All of us, at some time or another, have succumbed to pressure and fulfilled our childrens persistent requests for fad toys, foods or clothes. An American poll of teenagers calculates that kids will nag at least nine times to get what they want and at least 50% of parents will relent. Australian consumption habits mirror this trend so we have a lot to think about as we parent in an increasingly consumer society. Consumerism impacts on all aspects of our lives, our society, our environment, even our personal relationships but there are many things we can do to reverse this trend and promote a more connected, satisfying and socially responsible lifestyle with our children.
The Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), an American nonprofit organisation, held a contest asking young people between the ages of five and seventeen to respond to the question, “What do you want that money cant buy?” The largest survey of its kind, it received over two thousand stories, essays and drawings describing what children perceived as missing from their lives. Despite the cradle to grave marketing strategies of modern media and our children observing twenty to forty thousand television commercials a year, the overwhelming number of respondents still craved simple, life-affirming experiences like communing with nature, time with family and enjoying good health.
According to the survey, heres what kids want:
You and Your attention
In this age of latch key kids and time-crunched parents earning money to pay an over-committed mortgage it can be hard to imagine ways we can make ourselves more available to our children. Adults always have work to do, bills to pay, dinner to prepare, and an endless to-do list. Sometimes we feel guilty for being unavailable at times our children need us most.
This sense of powerlessness over our family time often drives us to compensate our kids with all the things we wanted, or feel we missed out on as children ourselves. It gives us a sense of satisfaction to fulfill our dreams for them whether thats in the form of a fad toy or an impressive roof over their heads. Its easy to congratulate ourselves on working towards material goals (as honourable as they may seem) and to forget to enjoy the journey we are sharing. By far the majority of children in the CNAD survey wished their loved ones were not so tied to work.
Some families have chosen to radically re-prioritise their lives by down-sizing their homes or foregoing career opportunities and other ambitions until after their children are grown but this may not be entirely necessary or practical, so long as we make attempts to free ourselves to focus on our relationships with our kids. It may be as simple as walking the dog together every afternoon, ensuring the family sits down to a meal together, valuing bedtime story-telling and generally ensuring that family time is pleasurable time spent together.
Family and Community
Many children in the survey simply wished to have family members who had passed away, back again. Others wished to have relationships with family they had never met or hardly known. Our isolated nuclear family is a modern phenomenon and where once we would have raised our children in a community of extended family and a village of neighbours, we are now often forced to move away from our home towns in search of a living. In the cities where privacy is highly valued, rarely do we even know our neighbours by name or develop community around ourselves for the purposes of support and recreation. To the detriment of society, we and our children are losing the inter-generational skills and respect that remains an essential element of social life in cultures who still put a high value on community. Our elderly are tucked away in retirement estates, assisted living villages and nursing homes – and family, along with the very fabric of society, miss out on their valuable wisdom and experience.
Few of us have perfect relationships with our extended family that we wish to share with our children yet our children still have much to gain from knowing them and spending time with them. It is true that compromise is unavoidable when accepting extended family and other influences into the lives of our children but the potential rewards can be greater than the sacrifice. And for those who choose to rebuild bridges with family and community, the rewards for effort may not always be apparent in the early stages. It takes time to build relationships: time we often think we dont have. Where family bonds are beyond repair, we can benefit from adopting aunties and uncles for our children and forging relationships with the older and younger generations in our community. Living amongst family and community gives us a sense of wellbeing and belonging and, according to research, is a vital ingredient in the formula for longevity.
If you feel community is lacking in your life why not form a support group or “simplicity circle” with other families focused on reducing consumption and building family values?
We ferry our children to and from school, to after school sports, to music and dance lessons. Their time is scheduled to ensure it is used efficiently, supposedly teaching them discipline and time management but it really only serves to distance our children from ourselves. What are our children really learning when we fill their schedules with activity? How important is it that they practice imaginative play, fantasize and explore their passions so that they can really begin to discover themselves, their world and where they belong in it?
Our over-scheduled children are really the victims of parental obsession with achievement and keeping up appearances. Those of us who are accustomed to being constantly busy need to give our children time to explore boredom without plugging them into the television or feeling compelled to provide activities and entertainment to keep the irritating “Im bored” complaints at bay. Being ambitious on behalf of our children carries the potential to stunt their emotional growth. By overwhelming our children with a busy schedule we cause unnecessary stress and create hothouse conditions for childhood and teenage depression. All we ever can do is focus on quality of life now and let the future take care of itself.
These days our children are conditioned early to compete, to have the best and to be the best. But these qualities are not conducive to maintaining strong and fair relationships, nor do they help our children learn the communication and social skills to have and be a good friend.
Where we have ready community it is easy to find models for our childrens social development. Sharing, turn-taking, complimenting others, standing up for the underdog, letting someone else lead, being a good sport and a graceful loser are best learned through observation and participation, not through advice and direction. Limiting solitary activities like TV and video games as well as team sports which are not structured to support one-to-one interaction will free up more time for friends and social activities of greater benefit to our kids.
The playdate is still the easiest way to naturally socialise our young ones and help them develop meaningful relationships with peers. This makes it easy to provide quality activities for them to do. All we have to do is remember that this is practice time and kids dont always have to get it right the first time.
As the population of Australia drifts coast-ward and the suburban sprawl eats up the rainforests and beaches, we find we must actively seek out places where we can commune with nature without feeling like a tourist or a stranger in our environment. We all understand the connection between our consumer culture and the disappearing natural environment but it can be hard to see how our individual efforts make any difference.
Perhaps we have already started adopting more environmentally friendly practices in the home; reducing waste through judicious purchasing, choosing re-usable over disposable, recycling wherever possible, what more can we do? It can be hard to explain to our children that they cannot have their latest, most desired, plastic toy because plastic manufacturing industries are polluting the natural environment. The best we can do is educate ourselves on the relationships between consumption and environmental damage, model environmentally responsible decision making and, as much as possible or appropriate, actively discuss our choices and share what we have learned.
Even spending time in our own gardens can help our children to understand the importance of looking after our earth and, with discussion and guidance from us, how our consumption patterns impact on the natural beauty that surrounds us.
In a world where 50% of the population consumes 95% of the earths available resources, we have to wonder how much longer this rate of consumption can be sustained. As a family we can join in on Clean up Australia Day, join local tree planting projects or contact our local council for advice about starting a clean up project in our own neighbourhood.
Art and Spiritual connection
Australian families frequent the shopping centres more than they visit church or do volunteer work. We spend more on recreational shopping than we give to charity. Whether we subscribe to traditional religion or seek individual spiritual expression, dont we all wish to make the world a better place? Children are acutely aware of inequity and injustice but it does become possible to dull their compassion with continued neglect of their spiritual connection with their world. Consumerism is the antithesis of spiritual satisfaction and the paths to fulfillment without materialism are numerous: art, music, dance, self-expression, storytelling, play, and meditation to name but a few. When we break our patterns of material consumption we are free to explore our creative potential and finding our purpose is akin to performing magic!
There are many volunteer organisations that welcome family involvement and its just a matter of finding one that is a good fit with your family. Services like Meals on Wheels welcome family involvement and roster time accordingly and there would hardly be a nursing home in Australia unwilling to receive visitors who relieve the isolated confinement of the elderly in their care. Volunteering our time is character building and one of the most powerful lessons in values we can ever share with our kids.
We all just want to be loved, exactly as we are. Our expectations of our children can be dangerous to them because by accepting only a limited range of behaviours and communications from our children, we demonstrate a rigid lack of acceptance of the individual and a lack of respect for free will. If only we could, in every moment, receive our children as though they were complete strangers to us: we would delight in them more and judge them less. Our children are capable of making responsible choices provided we give them the space to learn and make mistakes. In turn, they come to know that they are free to be whatever they wish to be instead of moulding themselves to our expectations in an effort to please.
We can start by showing appreciation for the creative efforts of our children rather than trying to praise them unnecessarily or offer suggestions for improvements. We can listen more and speak less, we can value their contributions, no matter how consequential or how competent. We can support their journey without obsessing about the destination knowing that there is more than one way to get there and valuable lessons are learned through trial and error.
Democratic decision-making processes such as family meetings can help each family member feel heard and valued and promote a dynamic and flexible family dynamic that offers healthy models of decision-making and compromise as well the opportunity to regularly assess what works for the family and what doesnt.
We take it for granted. Most often it is only when disease and ill-health are discovered that we appreciate what good health means to us and begin to look after ourselves better.
Food is a family affair and we all begin by modelling good eating habits and avoiding fast-food solutions. The preparation and sharing of meals remains one of humanitys greatest community builders and it is the simple, old fashioned and traditional foods that tend to be most nourishing for body and soul. The most happy and long-lived societies around the world prepare and eat food communally.
Exercise is easily made a family affair in Australia where our climate is mild and dry. It becomes possible to take a walk in any season, at any time of day, to swim or play backyard cricket or take the kids to the playground.
Pets are also good companionship and proven stress relief. Their care and maintenance provide valuable, lessons for our children – life-long lessons that money cant buy.
And our respect for the environment has positive ramifications for our health for by avoiding using chemicals that are toxic to the natural environment, we are also avoiding toxins and poisons in our living environments that can have a negative impact on our health.
We provide a safe haven for our kids
As parents, we can obviously protect our children from the constant bombardment of advertising by limiting television viewing time and discussing the purpose of advertising and the tactics it employs to seduce us into consuming their product. In addition, the home culture we provide for our kids reinforces for them their worth to us and their security within the family unit. It may not always be possible, or even appropriate, to be as physically available to our children as we might like to be but parents can continually reinforce their childrens worth by keeping communication open and supportive and by becoming a good listener.
Providing a safe home culture is about welcoming our childrens friends and providing a good (non-material) reason to be home: a fun, safe garden to play in, simple, healthy after-school snacks to prepare, hobbies and activities that can be shared socially, a private retreat (without TV or computer) for secret conversations and enjoying music. From card games to cookie baking, shared hobbies to homework, support – the options are limited only by time and creativity. Providing a safe haven, by definition, also demands that we invest personally in our marriage so that our children have a secure and loving home and a ready model for communication and intimacy.
More Fun, Less Stuff
Will it matter to them that they didnt go to the best school or live in the best suburb? When our kids are adults will they resent that we couldnt provide every material possession or will they resent that they never got to have as much of us as they needed or wanted?
Seeking connection with our kids is not a full time pursuit so much as an incidental part of an authentic lifestyle. When we feel fulfilled and on track we are less stressed and less preoccupied with the approval of others. This makes it possible to parent with a light heart and a sense of playfulness; to share our childrens view of the world and participate in it instead of presiding over it.
Holidays and Celebrations
Finally, we can give our children happy memories without any association to material possessions. We can provide opportunities to learn new skills and have new experiences that enhance the fabric of their being and reinforce their sense of worth to themselves and others.
We can reject the commercially-defined holiday traditions in preference for creating our own family rituals and traditions and by doing so we cultivate a family identity and culture that is reinforced with the passage of time. Sometimes it is the smallest actions that reinforce our childrens sense of worth.
Raising children is one of lifes great adventures. Step by step we can reclaim family life and build our own family culture without falling victim to the consumer formula for happiness. We dont have to be super-parents, we only need to give our children happy memories, not necessarily associated with any material goodies but rather of experiences that reinforce their worth to themselves and to the adults who care about them. This is the one thing that money cant buy and that only we can give.