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Give Kids Less Stuff

Last month’s ParenTip dealt with some possible reasons many parents give their children too much stuff and fail to give their children enough responsibility. Here are some suggestions for parents who realize they may be doing this and want to change tactics. These come mostly from a talk I have been giving for several years titled “Too Much Stuff/Not Enough Responsibility.”

You want to give your kids less stuff? The trick is to resist outside pressures which include advertising and targeted marketing to parents from the first pregnancy and birth through sending the last one off to college. These are powerful forces that make you feel you are not a good parent if you don’t buy “Product x.”

Marketing to children is also a big industry and a successful one. TV is the most obvious example but children are exposed to advertising messages and “advergaming” on computers, smart phones, video games, stickers, grocery boxes… just about anywhere a child can see them. Brands like Ronald McDonald, are all over the place including schools. Toys that come in series are yet another way to give your child a bad case of the “Gimme’s.”

In 1983 businesses spent $100 million marketing to children via kiddie TV. In 2011 the astounding figure was 17 billion! Why do corporations spend that much to reach children? The answer is found on another statistic: child-influenced family spending has been estimated to be over a trillion dollars. (Maybe the next time your child asks you for something seen on an ad, refuse until the child shows you how to write a trillion dollars in both the US and Britain. Nah, that won’t work. Kids are so psyched up by ads they’ll learn the number of zeros real quick.)

Marketing and advertising pressures from the outside are so strong, so ubiquitous , and so pervasive it is a tough job to resist. Especially when children are so insistent that “everybody has one.” You look around in the neighborhood and, OMG, the kid is right so you have to deal with your own peer pressure from other parents.

But there is another pressure, the one inside. That nagging voice that tells you if you were a really good parent you would find a way to make your child happy by buying the nagged-for product, right? Wrong! Children who get everything they want are not happy, there is always something else to want when happiness is defined by stuff.

Too much stuff leads to toy/gadget overload and clutter which, paradoxically, can cause boredom (“I can’t find anything to play with!”) Also children who are given too much acquire a sense of entitlement (“Ask and I shall always be given.”)

Parents: recognize the enormous influence that these external and internal pressures have on you and your kids. Keep yourself informed and become media-literate. Watch TV with your children and discuss what commercials are for and what they do. Involve older children in setting priorities for family purchases. Limit screen time, all screens, at home for both the children and yourself. Ask yourself what is best for your child and your family. Finally, learn to say no. And mean it.

In addition to giving too much stuff, parents also can give their children too much advice and information so children don’t learn how to figure things out for themselves. When a child asks you a question, of course you should answer. But don’t give too much information. Think of yourself as a dictionary, not an encyclopedia. Give one definition and encourage the child to find others. Look things up together. The goal is to foster and encourage curiosity about the world. Telling your child too much can be counterproductive.

What can parents give their children every day without worrying about possible negative effects? Lots of hugs and love. Do the best you can to give what children say they really want from their parents, time. I worked outside the home as do the majority of mothers today. My husband and I tried to spend time with each child alone in addition to the family time we spent together at meals and on walks. Each parent should find a way to give special alone time to each child every day. A few minutes of you at a time when you are not distracted or thinking about something else is the best gift you can give your child.