One February afternoon, my sister and I took the kids shopping at one of the big warehouse stores. They were jumpy and excited to visit with their aunty again, and she had promised Chloe to pick a present for her birthday. We stood in the busy line, my fidgety son in front of me, waiting for the girls to return with Chloe’s gift of choice. It was almost our turn, when Chloe came bounding up with a huge smile on her face holding a coloring book set and a complete encyclopedia of Pokémon characters.
My mommy antenna sensed an impending crisis. I felt stuck between the cashier signaling for my turn and giving my daughter an answer I knew she wouldn’t like. I would not be pressured into saying “yes” because of the momentum of the grocery line.
I looked at my sister instead. “She can have the coloring book, but not the Pokémon,” hoping that redirecting the point to an adult would lessen the blow.
My baby’s face dropped to seven levels of disappointment. The tears welled up in her beautiful green eyes.
Ohhhh no, not here. Please not here.
I squatted down to try and level with her, at a loss for an explanation that could come close to conveying the depth of my reasoning. The only thing I could think to say was, “Chloe, this is not what we do, this stuff is not okay… you don’t need this…people….kids at school…. not in our house…”
My thoughts were a jumbled mess. Like most other times the kids spring an issue or question on me, I was not ready for this conversation, especially not in the checkout line.
She sobbed and let out soft whimpers as she hugged my sister, who was visibly torn between consoling her niece’s little spirit and standing behind the principle I was attempting to communicate.
Then, something unexpected happened. A man in the line next to us heard our conversation, stepped into the bubble of our dilemma and asserted to my daughter, “You probably don’t understand now, but believe me, you will thank your mom later for this.”
Grateful & pleasantly surprised at the stranger’s affirming comment, I thanked him and felt more justified in standing my ground. But it would take a while for my impressionable seven-year-old to understand the factors of this decision. I took her hand as she sobbed with her head down out of the store.
Social Norms of Elementary School
As much as it pains me to see my babies disappointment, the standard we’re trying to set for them is to think about the place that material things have in their lives. Pokemon is just one example of characters that have been mass-marketed to young children as collectors items, and capitalized on through strategic marketing campaigns.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not forgotten what it’s like to be seven. I remember loving Hello Kitty, Lisa Frank, even Power Rangers. But as a child, I didn’t understand the enormous cost, time investment, and energy consumption behind what it meant to maintain this type of interest.
It’s not the characters themselves – I don’t think they’re evil or anything, but I do think the need to have the next best thing and all the accessories that go with it can lead to unhealthy consumerism. For example, if my kids need an umbrella or new set of dishes, or shoes, when I have the choice between a neutral pattern or one with the Mouse’s face on it, I’ll stay neutral.
I have a big problem with how the media markets these things to younger children just to make a buck. This commercialism is the main reason why we still don’t have cable.
- Advertising is a powerful tool in today’s screen-driven culture. (Read more in our post: Technology: How Far We’ve Come) Their job is to convince us why we need fill in the blank and why we need it now.
- Advertising has taken over what use to be informational and educational programming.
- Advertising is now communicating values to my children. (i.e., “Gotta catch ‘em all,” and other catchy slogans designed to stick to our psyche)
Return to Your Values
My goal is to have very little in my home that advertises unnecessarily to my kids. In fact it will benefit them more in the long run to be more creative with how they occupy their time. Sure they watch shows on Netflix, Chloe has a few Disney princess dresses, and Asher loves superheros and Lego building. But these things make up a very small percentage of their belongings.
The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi and urges them to continue to do good among their countrymen, not to worry or be anxious for what is to come because their hope is in God’s great plan. Then he says:
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good reputation, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Philippians 4:8 NASB)
Just as we attempt to curb our own overspending, we must teach our kids to ask themselves these questions:
- What value does this item have in my life? Is it true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good reputation, worthy of praise?
- Will this contribute to building my knowledge or character?
- Why is this item so important to me? (Genuine interest or comparison to other friends)
If I let everything in the house my kids were interested in, we would have two problems on our hands: our house would be filled with unnecessary clutter, and I would have the same issue trying to clear it out of my house because I couldn’t say no the first time.
The question we need to be asking ourselves as parents is where is the line? Because kids don’t have a filter for how much and what kind of influence is enough in their lives. We need to help them develop their own filter by talking about the priority we place on stuff. But first, we have to be comfortable with drawing that line and saying “no.”
How do you explain to a little girl that what she sees her friends doing every day is not okay for our family? Immediately my thoughts go to her being outed; not as cool, then she won’t be accepted into social groups. It’s what I dreaded about the influence of public elementary school, and constantly needing to combat fads and trends that we don’t want to be distracting to their impressionable minds.
At that moment in the store, I felt as if I were holding her back, like I’d just created a barrier to her social acceptance.
What comforts me is this scripture, and it has proven to be one of the more power-packed tools for strengthening the parent filter and reevaluating my decision-making:
“Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
As another version puts it, “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive.” (NIV) Paul was talking to the Corinthian church about a similar issue. They wanted to claim their freedom in Christ while still participating in pagan practices. It was compromise, and Paul called them out on it.
In other words, what we can do doesn’t mean we should, because there is a broader issues at stake here: what consumes our thoughts and time and energy in place of God.
Maybe the struggle in your home is guilt. You may feel guilty that you can’t provide certain things, so whatever they want within reason is fair game. I get that, I want my kids to have beautiful childhood experiences. But things cannot possibly take the place of my time and attention with them. Even if I have to say no, I’m asking them to trust me to wait for something better. Be the value filter for your family, explain why, and ask them to trust you even when they don’t understand. God asks the same of us, and He is a good Father. (Matthew 7:11)
When there is no value filter in place, anything can come in. Let’s help our kids fight the distraction and keep in what matters more to our family. Keep the foundational things forefront, and the rest will no longer be a pressing need, just a passing thought.
It’s been said that “what you think about most, that is your God.” Let’s keep consumerism off the throne of their lives by opting for neutral and useful possessions whenever possible, and teach them habits that build character for a lifetime and not just for the moment.