV for an hour.

Facilitate Fulfillment

It’s easy for kids to want the newest, shiniest thing when they aren’t the ones shelling out the money, so it is imperative that we teach what things are worth—in money and time.

This holiday season, Danielle Wharram is participating in the Adopt-A-Child program but giving her children—Brynlea, 7, and Gavin, 14—the responsibility of buying the gifts. “I’m going to let them create a budget, then come up with chores they can do to earn money. Once they have raised their goal, I’m going to let them pick out what to buy with it,” the Fort Worth mom explains. “They’ll be working hard for the money and then generously and knowingly spending it on someone else.”

Wharram says the sense of fulfillment that her kids get from helping others is invaluable. “If children learn to be fulfilled through positive actions, it can help discourage them from only concentrating on materialistic items,” she explains.

Dawn Hallman, longtime executive director of the Dallas Association for Parent Education, suggests providing stories of other kids involved in philanthropic activities to inspire your children to act; however, she warns not to make your kids feel shame for having things that others don’t. “Make sure your dialogue with your children is not guilt inducing,” she says. “‘Guilting’ children never works.”

Practice What You Preach

One of the best ways to instill gratitude in our children is to demonstrate gratitude ourselves. “If we place great import on objects, our child will grow learning that obtaining objects equals pleasure,” Flores says.

Hallman agrees. “If you as an adult are selfless and giving, your kids will catch on to that,” she says. “If you’re always waiting for the next newest model iPhone to come out, they catch on to that too.”

The Write Attitude

Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to connect with your kids by reflecting together on what holds non-monetary value—and it encourages your kids to do the same independently. In a recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, adolescents who kept a gratitude journal gave 60 percent more money to charity than those who did not.

“If gratitude is cultivated all along and not just during the hard years, it’s an easy concept for your child to grasp,” says Jessica Ausmus-Rogers, psychotherapist and owner of Solutions Counseling in Mansfield. “It’s when you wait until rough terrain that it gets much more difficult to get through to your kid.”