We've all heard it before — the "Mom-I-really-need-this" plea from our children. What exactly "this" is varies with age and influence, and sometimes, it really is a legitimate need. Yet more often than not, it's something that will occupy them briefly before being discarded in favor of a newer, more urgently coveted item.
Materialism has become the scourge of American society — a force always at work, ever convincing us that we need more, that we can never have enough, and that what we already have can easily be improved upon by the newest item on the market.
The question is: When is it ever enough? And how does that affect our outlook on life and our general well-being?
That's an especially appropriate question for Chanukah, when parents give gifts to sons and daughters eager to receive them. But are the gifts bigger, better and brighter than last year's? And are the kids already comparison shopping with their friends to see who made off with the biggest of all — and maybe stacking them up against those received a couple of weeks later by their non-Jewish friends?
"When people have a problem, their idea of solving it is to buy something," according to James Hunt, marketing professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business.
Part of that is a result of pressure exerted by the media and the forces of advertising. But another part has to do with the structure of our society, he explains.
"We have a very hierarchical, vertically oriented society, where it's very important to get to the top," says Hunt. "To show that they've arrived, regardless of whether or not they're really there, people acquire products."
The place to seek change is to begin with your children, suggests Deirdre Lee Fitzgerald, associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. While it can be very difficult to counter the powerful job done by advertising, it's a necessary battle to wage, she says.
"Kids need to learn to play in different ways, and parents need to show them alternatives to the particular toy of the moment," explains Fitzgerald.
"A lot of times, parents feel the frustration of trying to encourage children to play something different, and it's easy for us to give up in that frustration. I try to remind parents that companies spend billions of dollars making the activities they market look enticing.
"It's truly worthwhile for us," she adds, "to teach kids values that aren't so materialistic and consumer-driven."
The amount of television that Americans watch has a direct correlation with the extent of materialism, adds Hunt, and it has little to do with socioeconomic constraints.
"Poorer classes manifest materialism more than middle-class people, because they can't get ahead," says Hunt. "We're all climbing this ladder, and for people who are not able to get to the top, the way to make it appear that they are already there is through material objects."
Americans — as well as an increasing number of people around the world — seem stuck in a materialistic culture, and it should come as no surprise that their children develop their acquisitive needs by modeling behavior directly on the adults in their lives, he adds. If more possessions equalled greater happiness, that might not be such a terrible thing.
But it doesn't, insists Hunt: "The big findings that stand out in study after study is that the more materialistic people are, the more stress they have and the greater their unhappiness with life. Their self-concept is lower because it's not based on thoughtful, rational analysis, but rather, on very superficial things."
Start With the Kids
Fitzgerald notes that it's important to present children with an explanation of what's important to the family so they're really clear on family values.
"Help kids learn what the family wants to endorse by actually doing it; for example, playing board games together, rather than video games, which tend to remove you from interacting with other people," she advises. "As they get older, discuss with them why the media might show us things, but how we don't necessarily need to have all of them. Help give them perspective on how much is enough."
It's also important to mediate what your children are exposed to and how they interpret advertising, offers Hunt.
At holiday time, for example, "when a new game or toy comes out, parents line up for hours to buy it," he says. "This tells their children that to be happy, I'd better buy something."
A better strategy is to develop open communication with children early, and then mediate the socializing influences on a day-to-day basis.
"Teach them problem-solving skills on an abstract level," he urges. "If you do this, they learn to think outside of a specific toy, and can function at a level beyond immediate gratification."