Keeping up with the Joneses is not something only adults do. In fact, as smartphones become ubiquitous and gaming platforms more sophisticated, it’s no wonder children have a hard time managing feelings of not having as much as their peers. As the summer draws to a close and children face another school year, now is the perfect time to think about ways to help kids mitigate these complex feelings.
Fortunately, scholars, child psychologists and parenting experts have been studying these issues for decades. Here are five ways parents can take the lead.
Talk to your kids about money
Managing money is not part of the U.S. educational system, which means children learn spending habits from their parents. The first step toward helping kids realize that money doesn’t “grow on trees” is to make the subject part of the family discourse as early as possible. According to the Child Development Institute, teaching kids about money gives them a stronger grasp on how quickly it disappears and also helps them establish more responsible spending and saving habits later in life.
If your child has their heart set on something they desperately want before school starts, Brooklyn-based social worker, parenting coach and author Alice Kaltman encourages parents to hear their kids out without prolonging the negotiations. “If your child really wants something so badly that they can’t let go of the wanting, strategize together a way they can work to earn it,” she says. Most important is to keep the lines of communication about money topics open.
Avoid material rewards — and consequences
Material parenting is the practice of showing love or molding a child’s behavior through the giving or removing of stuff. Most of us have done this: We reward kids for good grades and punish them by taking away their electronics. Researchers Marsha L. Richins and Lan Nguyen Chaplin have linked the practice to becoming materialistic as adults, because those rewarded as children will continue to reward themselves with things later in life. The same studies have shown a correlation between being materialistic as an adult and a reduced sense of wellbeing.
Deep down, what kids want more from their parents than devices and gadgets is their attention and time.
Parenting guru and author Alfie Kohn extrapolates that parents who frequently use rewards do little to meaningfully change a child’s behavior and, moreover, produce children who are less generous. By eliminating (or at least reducing) the association between behavior and material rewards or threats, children place less value on things.
Spend quality time together
Deep down, what kids want more from their parents than devices and gadgets is their attention and time. Richins advises parents to offer their encouragement, comfort and fun over material things.
Kaltman concurs: “Spend more time with your kids engaging in other forms of fun, that show alternatives to the quick fixes of electronics, in particular.” This involves parents putting down their own devices and distractions and being fully present for their children. The time together doesn’t need to be elaborate: Taking a walk or playing a game is enough to connect parents closely with their kids.
Model disciplined spending and generosity
According to the Child Mind Institute, an essential component to teaching children responsible spending habits is for parents to model them. The experts advise grown-ups to stick to a budget, avoid impulse purchases (AKA retail therapy) and set and share financial goals for bigger expenses.
Another part of being strong financial role models is resisting the compulsion to keep up with the Joneses. “The most important way to quell the desire for more stuff is to model a non-envious sensibility,” suggests Kaltman.
Chaplin led another study around materialism in children, which revealed a link between fostering gratitude and decreased materialism, as well as increased generosity. The great news is that there is more than one way to express gratitude, depending upon the ages and interests of your children.
For instance, younger children can create a poster or collage of what they are grateful for, or keep a “gratitude jar” where family members write down something they are grateful for each week. Children who like to write may enjoy keeping a gratitude journal. Chaplin also advises families to gather around the dinner table to reflect daily on gratitude, which children of all ages can do.
“The results of this study indicate that higher levels of gratitude are associated with lower levels of materialism in adolescents across a wide range of demographic groups,” Chaplin noted.
Even if you have older children who seem lost to material envy, it is never too late to get started and make the Joneses less enticing.