Wednesday, May 04, 2011

On Not Keeping Up with the Joneses

How do we teach our kids non-consumerism in an area laden with materialism? How do we teach them about people in need in a community where the "haves" far outweigh the "have nots"? How do we instill value and worth in who they are rather than what they do?

The comparisons started early, much earlier than I had anticipated. Maddie started to notice that many of our friends live in bigger houses and drive nicer cars. One day she looked in the mirror and sighed, wishing she were "prettier."

One thing we have consistently shared with our children is our hope for them to be generous, kind, loving and considerate of others. Every person they are in regular contact with affirms, encourages, loves and appreciates the unique individuals they are. We don't boast about our possessions or make a big deal out of new things. We live in a nice, three-bedroom home in a desirable neighborhood. Yet somehow, somewhere, my four year-old learned that more and bigger are better.

And this makes me sad. Like all parents, I want the best for my child, and in this case, the best isn't actually what's biggest, newest, or fanciest. What's best is feeling content and blessed with the riches we do have in each other (and in comparison to the rest of the world). What's best is a generous and gracious heart that doesn't seek to have more, but to give away.

At age three, Maddie encountered a homeless person for the first time and after a long discussion about why he was stinky, shoeless, and asking for money, I could see the wheels turning in her little pig-tailed head. At that point she decided to start saving money for "the homeless people." She held lemonade stands to raise money, hit up her family for loose change, and in the end raised over $350. We spent a lot of time discussing the fact that there are people all around us who need food, shelter, clothing, even toys. A seed was planted.

A few months later, Maddie started helping me as we weeded out old toys and gave things away as donations. I explained that every time a new toy or article of clothing came into our house, we would find something to give away. At first, it was a struggle and a fight (cue Mama weeding and sorting during nap time, bagging toys up and hiding them away until donation day). But before long Maddie was eager to help when she realized that she could exercise some control over what was given away. Now it is such a routine that every few months she will go through her things, take inventory of what she no longer uses, and bag things up for donations.

Not that it's been an easy journey. Because we are all so good at being selfish, it is constantly a struggle to instill gratitude. One particularly rough morning, I found myself in the middle of Lunardi's, my younger child cranky and whining in hunger, my older one asking for every little trinket and knick-knack we came across. I considered abandoning my cart in the middle of the store before coming to my senses, paying for my things, and exiting with my groceries and two screaming kids.

Once in the car, I pulled Maddie's face close to mine, spoke softly and calmly, and explained that we didn't buy the gum, toy, treat, etc. because while those things are nice and fun, our ultimate good is found elsewhere. I reminded her of the importance of loving each other well, being grateful for the things we do have, and using our money for the greater good, not just to feed our own desires. I reminded her that God himself is good, and in him we have our greatest needs already met. Everything else is just a blessing!

These are the small, everyday instances in which we work to remind our kids that bigger, newer, shinier and more aren't necessarily better. How about you? How do you find yourself explaining things to your young kids? How do you fight the consumerism and work for gratitude and generosity in your home?

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