January 19th, 2012
UNICEF UK recently released a report entitled Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism. The UK did not compare well with Spain and Sweden in terms of the wellbeing of children and the role of consumer products in their lives. “…in Spain and Sweden the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter productive to children’s well-being….Most children agreed that family time was more important to them than consumer goods, yet we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things for their children and for themselves. Boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics in the home were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often “pointless”, but seemed somehow pressurised and compelled to continue.”
It is real juggling act raising children in the 21st century (particularly in the UK it would appear), where instant gratification has become the norm, and status is defined by what we own. The shops and TV screens are full of enticements…. and everyone wants everything….. and they want it now!
As loving parents, we want to do our best for our children, but we are often unsure what that is in this materialistic world. We want them to have the best we can give, we want to show them how much we love them, and, at the same time, we want them to be appreciative of what they have and learn to value their possessions. Many parents are concerned about falling into the trap of over-indulging their children, fearing that their children will grow up to be overly acquisitive and never satisfied, unable to appreciate the true cost of things or differentiate between their needs and their wants.
So how can we instill in our children the values we want and we believe will equip them best for the future, and yet not always have to be the bad cop, saying no, no, no….?
There is one immediate and relatively simple way we can help our children.
We can protect them from the constant advertising which tells them that their value is tied up in what they own and that they need to acquire certain goods in order to fit in. We can limit their exposure to TV adverts by cutting down on screen-time, or using Sky Plus, and we can discuss with older children the role of advertising and the manipulation involved. Most kids like the idea of not being conned by the conglomerates!
And then it comes down to being clear and true to our values, and communicating this effectively to our children.
So, first, we need to establish what our values are. We need to ask ourselves why do we buy things for our children? It may be an uncomfortable question to answer honestly…. Is it because we believe everyone else is, and we don’t want them to feel left out? (The UNICEF report suggests that there are high levels of social insecurity in the UK which is compensated for by buying status brands.) Is it because we feel guilty about the amount of time we are able to spend with them as is also suggested in the UNICEF report? Is it because we want them to enjoy what we never had? Some parents interviewed for the UNICEF report suggested that they wanted status brands for their children to protect them from the kind of bullying they experienced themselves as kids. Do we buy because we can’t bear to see them unhappy? Is it because they pester so much that we can’t bear it and don’t know how to avoid giving in? In the heat of the moment do we lose sight of the reasons why it might not be a good idea for them to have what they are asking for? Do we think we’re being mean in denying them?
Having clarified our values, we now have to communicate them to our children and we can approach this on three levels.
LEVEL 1: ON-GOING
Children learn by copying, so we can start involving them in purchasing decisions, showing them the link between earning and spending. This might sound like: “I’m not sure whether we need this now, perhaps it would be better to wait till next month.” Or “I really like those ipads. I’m going to put a bit of money aside each week until I’ve saved enough to buy one.”Or “These Nike trainers are really cool but they’re so expensive –these other ones will do just as well.” We can also model appreciation by being appreciative ourselves, and noticing and mentioning whenever they are. This might sound like: “I love it when you say thank-you for the things I do for you. It’s polite, and makes me feel really appreciated.” or “You’re taking really good care of your new train set –you put it away very carefully in its box each time you’ve finished with it.”
And, we can set up systems so that our children earn the privileges that many of them believe they have as a right, simply because they are alive – whether that is TV or other electronics, outings, play-dates or material possessions. Children appreciate things they have earned for themselves, for good behaviour, more than things they are just given.
LEVEL 2: BEFORE A PURCHASING EVENT
Before we set out for a shopping expedition, we need to manage our children’s expectations beforehand with a chat-through.
In a chat-through, we want our children to be doing most of the talking, to avoid lecturing or nagging and having them feel too controlled, but we can start with an explanation about why we’re having the chat-through. This might sound like: “It’s important to me that you learn about the cost of things and their value, and how to appreciate the good things you have”.
Then we ask them questions – what will happen in the shop, what amount will be spent, on what items, why, what behaviour is expected, and how might the child feel….They need to do the talking if they are to be committed to what needs to happen. It is important to empathise that the child may feel really tempted, disappointed or frustrated at the change in policy, aware that other children may have the things they covet…. We can ask how the child could handle these feelings – some ideas include telling the parent, writing down the items the child wishes she could buy, using some safe venting technique like stamping feet or pounding their fists. It’s really important we don’t make our children wrong for being tempted by the appealing things on the shelves. After all a lot of thought and money is spent by companies seeking to entice them.
LEVEL THREE: THE PESTER MOMENT
However well the chat-through went, the child may be unable to resist and revert to the old pestering ways.
When this happens, we need to keep calm – remembering children feel things very intensely in the moment but these feelings pass, and remembering too that it is not our job to keep them happy in the moment; instead it is our job to enable them to make themselves happy in the future, by developing self-control and problem-solving skills.
So we can empathise with our children, imagining how they are feeling and reflecting it back to them in words. This is the first step in helping our children understand and manage their feelings. This might sound like: “You wish you could buy that car. You really like it because it’s really shiny and it’s got cool tires. You’re really sad that Mummy said we can’t buy anything today. Maybe you think I’m being mean. You know what? I’m proud of you for only making a little fuss about this. I know you’re really disappointed. It’s hard not to be able to have something you really want.”
Although this may not result in an immediate improvement in behaviour, it does show the child that they are understood and their feelings are accepted, even though their behaviour needs to be re-directed.
We can also give ‘wishes in fantasy’. This means we accept what they want and imagine what it would be like if they could have it. It’s an interesting distraction and can help make light of a potentially heavy moment, without making the child or his feelings seem silly. This might sound like: “I bet you would like to have every single piece of lego in the whole world – gosh, I wonder how big a box we would need to hold it all? I don’t think we would be able to lift it up!”
Overall, it pays to take time to prepare and train ourselves and our children how best to cope with life in today’s modern world. It may help to bear the following in mind from Dr. Phil McGraw, a psychologist and author:
“Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told “no.” But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled.”
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