Raising Kids to Be Less Stuff-Centered

Filed under: Childcare, Media, Expert Advice: Family Time

stuff

Since launching "The Story of Stuff" film and book, some people have accused me of being against stuff. I'm not; in fact I consider myself pro-stuff!

I want people to appreciate their stuff more. I want us to think about the resources and energy that went into making our stuff, to respect and care for it and make it last as long as possible, rather than mindlessly buying, using, tossing and replacing it as such a frenzied pace.

I'm certainly not advocating we stop consuming stuff altogether; I'm advocating that we have a more aware, more balanced relationship with stuff. Too often, we turn to acquiring stuff to meet our emotional, social, recreational and other needs. This consumer-mania isn't good for our resource-stressed planet, isn't good for our family budgets and ultimately doesn't work.

We have more stuff than previous generations could have dreamed of, but we also have less leisure time, fewer friends and spend less time with our kids. There is a better way.



One of the toughest places to combat excessive consumerism is with today's kids. Advertisers spend millions of dollars and employ teams of child psychologists to convince our children to constantly want more stuff. Some youth advertisers actually call parents "gatekeepers" whom they must circumvent to reach the kids. Of course we're gatekeepers! We're parents! It's our job to protect and nurture and help our children grow into healthy, confident and caring adults. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this even in our stuff-focused culture.

Here are some tips I've gathered from my own experience in parenting, as well as from the thousands of parents who have emailed "The Story of Stuff Project" to share ideas.
  1. Model it. Raising kids to be less stuff-centered must be integrated into the overall way we live and work and play. Develop family traditions around creative time together, rather than buying stuff. Encourage homemade gifts rather than store bought, board games rather than commercial television, outings with friends and family to parks and museums rather than shopping malls. The more that choosing community and creativity over stuff is a part of who we are, the more natural and fun it becomes.

  2. Create Community. Seek out other families that value people based on their character rather than their stuff. Befriend neighbors and find parents at your child's school with similar values, It's a harder sell to preach consumer restraint if all your kid's friends have the latest electronic gadgets or wear only brand name clothes.

  3. Nurture non-product based identities. Most kids want some kind of group-based identifier. We can help them develop identities that aren't based on the logos they wear or the type of cell phone they own. Sports teams, theater groups, musical ensembles, hobby groups and cultural clubs all offer healthy non-commercial group identities.

  4. Bring back sharing. With parents working longer hours than previous generations, we spend less time getting to know our neighbors. One result is the erosion of the traditional networks for sharing. We don't all need our own wheelbarrow, bundt pan and glue gun! Sharing is good for our budgets, battling clutter in our homes, and good for building community since we have to talk to share. I've heard from families who've launched toy sharing circles so kids can have access to a variety toys without buying each and every one. My neighborhood has an annual book swap brunch for kids to swap books they've finished for new ones to read. The Sharing Solution has lots of tips for ramping up sharing in your community.

  5. Talk about it. Cultivating a resistance to the constant barrage of commercial messages takes awareness. Make it fun. Kids don't like being duped; explain how advertisers try to trick people into associating products with status and success and make a game of deciphering the techniques you see. My daughter and I play a game when we see a commercial: who can be the first to guess what the product is that's actually being sold. Whenever the commercial starts with a picture of an untouched green forest, she shouts out "new car!" Naming the tricks advertisers use is a great way to eliminate their ability to influence us.

  6. Protect commercial free zones, especially for kids. We simply must reclaim our physical and mental landscape from the constant barrage of messages telling us that we will be happier, more successful and more loved if we buy more stuff. If we want our kids to develop a sense of self beyond being consumers, some places simply have to be off limits for commercial messages. Join a group to keep commercial messages out of schools. Watch public commercial-free TV.
Combating the constant messages encouraging kids to buy stuff can be hard, but it also can be fun and can make our families, and our communities, stronger and healthier. And remember, you're not alone. There are great organizations, including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, The Story of Stuff and, of course PBS KIDS, which promote a less stuff-focused culture.

And, speaking of PBS KIDS, I worked with WGBH to create age-appropriate videos that get kids thinking about their stuff. You can check them out on Loop Scoops.

This article was originally on PBSParents and was written by Annie Leonard. Annie Leonard is the Director of the Story of Stuff Project and author of the book, The Story of Stuff (Free Press, March 2010).

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.