I want that.
I really, really need it. Can I get it? Now?
Will you buy it for me tomorrow?
These refrains can become the soundtrack to a family’s life. Seemingly as natural and innate as the desire for sweets or the pull of screen time, children’s lust for stuff can sometimes overwhelm us parents. The objects of their desire—the this and that they’re begging for—can be whatever they saw on TV moments ago or the toy they played with at a friend’s house hours earlier. My six-year-old daughter has asked us to buy her things she just spotted, even though she has no idea what the products are or what they do. She just knows she wants them. Badly. Yet how often do we buy our kids a present only to see them play with it once and never again? It is the getting, not the having, that provides the thrills.
As parents, we want our kids to be happy. At the same time, we want to ensure they aren’t spoiled or entitled and that they don’t take their belongings for granted. It’s not easy to draw that line, but we must. In doing so, we may be able to tame some of the materialistic lust and show our kids how to appreciate what they have. We also help them understand the role and importance of money in their lives.
No matter how determined we are to avoid spoiling our kids, it is so easy to fall into that trap. We get caught up in the joy of birthdays and the holiday season, and the gifts keep on flowing. We promise a present if they ace a test and reward them for hitting a game-winning home run. And when they’re hurting, why not buy a small gift that will bring a smile to their face? The obvious rule for raising unspoiled kids is: Don’t spoil them. It’s OK, even healthy, for kids to want and for that want not to be sated.
Help them understand the bottom line
At the same time, you should make sure money and finances are topics you discuss with your kids often. They should understand that money is a finite resource and that we continually make trade-offs and tough decisions. My kids continually throw their full bodies onto our increasingly wobbly dining-room table. When I shoo them off, they cavalierly tell me that if it breaks we can just buy a new one. After hearing this one too many times, I explained the cost of a new table and what we might need to sacrifice—a nice weekend away, for instance—if we must replace the one we have now.
Getting allowance will help make real some of these theoretical lessons. At home, we give our children their weekly money and regularly talk to them about making the same trade-offs we grown-ups do. You want that toy we won’t buy you right now? You can use your own money to buy it, but then you will have that many fewer dollars in your wallet. Which is more important to you, getting that toy today or having the money to buy something else in the future?
The best thing we can do for our kids is to model the behavior and values we want to see in them. So, it’s time to tame our own acquisitiveness. That doesn’t mean we need to move to tiny apartments and forgo nice things. Doing so is unnecessary and going too far. Being inauthentic risks sparking a backlash, and that’s the last thing any of us wants. Rather, live a life in which values mean more than things, in which you appreciate what you have rather than pining for what you don’t, and in which your satisfaction in the rewards of hard work are evident. This will rub off on your kids and you will be amazed to see them grow into adults who likewise are grateful for whatever they have and don’t spend their lives lusting for the shiny new toy.