My little boy cried. Loudly. Real tears fell, his hands gripped the fabric as he wailed, ‘Mummy, I just LOVE these, I just want these so much!’. Fellow shoppers glanced over, most smiling in knowing solidarity.
It was a shopping centre meltdown. My usually easygoing four-year-old had spotted a pair of pyjamas adorned with his favourite TV Monster Truck, and was suddenly and completely overwhelmed by a desire to own them.
The incident got me thinking: as Christian parents, what should we do about our children’s desire for ‘stuff’?
Of course, consumption is an unavoidable part of life. In Australia, most of us are able to buy all the things we need, and many of the things we want. While it’s OK to enjoy these as good gifts from God, it’s important to stop and consider whether our habits of spending and consumption align with our Christian values.
Are we teaching our children to be unthinking consumers following the latest trends, or careful stewards of the resources God has given us?
The effects of consumerism
Our consumption habits are far from harmless or trivial: they have a significant impact on our planet, our neighbours and ourselves. Our spending also reveals our innermost values and longings.
Every product we buy, eat or use affects earth’s natural resources. It’s good to be mindful of how something was made, how it was transported to us, and how it (and its packaging!) will be disposed of once we’re finished with it. Environmental degradation also disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable of the world.
Our level of consumption also affects others. The more we consume for ourselves, the less we have to share with our church or those in need. Lavish spending can also cause our brothers and sisters to stumble into envy.
Perhaps most insidious is the way that excessive consumption affects us—it distracts us from a life rich with thankfulness and contentment. The media would have us believe that consuming will bring us joy and satisfaction. But once we have the new shoes, lawnmower or holiday safely in our possession, our desire is quickly replaced with a new one, and we start to wonder, ‘What else can I buy to make myself happy?’. Consumption breeds discontentment and is ultimately unsatisfying.
So how can we help ourselves and our children to recognise and resist consumerism?
Jesus said, ‘For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). If we find ourselves longing after material things, imagining that they will make us happy, then perhaps our treasure is not really in Jesus. Let’s store up heavenly treasures instead by reading God’s word and fixing our eyes on Christ. The more our hearts are filled with the love of Jesus, the less they will long for material things.
God has freely given us so many blessings—his love, his forgiveness, his Spirit, the promise of heaven—not to mention families, homes, jobs, healthcare, hobbies, beauty in nature … Thanking God each day for these things helps us to be satisfied with what we have. It’s great to have a set daily prayer time, but you can also thank God throughout the day. If you’re thankful for your comfortable bed, an offer of help or a beautiful sunset, tell your children about it.
When we share what we have, we notice the needs of others and experience the blessing of being able to meet them from our own abundance. Involve your children in sharing with others through service, hospitality and financial giving.
Avoid ‘We can’t afford it’
Simply saying ‘We can’t afford it’ implies that you would purchase the item if only you had more money. But often this is not the case. Consider instead:
‘We don’t need it.’
‘We have one similar at home.’
‘We are saving our money to buy something else.’
‘If we buy this, we won’t have money to share this month.’
Show how desire works
It’s good to give your children regular opportunities to feel the longing for an object, the disappointment of not having it and then, in the passing of time, the diminishing or disappearance of the longing.
Rather than buying something straightaway, write down the things you or your children want, and revisit the list in a fortnight. Show your kids how things that seem so important and desirable one day can quickly lose their appeal.
When you do decide to buy something, follow up on that too. It’s good to enjoy and be thankful for the material things we have, but we can also help children to notice that these objects are often far less fulfilling than we imagined they would be, and that new desires soon replace old ones.
Put your money where your mouth is
Children are keen observers of hypocrisy. For example, if we say that Christmas is all about Jesus and then spend 99% of our time, energy and money buying gifts, this won’t go unnoticed. Likewise, if we discourage our children from upgrading their pencil case when the old one is still perfectly good but update our smartphone each time there is a new release, our kids will want to know why.
Let’s be honest about our own struggles with consumption. Our children need to see that, despite our imperfections, we’re asking God to help us value Jesus and others more than we value ‘stuff’.
If your child needs new pyjamas, by all means choose the ones you know they will enjoy wearing. But suppose I buy my son the Monster Truck pyjamas, but the following month he is no longer keen on them and instead wants Puppy pyjamas? If we indulge our children’s ever-changing obsessions with TV shows, toys or favourite colours, we are priming them to become adult consumers of trends and depriving them of opportunities to learn contentment and focus on the things that truly bring joy.
My little boy kept crying that day in the shops. I had to pry the fabric out of his damp little fingers and carry him out, stroking his head and telling him I understood how much he wanted those pyjamas. My son recovered quickly, but he did occasionally mention those Monster Truck pyjamas over the next few months. In our family, we have a tradition of receiving new pyjamas on Christmas Eve, and his sweet face lit up when he saw the longed-for Monster Truck pyjamas that night.
I haven’t seen the pyjamas for some weeks now. They may be down the side of our son’s bed or festering at the very bottom of the laundry pile. Needless to say—he’s not missing them.
Kat Israel is mum to five kids, aged from preschool through to high school, and a preschool educator. She is married to Toby and they live in suburban Sydney.
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