happy kids looking up at camera

How To Raise Good Kids In A Culture Of Consumerism

An interview with Dr. Thomas Lickona, developmental psychologist and author of the forthcoming book, How to Raise Kind Kids.

Sadly, for many of us this time of year has become all about getting instead of giving. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the fever of consumerism we witness all around us. And if it’s hard for grown-ups, imagine how tough it must be for children.

Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and author of Raising Good Children, along with the forthcoming book How to Raise Kind Kids (Penguin April 2018). A Catholic, Lickona is often called the “Father of Character Education” and recently became an associate member of the American College of Pediatricians. He and his wife are the parents of two grown sons and 15 grandchildren.

I asked for his advice on raising children who aren’t overly materialistic.

In our consumer-driven culture, it’s difficult for parents to discourage their children from making an idol of “stuff.” Do you have any suggestions for parents who see their children falling into this trap — asking for gadgets, toys, clothing, etc. they don’t need, or that parents can’t afford to buy?

We should teach our kids, early on, “Stuff doesn’t make us happy,” despite what advertising tries to tell us. The novelty of the new toy or gadget soon wears off, and we’re looking for the next thing that will make us happy. Help your kids reflect on their own experience of this. And the fact that some things—electronic screens, for example—actually make us less happy and more cranky and irritable, especially when used as much as a lot of kids (and adults!) use them.

Our souls aren’t made for stuff. We should help our children realize what truly does make us happy: loving relationships, developing our God-given talents, doing work we can take pride in, growing closer to God through prayer, and acts of kindness and helpfulness in our family and beyond. And kids should learn all that not just from the words we say but from their own firsthand experience of those sources of fulfillment. One father, for example, found that volunteering with his 15-year-old son in the local soup kitchen proved to be the best antidote to his son’s constantly asking for the latest electronic gadget.

Of course, some things do make us happy and enrich our relationships with others. For me, my camera is an example of that. I love taking pictures of our family and especially our 14 grandchildren. Each year, my wife and I make an album of the annual family vacation and give that as a Christmas present to each family. As a kid, I loved the 3-speed bike I got for my 10th birthday and rode it constantly with my friends. So discuss with your kids: What kinds of things are life- and growth-enhancing, and which ones are not?

Peer pressure is often a driving force when it comes to children wanting things. And while peer pressure is nothing new, social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram can take peer pressure to a whole new level. Any thoughts for parents on helping their children handle peer pressure?

It’s normal for kids to make comparisons: “So and so has (whatever).” We should teach our kids a very important life lesson: Comparisons make us unhappy. Discuss as a family why this is so. One reason: Somebody else will always have more. Back this up with an explicit family policy, posted on the fridge: NO COMPARISONS.

As for peer pressure, we should make it clear to kids that this is something we all have to learn to handle, growing up and even as adults. But the only way to have self-respect and be right with God is to follow our conscience instead of the crowd. Learning to resist peer pressure regarding material things is a good preparation for resisting that pressure when it comes to moral issues like sex and drugs. With kids, it also helps to have at least one good friend from a family with the same basic values.

Advertising is another force-feeding acquisitiveness in children. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of mothers say their children request specific brands before they’re three years old. How do parents protect their kids from advertisers? Or can they?

Another survey found that kids spend more time watching TV than they spend in school and see, on average, more than 100 commercials a day. This turns kids into “wanting machines” who are never satisfied with what they have. Wise parents will keep Madison Avenue out of their living room and will curtail television to a few hours a week—ideally, programs the family views and discusses together. In today’s world, families that want to be their child’s main moral educator must commit to being countercultural in big ways, and that includes taking the road less traveled when it comes to making relationships, not media consumption, paramount in family life.

What about parents feeling peer pressure themselves, wanting their children to have the latest gadgets or the most fashionable pair of jeans?

Obviously, we can’t expect our kids to stand up to peer pressure if we don’t model that—if we don’t stand up to pressure we feel from our peers, namely, other parents who are getting their kids whatever they nag them for, or from the consumerist culture that surrounds and bombards us. Very often, kids look back with pride at having had parents who had the guts to buck the culture in these ways.

Are there things parents themselves can do, ways to model an attitude that discourages acquisitiveness?

We can be explicit about what matters most to us: the time we spend with each other, doing our work well, growing in our faith, making a positive difference in the world—and then live out those values in ways our children can plainly see. It’s also very important to expand our kids’ moral horizons through good reading—stories like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, an inspiring biography about someone like Mother Teresa, and uplifting articles in the Catholic press—that make them aware of all the ways we can make our lives count for good.

For many children Christmas has become a season of getting more than giving. Do you have any thoughts on how parents can turn that around?

We need family traditions that shift the focus from getting to giving—so that children experience for themselves that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Consider as a family what charity you’d like to make a Christmas gift to. Just considering the possibilities will be an education in how many groups in your community and around the world are doing wonderful work to improve the lives of people in need. With our grandchildren, making a gift of animals to a poor family in another country through Heifer International has become a very meaningful Christmas activity. Some families have a tradition of all family members drawing, from a hat, the name of another family member, and then getting a gift for that particular person.

When I was a kid—in the 1950s—every year in January I started saving money in a “Christmas Club” that I would use the following Christmas to buy some small gift for every family member, including my grandparents and aunts and uncles. During the year, I’d earn money by door-to-door selling of everyday greeting cards, Christmas cards, and baskets of wild raspberries I picked, and would then bank that in my Christmas Club. By Christmas, I had saved up $25—enough to buy a gift of some sort—even a pair of socks—for everyone in the family. On Christmas, I remember to this day that I got much more pleasure from giving those gifts to members of my family than from the gifts I received myself.

Most of us live with an abundance of material things and comforts unprecedented in human history. Our culture seduces us into thinking that all this will make us happy. In his book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, the distinguished University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith reported that, in his national study, more than half of young adults, asked about their vision of “the good life,” said they “would be happier if they could buy more things.” As parents, we can—and must—create a family culture that instills a better understanding than that of what God wants us to do with our lives. There’s no better time than Christmas to bring that into focus, starting with gratitude for the gift God gave us that day—and how we can try to give back.