We are a nation of consumers. The holiday shopping season is upon us and the advertising is all around us. We are bombarded daily by consumer messages persuading us that the goal of life is to have more money and more things. Advertising and the media give the message that buying stuff will make our lives better and so we have become a culture that has come to value acquiring stuff. We have come to believe if you don’t own or buy a lot of stuff, you don’t have value. Having things has become more highly valued than developing our unique gifts to contribute meaningfully to the world. This makes parenting challenging as we are raising kids in a culture of entitlement and materialistic beliefs.
We need to counteract the destructive messages to our children that happiness can be bought. We have too much stuff. We are using too much stuff. We have more stuff than any generation before us, yet studies show our happiness is actually declining. This is because we are doing way less of the things in life that bring real happiness. Today, more than ever before we have less time for leisure. The limited free time we do have is increasingly spent watching TV, engaged with technology and shopping. Enjoying quality time with family and friends, doing things we are good at and enjoy doing is where we ultimately will find true happiness. It is not happening often enough.
To break the cycle and raise our children differently we need to first examine our own lives and values. We need to know with certainty what messages we want to ‘gift’ to our children. Ultimately, what we model and what we tell our children needs to matter more to them than what they see in the media or hear from their friends. Our parenting needs to help our children discover the emotional rewards to be gained from things other than shopping and acquisitions. We need to help children wire their brains for a different kind of reward and happiness. To do this we need to change the way we look at the things in our lives and have the courage to change the way our family lives. We need to bring more connection, contribution, and skill mastery into our lives for these are the values that bring lasting happiness.
Connection is a fundamental means for human nurturing. Children want to be seen, heard, accepted, and appreciated. When children want connection and validation, we tend to give them stuff instead. Don’t feed your child’s emotional hunger with possessions. Give children what they truly want which is your undivided time and attention. Look for ways you can set up rituals in your daily and weekly routines that allow you to spend more time connecting. Focus on the quality of the time spent together rather than the quantity of time. Make moments of time together happen every day. Consider buying gifts that encourage family bonding – tickets to Disney on ice, a family show, the local zoo, a children’s museum, a game for the family to play, a book to read together. “Children thrive when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence.”
Give your children the opportunity to discover how good it feels to give back. Giving back is personally empowering and has been found to boost self-esteem, improve health, and fight depression. Let children experience the difference they can make in someone else’s life. The smile from a child or thankful person is the greatest feeling in the world.
Give back as a family, not just this time of year but all year long. There are many ways to give back locally in your community. There are opportunities for children of all ages to get involved. Find opportunities that reflect your family or children’s personal passions – the animal shelter, animal rescues, contributing through sports, helping the elderly, the homeless, or someone who is sick – even helping at an edible garden, harvesting fruits and vegetables brings meaningful contributions. Become a team. As a family raise money for a cause important to all of you and do a Bubble Run or Mud Run together. Make contributing fun and meaningful. Let it become a family tradition and you will be giving your children a gift that will be enjoyed and remembered longer than anything you buy.
Working on skill mastery for something your child has a talent or passion for helps wire the brain for a different kind of happiness. Researchers have shown that family environments that focus on providing gratifying and fulfilling activities for kids, without relying on commercial stuff, better allow children to develop their personal strengths. Children who are regularly engaged in these fulfilling activities are more likely to become adults who are happier, less stressed, with more joyful and meaningful lives. Help your children master cooking, basketball, sewing, or creative arts. Practice and enjoy their hobby with them. This is the kind of happiness reward that is permanent and lasts a lifetime.
Entitlement doesn’t just happen, it’s created. The time is now to let go of old ways that have become all too familiar over the years. Embrace your role as a parent. You have the power to reclaim and restructure your family values. Give yourself permission to change your perspective for the holidays and create a holiday season that is more reflective of your values. Values that create more connection and memories … and less clutter.