Sunday, July 11, 2010

Children and Materialism

This story on materialism and what it teaches our children got me thinking and remembering.

One day not long after Christmas, Sara comes home chattering eagerly about a new toy that has made its appearance—something that apparently stands out from the now mundane ponies, mermaids, and Barbies.

“It’s a stuffed animal that can transform into a fruit and even smells like a fruit,” she explains excitedly. “A Fur Berry. And there are four, maybe even five different kinds! And Tekla has one, and so does Flora, and Anna, and …” She stops her speech and looks at me expectantly.

“Well that’s great. Lots of Fur Berries, lots of opportunities to make swaps.”

But she’s shaking her head as if I don’t understand. I turn and face her. She is not eager or excited as I first thought, but agitated. In fact, her big brown eyes are blinking hard, fighting back tears. “No, Mommy,” she says with a hint of desperation. “Everyone has a Fur Berry—don’t you see?—everyone but me.” I may have been slow on the uptake, but now the message is clear. Swapping isn’t enough. A Fur Berry is not a toy one merely obtains on exchange for just a day or two at the most. Its importance lies far beyond its transient entertainment value. It will earn her social cachet, and it’s vital that I as a parent understand this. But somehow, I find myself unable to accept Sara’s urgent need for this fuzzy, pastel-colored plaything.

Days go by, however, and the Fur Berry is the only topic she’s willing to discuss, and always with the teary eyes. Eventually she does concede that, okay, not everyone has a Fur Berry. Only the girls. And well, not all the girls either, only a few. But they are the girls that matter. They are the girls who decide who is in and who is out.

My husband and I are dismayed. She’s only in first grade, yet peer pressure and the tyranny of cliques have already reared their ugly heads. Sooner than I expected, I find myself recalling my own painful struggles of early adolescence. I was never a popular child, introverted and bookish, awkward and unfashionable. And this last quality, my lack of style, was the most problematic. I was sadly aware of how popularity was connected to wealth, and that material possessions could impact one’s social standing: all my clothes came from the Sears catalogue, while many of the other girls were wearing trendy stone-washed Guess jeans. “A waste of money,” my mother would say, “and totally unimportant.” But I remember the looks of scorn on my classmates’ faces.

In a world where what's in today is out tomorrow, it's easy to tell ourselves that these fads aren't important, and that telling our children "no" is teaching them valuable lessons in avoiding materialism. But as the author herself notes, the humiliation of not having what others have can leave lifelong scars.

In Little Women, Amy succumbs to any and every fad at school, and eventually needs to buy pickled limes to repay her friends. Pickled limes? you might say. Why would anyone want something so disgusting? But fads are fads and yesterday's pickled limes becomes today's Lego Star Wars ship and tomorrow's Fur Berry. Yes, these trends are temporary, but sometimes there's more at work to them than first appears.

When I was in high school, designer jeans were all the rage. My family couldn't afford them. My mother had gone to college to get her BSN, and my father's $8-an-hour job didn't stretch much beyond the necessities. If I wanted spending money, I had to work for it, and I did so without complaint. Having my own, earned money was very freeing in most ways, but I couldn't afford designer jeans on minimum wage.

Because of our tight budget, I knew Christmas would be skimpy, and I didn't expect much of anything. Maybe a book I'd been wanting, or the latest Billy Joel album. But then, under the tree, was a tiny box that weighed next to nothing. In the box was a small strip of paper that read, I.O.U. one pair designer jeans. It was a humbling experience, knowing that my parents were willing to sacrifice something they wanted to get me something I wanted, and it was a lesson I never forgot. At that point, the jeans weren't just a pair of jeans; it was an acknowledgement that having what others had sometimes meant a great deal.

I still have that pair of jeans in my closet, believe it or not. They've traveled from my teenage bedroom at my parents' house to the tiny apartment I rented when I was a single woman to both the houses I've owned as a married adult. My husband has even asked me why on earth I have this old pair of jeans in the back of the closet? Why keep something so horribly out of fashion, something I'll never wear?

The answer, of course, is to remind me that loving your kids is about more than giving in to them every time they want something new. Those jeans remind me that my parents honestly cared about the travails of adolescence and the meanness of teenage girls, and that, for them, being a little late on some bill or not getting something for themselves was a small sacrifice to make to take away a little of that pain. And considering the amount of time my parents had spent lecturing my siblings and me on not following the crowd or giving in to peer pressure, the fact that even they understood the problems one faces in junior high and high school was comforting.

I don't buy my children every fad item that comes along. But I do buy some of them, particularly when my children have hit junior high, where fitting in becomes so important. We still don't have money to buy every new thing, but I've bought a single pair of outrageously priced jeans so that one daughter could look cool the first day of school. I've let my son have his shaggy hair the way he'd like, rather than insist he look clean and neat. And I'm sure there will be more of that balancing act in the future.