I Want It Now!
Navigating Childhood In A Materialistic World
By Donna Bee-Gates
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Donna Bee-Gates
All rights reserved.
BELIEVING IN FAIRY TALES
Shoes possess magical properties. Have you heard the story of the orphan girl and her dancing red shoes? The girl came into a beautiful pair of red shoes, just like those the town's princess wore. Being somewhat vain, the girl insisted on wearing her shoes to church, even though she knew that showy footwear was inappropriate for such a sacred space. The shoes, and by proxy the girl, were bewitched by an old soldier, and when she danced with pride at the thought of owning such lovely shoes, she was unable to stop. After ages and ages of dancing over hill and dale, the little girl begged a "kindly" old ax-man to chop off her feet so that she could finally get some rest (apparently the shoes kept on dancing without her). By the end of the tale, our humbled heroine, wearing more respectable wooden clogs, seeks redemption back in church.
In children's folktales, it is not just shoes that are magic. Enchanted beans lead to unimaginable wealth, cloaks lend invisibility, and swords bestow invincibility. Quaint stories, meant to appeal to gullible children? Let's take a look at more modern fairy tales. Stories abound of creams that take off the years, colas that make you cool, and cars that change even the nerdiest among us into sexy, popular hipsters. Historically and across cultures, humans have chronicled their belief that material objects have the power to transform. But the path to transformation is filled with potholes. Folktales also relate stories of the greedy, the vain, and the wealthy who all get their comeuppance. The Bible puts it bluntly: A rich man has a greater chance of getting to heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle. Both the desirability and the danger of objects are found throughout literature, politics, religion, parental fiat, and common wisdom. So what kernel of insight can be culled from these teachings? That it is okay to desire things as long as you don't enjoy them too much? The cultural rules regarding materialism and its acceptability conflict and confuse. Maybe the orphan girl would have kept her feet if she had not taken so much pleasure in those darn red shoes.
People define materialism differently. Some individuals place the label on those who like to shop or who spend large sums on designer items. Katrina, a mother of four children, equates materialism with the craving to belong:
It's buying things that you don't really need. Brand names in particular. So, if it was a car, it would be materialism if it was a name brand like a Lexus. I consider it material items that people think they really need to be socially accepted. That's how I think of it ... they have to have the brand names to feel socially accepted ... I know a mother who buys things just to satisfy her child, but it's so short term, and it will be something else and then something else. It's endless.
Tammy Lynn, a mother of three, agrees that materialism means loving expensive, status items:
It's really trying to keep up with the Joneses and having to have the latest styles ... There's nothing wrong with rewarding yourself now and then. If there's something I want that's popular, I'll try to put away for it, but that doesn't happen very often ... I think it's negative when you have to have the latest and the most expensive or flashy things. Or putting someone else down because they don't have it.
Don describes materialism as "being obsessed with status, wealth, and opportunity rather than the actual value of the things you buy."
Because materialism carries many different meanings for people, I offer one definition to guide the discussion throughout this book. In my view, materialists are made, not born. We don't come into this world with a gene that forces us into driving to the mall. Rather, most people learn through various means to value a materialistic lifestyle. The definition of materialism for this book involves a cluster of three attitudes about possessions and wealth. It includes the belief that:
1. Acquisition and consumption should be a primary life goal.
2. Possessions bring happiness.
3. Success depends upon the scope and scale of one's belongings.
The first attitude determines one's priorities. Most people have goals for the different areas of their lives — work, academics, family, relationships, community, material, and health, to name a few. A work goal could be pursuing a particular career or getting that promotion. Goals for one's academic life might include learning more about marine biology or pursuing an interest in history. Material goals refer to the acquisition and possession of material goods, wealth, income, and status. In this realm, individuals might aspire to great riches, or they might be satisfied with just getting by. Some people continually strive for "status goods" while others are content with the basics. Status goods can take the form of a high-performance European automobile, Bordeaux wines, or even designer jeans. The term "status" in this context implies that possession of these items imbues the owner with importance or worth in the eyes of others and themselves. Attitude number one maintains that of all the life goals one might hold, acquisition and consumption take precedence. A child who subscribes to this first attitude may sacrifice study time by taking on a part-time job to pay for desired possessions. This child could become the adult who pursues a high salary by working long hours at work to the detriment of relationships with family or friends. Or it is the person who purchases unaffordable items, relies on credit, and lives with the anxiety of constantly being in debt.
Attitude number two highlights the belief that money and belongings lead to happiness. Individuals who claim this belief look to material items as a way to feel good about themselves. Some youngsters may believe that possessions bring happiness through the increased regard of peers. This is the child buys designer clothing, for instance, to win acceptance from a particular peer group. Maintaining this belief over the long term means that this same child chooses a career not based on interest, but on the social status or income potential it brings. This second attitude also manifests as the youngster who buys bags of food to soothe a depressed mood or the teenager who charges $150 athletic shoes on her parents' credit card after a bad day at school. Many of us indulge in a treat now and then to lift our spirits or as a reward for an accomplishment. The behavior becomes a problem when individuals constantly use material items as an antidote for emotional distress.
Success at life covers a wide swath. For some, success centers on family and raising happy, healthy children. Others define success based on whether they have contributed to alleviating the suffering of others. Those who embrace attitude number three measure accomplishments in terms of material possessions. This calls to mind a friend who visited the town where he was raised after a several-year absence. In that time, he had earned a graduate degree, found a job that he loved, and was happily married. My friend considered himself to be pretty successful. His childhood friends, however, were most interested in whether he owned a home, how much he earned, and the type of car he drove. Their definition of success rested on financial prosperity while my friend's centered on satisfaction with job and relationships. Children who subscribe to this third attitude base their self-worth on what and how much they, or their parents, own.
For the purposes of this book, a belief in one or more of these three attitudes constitutes materialism or a materialistic orientation. Throughout, references made to "materialists" or "materialistic people" denote those who hold a materialistic orientation. It does not refer to a personality trait or temperament. Further, materialism does not limit itself to a particular economic level. I have noticed that people tend to consider the wealthy to be particularly materialistic, probably because they own more expensive things than other people. However, materialism represents an attitude to which anyone from any income level can embrace. A child from any point on the economic spectrum, from poor to wealthy, can judge others based on what they own or the clothes they wear. Likewise, any child can espouse the belief that a new gadget will be just the thing to make him happy.
As we'll see in subsequent chapters, a number of social conditions can breed materialism. In turn, this materialistic orientation allies with social problems, depression, discontentment, and other emotional difficulties. The goal of this book is to examine how children's materialism manifests. It might be in the way children choose to spend their own money from allowances or part-time jobs. Youngsters can also satisfy materialistic cravings by requesting their parents for goods. Parents, therefore, can explore this issue in two ways. First, they can help to deepen their children's insight into materialistic desire and consumer behavior. Parents can also examine their own beliefs and behaviors related to children and consumption. For example, many of the adults interviewed for this book stated that they frequently give in to children's pleas for new items. The book discusses some of the reasons that parents indulge their children and ways to address this inclination.
Again and again, while writing this book, I heard testimonials to the conflict many Americans feel over materialism. There was the not-in-my-backyard response, which typically included comments such as "My friend/neighbor/coworker (everyone but me) is really materialistic. You should talk to them." For some people, admitting to materialistic leanings equals admitting to great weakness. Like the closet alcoholic or the unfaithful spouse, many people loathe admitting to a love of possessions. One striking example of this came from a father I talked with who had just purchased over $2,000 in sports equipment that he "really needed" while simultaneously deriding "materialistic" women who spend money frivolously on shoes and clothing.
I also met with the I'm-so-ashamed response. These parents eagerly confessed to overindulgence; however, very few offered solutions on how to counter overspending. Several interviewees, for example, felt badly about giving in, over and over, to their children's wheedling for treats, toys, and the like. One mother implicated her husband as the hedonistic culprit:
I get frustrated because I'm not one to buy him things all the time, his dad does. I sometimes give in, his dad always gets him something. His dad and I have discussions about this, but it falls on deaf ears.
I believe that the myriad responses come from the same emotional pot. To some degree, Westerners feel shame at desiring and owning many nice things. While I focus here on Americans, this phenomenon of overconsumption describes other affluent, technologically advanced countries as well. Most people learn when they are children — usually from parents or as part of their religious training — that greed is a no-no. Yet garages, closets, playrooms — and that space under the bed — testify that most Americans own more "stuff" than they will ever need. Psychologist David Buss calls it the "hedonic treadmill." He says: "Americans today have more cars, color TVs, computers, and brand-name clothes than they did several decades ago, but Americans are no happier now than they were then ... people seem to adjust quickly to any gains they experience, creating the hedonic treadmill where apparent increments in rewards fail to produce sustained increments in personal happiness."
Despite the shame, despite the reality that acquiring more does not lead to long-term happiness, people continue to add to their heap of belongings. For many Americans, this paradox leads to uncomfortable, guilty feelings about spending and to an arsenal of familiar justifications: I deserve something special. I've worked hard. I'm depressed. I haven't bought anything for a while. I need this to be accepted at school. There is nothing inherently wrong with these justifications. Most people use them at one time or another. However, the justifications don't usually move people closer to understanding their actions, and they don't help to change unwanted behaviors.
When I begin a discussion in my classes on materialism, I typically present the students with two questions. First I ask them: "How many of you believe that America is a materialistic culture?" Usually everyone raises their hands, many nodding vociferously. Then I ask: "How many of you think that children today are more materialistic than previous generations?" Again almost everyone agrees. Several students give examples of children they know who constantly beg their parents for more stuff. My students' beliefs about modern materialism reflect the opinions of a good number of Americans on this issue. Many contend that materialism in this culture has grown out of hand and that the younger generation is much more materialistic than their predecessors. However, some social scientists suggest that today's propensity toward materialism has more to do with society's economic, social, and political climate than with the burgeoning of a supposedly new self-indulgent generation. One theory on the growth of materialistic values argues that insecurity lays the groundwork for materialism.The term "insecurity" has multiple interpretations. Emotional insecurity, for example, refers to feeling vulnerable or experiencing a lack of confidence or safety. Children of divorcing parents often report feeling insecure and anxious. They also tend to endorse materialistic values more than children from low-conflict, intact homes. Likewise, children who report feeling unloved and unappreciated by their parents also gravitate to material goods for comfort. Possessions provide a sense of security to children who feel they cannot rely on adults to support them emotionally. Further, insecure youngsters who lack confidence in themselves may use belongings to boost self-esteem and garner social acceptance.
The insecurity theory also attempts to explain materialistic attitudes in terms of economic stability. Political scientist Ronald Ingle-hart asked individuals in the United States and in European countries to identify goals or values most important to them. Based on this work, Inglehart identified what he termed "materialistic goals" and "postmaterialistic goals." Materialistic goals included values like maintaining a high rate of economic growth, job security, and a strong defense. Postmaterialistic goals centered on values such as "making the cities more beautiful" and "move toward a friendlier, less impersonal society." Postmaterialistic values might take the form of campaigns to save old-growth redwoods or endangered toads. Both of these goals illustrate differences in priorities between saving the environment and saving jobs. Essentially, materialistic values focus on factors related to economic and national security, and postmaterialistic values highlight humanistic and environmental concerns. People from poorer nations rate materialistic goals as more important than do those from wealthier nations. As nations' economies grow over time, so does their postmaterialistic orientation. For example, countries such as South Korea and China, which have seen significant economic growth over several decades, show an increase in postmaterialistic orientation.
Over the past twenty-five years, the United States has shown an upward trend in postmaterialistic goals, with fewer people endorsing materialism and more individuals endorsing postmaterialism. This means that perceptions of greater materialism in today's culture may be due to other factors, such as the omnipresence of advertising and the sheer amount of merchandise available to citizens. Younger Americans favor postmaterialism compared to the older generations who came of age during the depression. This doesn't mean that the younger generation is uniformly less materialistic than their elders. It suggests that postmaterialism is growing, especially among the young. Depression-era individuals matured during a time of profound economic insecurity, and because of this many still favor a materialistic orientation, despite the fact that they may now be financially secure. Many of the younger generation in the middle and upper economic levels live in relative affluence and harbor fewer concerns about having enough money to buy basics such as food, clothing, and shelter. It will be interesting to discover how the current climate of instability, with the realities of the Iraq war and the growing national deficit, will influence the trend toward postmaterialism. It may be that greater insecurity will dampen the postmaterialistic inclination. The comments of the parents I interviewed who were raised by Depression-era parents concur with the insecurity theory. Uniformly, the parents described their elders as "thrifty," "good money managers," and "frugal." Some parents described their childhoods in this regard as positive, and others found life to be quite challenging. As I discuss later, some of the current parents have followed their elders' lead in terms of spending habits and others have not. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I Want It Now! by Donna Bee-Gates. Copyright © 2006 Donna Bee-Gates. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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