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A Severe Case Of "Affluenza"

Are your kids fighting the gimmes? Here's how to help.

I knew we were in trouble the year my son turned 7. As his birthday party drew closer, I could feel my panic level rising. Phone calls from family and friends only made matters worse. They all asked the same question: "What can we get Luke for his birthday?" Seems like a simple question, but I honestly couldn't think of a single thing he wanted or needed. His bedroom already looked like a Toys R Us warehouse, and even he couldn't come up with any substantial ideas for his birthday list.

If you've paid any attention to the kids at the mall lately, you know what I'm talking about. Today's kids are really into stuff. Targeted by multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, kids are blasted from every angle with the same message: Buy more, spend more, have more. According to Lois Morton, author of a series of Cornell University publications called Kids in the Marketplace, American children ages 4 to 12 spend some $9 billion annually and influence their parents to spend $130 billion; teens spend another $95 billion annually. Games, toys, CD players, clothes, skateboards, computers—you name it, they've got it.

Thanks to the economic boom of recent years, today's families are making more money than ever before. And while we may not all be living in six-bedroom homes or driving luxury cars, we can afford to pamper and indulge our children more than any previous generation. Even if we don't indulge our own kids, grandparents and other well-meaning relatives are often more than willing to do it for us. But the nagging questions remain: How can we teach our children the difference between wants and needs when there is literally nothing they need that they don't already have? Is it possible to raise well-adjusted, godly children when they are surrounded by this sort of affluence and materialism?

"There's no doubt that kids are affected by materialism," says Julie Miller, a school social worker and the mother of two. "It seems to really hit them about fourth grade. That's when they start to notice the differences in who has what. It's mostly in the clothes; kids are really into what other kids are wearing and the brand names. This is also the age they start talking about the future, about the fancy cars they're going to drive and the big houses they're going to have."

An Epidemic

Psychologists use the term affluenza to describe the unique set of problems that are created when children grow up in a wealthy society. Some believe the epidemic is downright dangerous because this generation has not learned to work hard, to save money, or to wait to get the things they want. "I want what I want when I want it," seems to be the mantra among many young people today. And Christians are not immune.

"Affluenza has certainly hit the kids in our church," says Peg Carroll, a pastor's wife. "Every Sunday seems to be another opportunity for them to show off the latest and greatest new thing they've bought. If one kid has something new one week, the very next week five more kids will have gone out and bought that same thing."

In a world that seems to revolve around money, Christian parents can have a tough time finding a balance between down-to-earth values and the comfortable lifestyles we've grown accustomed to. It's easy to justify giving our children the best. "We love our kids," says Mary Schmidt, a stay-at-home mom of two. "We work hard, and while we don't live extravagantly, we do live comfortably. We want to share the good things we have with our kids. Who wouldn't want that?"

At the same time, many Christians feel guilty for living in relative wealth when so many of God's people live in poverty. "I hate the idea of my house being filled with toys when there are families just a mile down the road who struggle to buy food," says Jim Turner, a father of two. "I've never felt good about buying toys for my children, even at Christmas, because they already have more than they can play with. Sometimes I feel like we give them gifts because society expects us to, not because they need that new tricycle or that doll."

A Christian Perspective

We Christians tend to harbor conflicted feelings about material wealth. We often assume that anything to do with money is evil, and yet we are as motivated by financial success as anyone.

In fact, the Bible is filled with verses that warn against the love of money, not against money itself. It's our attitude that needs watching, not our bank balance. While Scripture is clear that we're to store up our treasures in heaven rather than on Earth (Matt. 6:19-20), it's also clear, especially in the Old Testament, that God often chooses to bless his people with material wealth. "The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy," says Abraham's servant in Genesis 24:35. "He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and maidservants, and camels and donkeys."

Even though money and material possessions are not evil in and of themselves, it's easy for them to become central to our everyday lives. The real challenge for parents is to instill in our children an attitude of contentment for all they have, as well as the belief that their joy and happiness come from God, not from a cool bike or the latest video game. And that's not easy.

"In this day and age," says Carroll, "it's critical that we give our kids the tools they need to develop good attitudes about money and responsible spending, and I think it starts with the parents. If we're fixated on getting more and more stuff and our lives become unbalanced, we miss out on the really good things God has for us; our kids miss out, too. But if we are seeking to please God in all that we do, the things we have won't really matter so much one way or the other, and money will naturally have its proper place in our lives. Only then will our kids be able to view it responsibly."

A Cure

If you feel like your family is caught in the spending trap, try these ideas for teaching balance and responsibility:

Be a role model. Kids are quick to pick up their parents' attitudes toward money. Track your own spending habits for a month, then determine how much of your money is going to wants as opposed to needs. Are there any areas in your budget where you could exercise additional restraint? Maybe it's something as simple as eating at home more often or renting a video rather than going to the theater. Through your example, your children will learn that having money doesn't necessarily mean you need to spend it.

Talk about money, a lot. Discuss finances with your kids, even if they seem too young to understand the finer points. Julie Miller has already begun to talk about finances with her children who are both under the age of 6. "We talk about spending wisely even though I've found that it's not until about junior high that kids can fully grasp all the concepts involved," she says. "By the time they reach junior high, children are more reality based. They are better able to understand the ideas of work and money than they could when they were 9 or 10 years old." As your children reach their teens, talk to them about the dangers of credit card debt and the need to budget even small amounts of money. Don't be afraid to admit the mistakes you've made in your own life.

Watch TV. Sit with your kids for a half hour of after-school programming, and you'll be amazed at the number of advertisements targeted directly at them. Glow-in-the-dark toothbrushes that sing, funky purple tennis shoes that magically transform into inline skates, plastic puppies that eat, sleep, and make messes just like the real thing—my kids are fascinated by it all. We've talked about the fact that even though the kids in the commercial say the singing toothbrush will make you want to brush longer, it's not necessarily true. And no toothbrush, no matter how special, is worth $39.95. I'm not sure they believe me, but at least they've been warned.

Turn off the TV. You can't isolate your kids completely from all the cool gadgets begging for their attention, but you can keep the sales pitches out of your home, and this is one way to do it.

Shop with your kids. Use your weekly trip to the grocery store as an object lesson. Before you go, have the kids clip coupons and help write the grocery list. Once you're at the store, talk to them about the purchases you make. Compare the prices, quantities, and value of each item and work together to make wise purchases. At the mall, talk to them about differences in price and value, warranties, and long-term use. Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from the consequences. Let your daughter buy that cheap plastic necklace even though you know it will be broken by bedtime. She'll soon learn not to spend her money on things that won't hold up.

Take advantage of special occasions. If your son has been begging for the latest Nintendo game or designer jeans, have him add it to his birthday or Christmas list. This way, he appreciates the item more and learns a lesson in patience as well.

Give them a job. My son files papers for my husband for about five minutes every day. He gets paid $5 a week, but he must tithe and deposit a portion in his savings account. While he's not making much money, he is motivated to keep working because he sees his savings account growing each week. Even small jobs—setting the table, mowing the lawn, or keeping their rooms clean—gives kids a sense of pride, self-discipline, and a work ethic.

Set limits. If your daughter needs a new pair of jeans, decide on an amount that you feel is reasonable for the purchase, say $30. If your daughter has her eye on a pair of $50 brand-name jeans, give her the $30 and require her to earn the difference. This puts the power in her hands. She has to decide if the jeans are really worth the extra work and cash.

Go through the toy box. My kids and I go through their toys twice a year, usually before birthdays and Christmas. We box up the toys they no longer use and take them to the Salvation Army. We've done this enough that sometimes one of the kids will bring me a toy and say, "Mom, let's give this toy to another little kid since I don't play with it very much."

Give a little cash. Once your kids reach fourth or fifth grade, you can let them start making some of their own financial decisions. For example, before you go shopping for school clothes, have your children make a list of things they need (and want). Then, "give" your kids $100 and talk about the best way to spend the money and still get the essentials.

Teach them to tithe their money … Encourage your children to give 10 percent of their allowance or job earnings. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to go in the offering plate. Help them sponsor a child, buy supplies for a food pantry, or purchase small toys to be sent to needy children at Christmas.

… And their time. Get the whole family involved in community outreach. Deliver food baskets, clean up litter in your neighborhood, or spend some time at a local nursing home or homeless shelter. As your children learn to contribute to their community, they'll also learn lessons in compassion, gratitude, and selflessness.

Lisa Jackson is an editor and the mother of two. She and her family spend their time and money in Wisconsin.

March/April 2002, Vol. 14, No. 4, Page 36

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