Many parents today are struggling to navigate this consumer-driven world we live in. We have access to too much information. We have too many options of what to stream and watch. We have endless podcasts and audiobooks to listen to. Youtube provides us with unlimited videos of everyday experts on every topic imaginable. We can be constantly entertained, educated, enlightened and engaged.
With this comes advertising in every form. While driving we see this on bus stops, billboards and signs. We hear it on the radio and streaming music (unless we pay for premium). We see it as we scroll on social media or watch free to air television. It’s hard to avoid.
Our children are feeling it too. They often have too many toys. They are invited to too many birthday parties. They have too many extracurricular activities and are overscheduled. The overwhelm is real.
Here are nine ways that we can teach our children about contentment in a consumer-driven world:
1. Avoid junk mail.
At the time of writing, households still get hounded with catalogues and flyers. (I don’t know how this is still allowed with the huge environmental impact it has but I’ll save that for another time). It’s worth putting a sign on your letterbox to prevent this from entering your home. We often don’t know we need things until we see them advertised.
If we as adults struggle to ignore the pull to buy, how much harder do our children find it? Our inboxes get spammed with emails from companies about the latest promotion and sales. Unsubscribe from these. Unfollow businesses on social media that tempt you to buy. If you have older children, show them what you are doing and explain that you don’t want to know about every sale because it makes you want to shop more.
2. Write a list.
A helpful way to reduce what we buy is to keep a list of what we need to buy. We can model this for our children. When we think of something that we need or an item that we see that we really like, we can type it into our phone. I have a general ‘buy’ list, and also categories for each person in our family. This can become part of a birthday wish list to make it easier when people ask for ideas.
When children see a toy or bike in the store that they really love, you can offer to take a photo to remember it. They can save up their pocket money for the item or ask for it for a birthday or Christmas present. Often once we have taken a photo and we leave the store, they will forget about it.
The same goes for me too. I always find random photos of items from shopping centres that I’ve taken. In the moment, I really wanted to buy it. Most of the time, I forget about it once I’m home. We can get so caught up in the moment and want things that we just don’t need.
3. Consider a streaming service.
Although streaming services do cost money, the trade-off is that you don’t have to watch advertisements. Remember watching those ads during Saturday morning cartoons about the awesome Hot Wheel car toys and how they always looked so exciting?
I still remember the disappointment of seeing them in real life. They seemed so much smaller and far less fun than they appeared on tv. The same goes for those mouth-watering burgers that seem so large and juicy. In reality, they are often Lukewarm and sweaty in the paper wrap, small and never as tasty.
When we limit the advertising that our children are exposed to, they desire less stuff. Same for us really. The $14 Netflix subscription fee might save you far more a month in buying unnecessary items, or at least reduce the tantrums when they don’t get what they want.
4. Avoid shopping centres.
Try to avoid making shopping a hobby. Don’t take the family on the weekend to browse and wander the shops. Nominate one person to get in and get out. Do it after hours if you can as most department stores are open until nine pm on weekdays (where I live anyway).
Choose online if it’s less tempting or distracting for you. When we walk around Kmart, it’s easy to fill a trolley with gorgeous homewares or find all the things in the middle aisle at Aldi. Stick to your list and what you need. Paying with cash can reduce how much you spend as you are forced to buy what you intended to.
5. Buy secondhand.
Where possible, purchase secondhand from op shops (thrift stores) and garage sales. Let your children bring their pocket money. Their small change will go further with secondhand goods and they will find some different toys to the ones sold new in-store.
Children will feel like they’re getting a bargain for their money compared to a toy shop or department store. It helps to keep items out of landfills, reduces packaging and wastage and keeps items circulating around the community. Profits go towards charities that make a big difference in the lives of people doing it tough. If they want more money to spend, encourage them to go through some old toys and list them to sell on Marketplace and Gumtree.
6. Toy library.
Utilise your local toy library. These are amazing places. Children can borrow new items every week or fortnight which helps them fresh and exciting. You can test out toys before deciding if you want to buy them.
Personally, I’ve often realised how annoying something is once my kids have played with it for 30 minutes and I’m so relieved that I can return it when they’re done. Our local toy library has unlimited puzzles, baby toys, toddler walkers, bikes and scooters, board games and dress-ups.
You can even borrow large items for parties. I love that we can cycle in new toys whenever we want, and simply swap them for others whenever we want. There is no need to own lots of books and toys anymore when we have access to brilliant libraries nearby, and for this, I am so grateful.
7. Sponsor a child.
When I was growing up, my parents sponsored a child from Ethiopia. They had money debited from their account each month which went to benefit a local community. The organisation coordinated projects like building wells for freshwater, training for employment, planting seeds for a vegetable garden, school fees, health and maternity care, and skills in personal hygiene to prevent disease.
As children, we enjoyed writing to the sponsor boy and would decorate the letter with stickers. It helped give us perspective on our lives and we liked helping to make a small difference in the lives of his family and community. I have sponsored a child since I was sixteen and had my first part-time job.
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It was special being able to see her grow up and know that my hard-earned money was being utilised in such a life-changing way. It is a wonderful way to develop gratefulness in our children and model generosity. There are many wonderful organisations and charities that offer child sponsorship. Here are links to some that I use or have used before. World Vision, Compassion, Baptist World Aid, Marantha Health (not directly sponsoring a child but the money goes towards helping a health and development work in Western Uganda).
8. Model contentment.
Children watch and notice what we do. It is far more powerful than what we say. If we tell them to be content with what they have, yet spend time shopping online and regularly have packages arrive in the post, they will see that we value buying things. If we tell them to write a list but impulse shop whenever we see something we like, they will see that it’s okay to buy things when we desire them.
It is important to model contentment and self-control in our daily life and our shopping habits. We can put more emphasis on giving than receiving, and show how exciting it can be to buy a present for somebody else. We can ask for handmade gifts and cards, or second-hand jewellery and accessories from the local op shop rather than shop-bought things sometimes.
We can ask for flowers in a pot or herbs to plant that we can admire and use longer than a bouquet of flowers would last in a vase. We can make an effort to mend clothes and sew on buttons, even repurpose items if we have skills in sewing. When our children see that we value what we have and are grateful for what comes into the house, they will try to emulate this too.
9. Experiences over stuff.
When we focus on experiences instead of things, we create wonderful memories as a family. They can form part of traditions that we all look forward to and build our sense of belonging. Experiences can make fantastic gift ideas and can be a great option for people to put money towards on birthdays and Christmas.
As a starting point, grab some paper and write down things they’ve never done and places they’ve never been. For ones that cost money, think camel rides, wildlife park, zoo, bowling, ice skating, royal show, water park, movies, drive-in, circus, trampolining centre, plaster funhouse, theatre or a sporting match. Go on a boat or ferry, go caving, skiing, tobogganing or stand up paddleboarding.
For free experiences, why not fly a kite, visit the beach, river, forest, adventure playgrounds, mangroves, museums, art gallery, hiking, fishing or camping. You could do a local city break in a hotel, go on an aeroplane to your nearest capital city or take a road trip. The options are endless, and so much fun! Create a wishlist of experiences that you would like to do as a family and tick them off when you get the opportunity to do them.
Parenting has never been an easy job, though I feel that in this day and age of distraction and comparison it is only getting harder. We need to negotiate this tricky terrain with intentionality. It can be useful to reflect on what type of children you want to raise. What values are important to you? Bringing up children who are content with what they have, where they live and who they are is one that is high on my list.
When we switch the focus from wanting and owning more, to being grateful for what we already have, we create a sense of gratitude and contentment. When we change our shopping habits and declutter the excess, our homes will have fewer toys and stuff. We will have less of a focus on what we don’t have and more emphasis on the memories we have created together. It is possible to raise children to be content, amidst a society that tells us that we need more. It isn’t easy but I know it will be worth it.