Take a moment. What is your child playing with or doing
right now? If gifts were part of the family’s traditions last
month, are those tokens getting used by your children? How

Stroll through your child’s room and throughout your home. Are
children’s books and toys well cared for? Are they broken and
discarded or valued and treasured? Are your children engrossed in
interactive play with the things they have or are they spectators
to television or video adventures?

Many U. S. parents and teachers are decrying children’s apparent
lack of care of and value for their clothes, toys, bicycles,
electronics, books, materials, and so on. They are also reporting
the strange paradox that despite being among the most materially
blessed children in the world, U. S. children are chronically
dissatisfied with what they have and have become nags and whiners
demanding ever more.

Although nagging and whining children (or adults) are not modern
inventions, there is a growing concern among educators and mental
health professionals in the U.S. that the rise in disposable income
has been a source of unfortunate learning for children. In a
situation where material things seem unlimited, their perceived
value is greatly diminished. The relentless press of advertising
convinces children they must have certain items. They are
impressionable and easily lead to believe. Because the avalanche is
continuous, however, no one purchase satisfies the need. The need
has not come, in most cases, from the child’s interests,
experiences, or next developmental level, but from some clever
“upgrade” to an attractive toy. In other words, no matter how many
action figures, fast food trinkets, electronic pets, or video games
are bought, the combination of well-meaning but indulgent parenting
and modern advertising methods is a recipe for unhappy, careless
children and frustrated parents.

If you are concerned about your child’s demands and lack of care
for his or her possessions, here’s what must be done. Limit
television viewing and watch some television with your children
when you do permit it. Share your values about the products you
see. Let them know the difference between a show and an
advertisement – a very tricky line to draw in today’s marketplace –
but important so that children understand that others are trying to
sell them things, not just entertain them.

No matter what your income is, set real budgets for toy
purchases. Learn to say, “no” or at least to require a child’s
effort to earn a toy. If children had to clear the table and load
the dishwasher for a month in order to earn a new “something” they
would value that something. Learning the value of effort is
priceless in a child’s life. By the way, make a “no” really a “no.”
Think before you speak. Children learn to whine very quickly if
they realize you can be nagged into a change.

Ask yourself, “For whom am I buying that toy?” Many parents buy
the comic, candy, or toy to quiet a child down or to make up for
being away or to reshape the experiences they themselves had as
children or just because they have the money to do it. These are
not good reasons and can lead to compulsive spending that harms the
child understanding of the value of certain items and the family’s
bottom line.

Toys that are not put away or are uncared for should disappear
from the child’s world. After a few careful and serious warnings,
parents should simply gather up toys and either permanently
(preferred) or temporarily make them disappear. It can be fun to
sit with a child and sort toys back into bins and shelves. This
allows for some good modeling and skill building, but once the
child is four or five years old, he or she should be able to put
away toys and be held responsible (at age appropriate levels) for
their care.

Toys that are damaged or lost through clear carelessness should
not be replaced without a significant contribution from the child.
The skills associated with taking care of stuff come only through
suffering some consequences. If the consequences are eliminated,
there is no learning.

Remember that child development is best accelerated through
social interactions your child has with you and with other
children. Parents are the best educational toys! Shared reading,
board games, card games, throwing a ball, doing crafts, cooking,
and conversations are your child’s best superhighways to elite
universities. Having other children available as playmates is also
vital. Children who have only adults as playmates are sorely
disadvantaged in most same-age social situations.

Materialism is not a substitute for healthy relationships. Our
most affluent suburban adolescent kids are showing troubling rises
in many dangerous behaviors (e.g., drugs, teen pregnancy).
Alienation seems the companion to plenty. Prevention is the best
treatment. Fewer possessions can form a richer experience for
children. The combination of high expectations and loving support
is the best recipe for helping children learn the values and skills
they need for successful lives.

Jane Close
is the Dean and a Professor at the Gevirtz Graduate
School of Education at UC Santa Barbara,


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