How to Raise Non-Materialistic Children

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Ironically, many children raised in wealth demonstrate the same tendencies as those who are raised in extreme poverty: depression, despair, attempted suicide, drug and alcohol use, and shoplifting. Why this behavior? The parents, who are way too busy making money, substitute extravagant purchases for something money can’t buy: meaningful time with their children.

Admittedly, raising children in a world obsessed with stuff is a tough, tough job. As savvy advertisers target these kids from early youth, and as their peers are quick to sport whatever the latest and greatest may be, the parents must be vigilant in teaching their children that such possessions do not make one happy, and, in fact, are detrimental to true happiness.

So…in this materialistic society, how does one go about raising non-materialistic children? These tips will help:

Practice what you preach.

If you buy cars to impress others, shop regularly just to be shopping and “have to have” whatever the latest electronic gadget might be, don’t bother reading the rest of this article. Why? Because what you do screams to your children louder than anything you can ever say. Albert Schweitzer said it well, “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example; the second is by example; the third is by example.” Your first step, therefore, is to purge materialism from the person you see in the mirror.

Spend time with your children.

Do you find yourself giving gifts to your children to make up for lack of personal attention? Reality check: they won’t. Ever. You are, instead, sending the message that you think stuff is more important than a close relationship. Let “The Cat’s in the Cradle” lyrics resonate deeply. This Harry Chapin classic is a haunting reminder that once those child rearing years are gone, you will never get them back. Cherish every moment you can spend with your children.

Rein in your Christmases.

Somehow, someway, many parents missed the memo: “Christmas is not a license to overly indulge your children”. No matter how you justify it, overspending on your children just because it is Christmas is still overspending on your children. Try celebrating the true spirit of Christmas with your children instead of piling up stuff for them. Our children, who are now grown, still have fond memories of the hours we spent together baking cookies and making homemade Christmas cards to give the inmates at a local prison. Create your own family traditions that involve time together and giving to others. Your children will cherish those memories.

Help them prioritize their own money.

As your children become old enough to have their own money, help them prioritize that money. A very simple plan is to give some, save some and spend some. If you emphasize giving, you will be helping your child develop a heart for others. Because giving is the opposite of materialism, you need to constantly role model a giving spirit.

Support a child in a poverty nation.

Need something for that “giving” money to go for? How about supporting a child in a third world country. Children have a natural empathy for other children, so if your kids can support a child with real needs, they will not only learn to love that child, but will also appreciate whatever material possessions they already own.

Take them on foreign mission trips.

I have been fortunate enough to accompany all four of my children on short term mission trips to Mexico. Three went while in high school; the fourth as an adult. Nothing, absolutely nothing will impact kids more than seeing poverty up close and personal. Amazingly, the lesson my kids came back with over and over again was how happy those people (who had nothing) were. Talk about an antidote to materialism…these short-term mission trips have been first hand proof that stuff doesn’t equal happiness.

Check out this article if you need to raise money for your mission trip.

Take a field trip to a dump.

I borrow this idea from Randy Alcorn’s book “Managing God’s Money”. Show your children all these piles of “treasures” that were once Christmas and birthday presents. Discuss how everything we own today will likewise end up in a junkyard like this one. Read 2 Peter 3:10-14 together (a passage that tells of how everything in this world will some day burn), then use this teachable moment to discuss true riches which transcend life here on planet earth.

Tip: ask them this question: “When everything we have ever owned is someday burned, what, in your lives, do you think will last forever?

Readers: In what ways are you helping your children avoid materialism? What could you be doing better?

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24 Comments
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  1. I’m doing my best to lead by example. My children probably hear 50 no’s to 1 yes when they ask for things they just “have to have”. We have plenty of nice things but don’t let them rule our lives.

    There is a great book about this called “Life is What You Make it: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment” by Peter Buffett. Peter is the son of Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world. He talks about how he was raised to consider other people and to find his passion and reason for being over the materialistic. It’s an excellent book.

  2. Jason,
    I applaud how you are striving to lead by example. Your kids are ALWAYS watching! I hadn’t heard of Peter Buffett’s book, but it sounds great. Thanks for suggesting it.

  3. I’d like to add another idea… limit or eliminate TV. We let our children watch a little bit of children’s programming on Netflix. The beauty is, there are no commercials to stir up envy or discontent. Our children certainly aren’t perfect, but they don’t struggle with materialism because they know about so few toys/products. The ones they know about are from seeing their friends’ toys or maybe passing by something at Costco. (Another side benefit of this is it makes giving at Christmas and Birthdays all the more fun because they don’t really know what to ask for, aren’t disappointed by what they get, we get to be more creative, and we don’t even take lists… we know them well enough to find things we think they’ll love).

    Nice piece.

    • Matthew,
      Great tip. We didn’t have the Netflix option when our kids were growing up, but we did limit their TV exposure. You point out several great benefits from not allowing your kids to watch commercials. Obviously, it is working for you…congratulations!

    • I agree, Matthew. Excellent point.

  4. What a great post, Joe. This is one of my favorite topics and I’d like to add a couple more things.
    1) Do not give your children allowances. They need to learn to pitch in around the house because they live in the house and that is what a family does. If they ‘need’ money, teach them to earn it in entrepreneurial ways. Even my 7 and 10 year olds have ways of making money.
    2) American teens are taught that their primary job is to get an education. While I applaud that thinking, I believe that there is no reason why a teen without any special educational needs cannot also work a part-time job. I did it, my husband did it, and you probably did it as well. When they graduate college, what will help them in their new career more? Their experience playing ball or their experience working?
    3) When your teen starts working, charge him room and board. Even if you don’t need it, he needs to contribute. If it really bothers your conscience, save the money in a trust for him for college. Just don’t tell him.

    • Carol — Instead of giving our children allowances, we gave them some paid responsibilities and kept track on a chart of how much money they had earned. It was a bit of a hassle, but evidently it worked…all four of our grown children are industrious and hard working. We also encouraged part time jobs when they were old enough, and again, all four took on part time jobs. About charging room and board…we didn’t do that one, although we might have if we had thought of it. Good thoughts! I appreciate you sharing them with us.

    • re: Giving allowance. – I agree that families need to pitch in because that’s what families do. And it’s in that vein that as a family, we like to share our blessings as well. So give a very modest allowance (ex: our 6-yr-old gets $6 dollars a month for allowance), but also give earning opportunities if they’d like to earn more money that they are getting for allowance.

      re: Charging for room and board. – Interesting idea. I’ll have to give that some thought. I think I like it.

  5. Brunette

    I’m in complete agreement with the “no TV” comment. We’ve been careful to avoid as much societal programming as possible. Children are marketed to very heavily in an effort to make them grow up to be “good consumers”.
    The only way to truly avoid pop culture influences and give your children the opportunity to develop a strong sense of family and self is to keep them out of preschool and homeschool them, though. I’m doing it gladly but I know that a lot of families would struggle with that. As far as I’m concerned, the benefits far outweigh the time and money sacrificed.

  6. Brunette — It is frightening just how much “kiddie marketing” there is on TV. Matthew (comment above) pointed out some great benefits from not allowing kids to see those commercials. I am glad you are able to home school. That wasn’t an option for our family, but it can be a good deterrent to materialism for those who can pull it off.

    • Brunette

      Homeschooling was virtually unheard of when you were raising your children, I bet, and children weren’t yet targeted like they are now. It amazes me when I hear about 7 and 8 year old girls going wild over Justin Bieber; my six year old daughter’s favorite song is Jesus Loves Me and she doesn’t know there is such a thing as a Justin Bieber. Pop culture is truly sick nowadays.

  7. I have heard of a lot of families sponsor a child through Compassion International. I personally sponsor three teens in Africa. Families often select a child who is about the same age as their child. Through writing letters to one another the kids are able to see that happiness and peace is based on much more than things. KIds are often surprised they have a number of things in common despite the differences in culture, geography and income. This helps thinking of those in poverty and aiming to get them out of poverty a way of life for kids rather than simply aiming to get the newest hot toy.

    • Amy — When our children were pre-teens, at their insistence, we sponsored a child through World Vision. I am sure it made an impact, not only on the child we supported, but on our own children as well. We continue to sponsor a child today through Compassion, International, whom I highly recommend.

  8. Excellent Article! I tweeted it and reposted it to my company facebook page. I think we need to learn more about this these days. The problem of materialistic/spoiled children is not only harmful on a personal level, but also effects the community as a whole.

    Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. -Proverbs 22:6

    • Joshua — Thanks for promoting the article. You are right: materialistic/spoiled children indeed have a harmful effect on entire communities. Let’s do all we can to “train up a child in the way he should go”.

  9. How can we raise children as non materialistic if we are living in a materialistic world? Of course, it can be hard for us but there are ways that we can do. And thanks for this advices. Making them know, what the real standing of the world is, can be a great help. Make them realize the things that they need to do. Share to them the things that they need to do.

  10. Matthew

    Great article with some sound advice. Thanks for sharing! It’s so important that parents are aware of the indoctrination of our western culture and help guide their children in wise practice by their walk and talk. Tomorrow evening Chuck Bentley of Crown Financial Ministries will be hosting a webinar on the topic of “Financial Leadership: How to Equip Your Children with Financial Intelligence.” I highly recommend it to you, and best of all it’s free! – collegeplus.org/wb/tf/CP2889

    • Matthew — Thanks for the good word…and for sharing the link to the free webinar. Anything from Chuck Bently and Crown Financial Ministries is going to be great!

  11. The last two are really strong points. First, they teach kids to value what they have in comparison to what the less fortunate ones have (enough VS meager). They teach gratitude too. And second, they teach kids that it’s possible to live a happy life despite wanting a few material resources. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some developing countries during my gap year and that made some impression on me just before entering uni. In India, for instance, you can’t help but be amazed how those who live in poverty are still willing to share what little they have.

    It’ll definitely help kids if you travel with them on developing countries. That seems to be closely related to those two points mentioned last.

    • Dan — That experience of visiting developing countries, meeting the people and learning their priorities is invaluable. As I said in my post, doing so has deeply impacted all four of my children.

  12. Good article Joe. This is so true. Our kids emulate what they see us do. You had some good suggestions on spending time with your kids. I really liked your comment on taking them to the dump. I might suggest a homeless shelter as well.

    Regards,

    Jeff

    • Jeff — Thanks for the encouraging words. I hadn’t considered taking my kids to a homeless shelter, but that is another idea for creating a perspective about “stuff”. Have you done so? I am assuming that taking kids there would mean volunteering. Right?

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