In an age where the dollar has cast its spell over every corner of public and private life, the most insidious danger to children may be the economic lens through which we view them. As would-be parents debate the burden, risk, or liability of investing in children, other parties are calculating assets and benefits.
In other words, the same materialism that breeds such hostility toward children also welcomes them with open arms when they have money to spend. Labor laws may have removed children from the workforce in the western world, but our generation has its own, equally effective form of enslavement: the discovery of the child as a consumer. Not content to pick the pockets of adults to fuel the economy, advertisers have discovered the most lucrative market of all: children. The easiest targets and the most persuasive wheedlers, today’s children and teens have been successfully harnessed to tug on their parents’ heartstrings till they get what they want.
Corporations set their sights on children before they have even learned to talk. Studies show that until they’re eight, most children can’t even differentiate between a sales pitch and a story. Advertising divides parents from their children. It gets there first, stealing our opportunities to be a gatekeeper and protector. Instead, we are playing catch-up, trying to un-teach something they heard from a convincing source. Parents who contradict the “buy-this-now” mantra find their children accusing them of meanness and misunderstanding. How many times have we heard, “everyone else has this” or “everyone else does that”?
Marketers have found hundreds of ways to disparage parents and exploit a child’s natural tendency to rebel against the very people whose guidance they need most. But whose authority do they accept instead? Should a company tell your child who her friends should be, or how she should dress, speak, act, and think?
Unfortunately, schools can become conduits for companies as well. In districts around the country, financial incentives such as computers, online textbooks, sports equipment, and vending machines are being used to coax principals into signing deals with big name corporations who gain the exclusive right to market their wares to a captive young audience.
Despite the fact that millions around the globe grow up in acute poverty, most children in developed regions like western Europe and the United States have far more than they need. We are raising a generation of what can only be called spoiled brats. But let’s not put all the blame on a steady diet of commercials. This problem has deeper roots.
Spoiled children are often the product of spoiled parents – parents who insist on getting their own way, and whose lives are structured around the illusion that instant gratification brings happiness. Children are spoiled not only by an overabundance of food, toys, clothing, and other material things. It’s just as easy to spoil them simply by giving in to their whims. How many exhausted mothers spend all of their energy keeping up with their children’s demands, giving in just to keep them quiet?
Clearly, it is one thing to cater to a child’s wishes. To create a home – a place of love and security – is quite a different matter. Unfortunately, many parents today lack a sense of what this means. They are “too busy” to spend time with their children. Some are so preoccupied with their jobs or their leisure activities that even when they do see their children at the end of a long day, they have no energy to be with them. They may sit in the same room – even on the same couch – but their minds are elsewhere.
If we blame our children’s selfishness on the media, we won’t tackle the greed in our own hearts. Our children can see how much money and time we spend on ourselves. The best way to help them is to confront our own obsession with stuff and to turn outward, toward them and toward others.
In their book, Making Grateful Kids, Jeffrey J. Froh and Giacomo Bono point to a solution:
If there were a new wonder drug on the market that got kids to behave better, improve their grades, feel happier, and avoid risky behaviors, many parents around the world would be willing to empty their bank accounts to acquire it. Amazingly, such a product actually does exist. It’s not regulated by the FDA, it has no ill side effects, and it’s absolutely free and available to anyone at any time. This miracle cure is gratitude.
Isn’t it strange that the more gifts a child receives, the rarer it is to hear a thank-you? As parents and teachers, we need to rediscover and guide our children back to the concept of “less is more.” This will take creativity. I know one father who took time with his six-year-old son, explaining that their family had fallen for a sneaky trick from some companies who just wanted to make money. He challenged his son to look through his room and pull out all the things he had gotten because of an advertisement. Then the dad went to his den and did the same! The child ended up with a bed, a chair, and a table. The dad ended up with an empty room, and a lot more time with his son.
Another family pretended they were traveling to California by Conestoga wagon, and had to get rid of all the nonessentials. If parents and children unite against the advertisements, the greatest battle has already been won.
One of the best ways to foster gratefulness is to connect with others who are not so materially blessed. It’s no use trying to get a child to appreciate his dinner by generalizing: “Children in Africa are starving.” I doubt such a statement has ever convinced a picky eater. But if a family or a school class becomes pen pals with a child in Uganda, perhaps sponsoring her schooling, suddenly it will make sense. Visualizing the obstacles that some courageous children must overcome to eat one meal a day or to obtain an education can leave an impression – and build a friendship – that lasts for life.
There are other points of connection. Some families have a “toy in, toy out” policy; if a new toy arrives, another leaves the house and goes to someone who needs it. But learning about gratefulness has to go beyond toys and material goods. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, especially on holidays like Thanksgiving, can help children understand the meaning of thankfulness.
Parents should not be afraid to do something drastic. It’s going to take a decision of some magnitude to counter the all-pervasive message of “look out for number one.” Our society has been steeped in it for so long that flipping off a few switches here and there will not be enough to reverse the trend or help your child.
Photo: Shawn Lea