As sad as it is, we live in a world where material belongings have been equated with the measure of our worth. So, most of us have succumbed to societal pressures to buy our kids lots of cool stuff. Beautiful clothes, most desirable toys, designer labels, the best sports equipment, a bigger TV, the most recent cell phones, etc. In fact, we often use our multitude of gifts as expressions of love.
Here’s an example. When I travel with my team members to another state for a continuing education conference, they remain preoccupied with the need to find something “just right” to bring back for each child, as a souvenir of their trip. Trust me when I say, it seems to cloud the entire trip with a hint of frustration. Then upon our return, it’s not unusual to see them scatter with a frenzy, throughout the airport, to settle for something to bring home. I have come to recognize that this obligatory gift is a way to say “I’m sorry for being gone.” As I write this, I’m not at all sure my team members realize these are guilt-driven gifts, but the ritual is not about to change any time soon. And by now, their kids have been programmed to expect them.
A different approach might be to explain to their children that the trip was for their own personal growth, professional learning and reenergizing. In that light, a different way of gift-giving might be to buy a personal treasure only if they happened to see something “just right” for their child along their travels. In that special, unexpected way, it might serve as an I-thought-about-you-when-I-saw-this kind of gift.
I see this example is a metaphor for the bigger picture. Giving our kids all kinds of “stuff” has become an attempted substitute for our time. Let’s face it, the busier we are juggling work life, household tasks, other relationships and self-care, the less time we have for one-on-one parenting. The busier we are, the more not-enoughness, guilt and shame we carry.
The problem is “stuff” is a lousy replacement for your time. And your kids realize this. While buying sprees might appease your guilt, they teach kids the exact opposite values you hold dear, such as kindness, communication, family and fun.
Plus, a focus on having the right “stuff” teaches kids how to feel entitled. They develop expectations about what they’ll be given. Later, when it’s time to be off your payroll, they often sacrifice their financial responsibility for their perceived material “needs”. Young adults buying stuff on credit, with high (and compounding) interest rates begins another downward spiral of anxiety, guilt and shame.
So, resist the urge. Try instead to funnel the time and money you might squander on shopping into experiences. Go home empty-handed and give your child simple face-to-face white space. Take a hike, look at the stars, plan an art project, play games, read books together, dance, sing and tell stories. Let these be the special gifts you build your child’s values around.