Living counter-culturally isn’t always easy. What can be even more challenging is teaching kids how to live simply in a consumer culture.
Teaching Kids to Live Simply In a Consumer Culture
Living simply is not the norm in our culture. Recent statistics on credit card debt confirm this:
“Credit card balances carried from month to month continue to inch up, reaching $423.8 billion in early 2019. The average U.S. household with credit card debt has an estimated $6,741 in revolving balances, or balances carried from one month to the next” (source: Nerd Wallet).
In the past few years, those numbers have continued to increase with the average household credit card debt landing at $8,701 in 2021 (source: My Credit Summit).
There seems to be a sentiment in our culture that even if we are ok depriving ourselves of things it isn’t ok to ‘deprive’ our children of things. And the cost of raising a child confirms that we continue to spend more and more.
Once you’ve discovered the joys of living simply in a consumer culture, you realize it isn’t about deprivation at all. It’s about living more purposefully and intentionally focused on the things that matter most.
Teaching kids how to living simply in a consumer culture starts with our own journey.
Be an example
With anything in parenting, we lead by example. We can say whatever we want, but when it comes down to it our actions speak louder than words. Kids will copy what we do.
What are your shopping habits like? What would your kids say is important to you? Children learn your values through how you prioritize your life.
Our relationship with our stuff will be their example. They notice what we do and don’t spend money on as well as how we maintain our things. Our example is the first step in teaching kids to live simply in a consumer culture.
How to deal with comparison
It’s inevitable that kids will play the comparison game. They notice what their friends or relatives have. They want (and ask) for things they see that other kids have.
Here is where we get an opportunity to talk about how we aren’t measured by what anyone else does. We are responsible for ourselves only. Not other people. Again set the example by not comparing yourself with others.
It’s also important to know that it is ok (and sometimes beneficial) not to be like everyone else. Choosing to live counter-culturally isn’t easy.
Just as we gain confidence in our decision making so also will your kids learn to be ok being different. When you know who you are and what you stand for, it makes it easier.
When tempted to compare, gratitude is the solution. While gratitude doesn’t change anything about the circumstances, it changes everything about your perspective.
When we focus on what we don’t have, we feel sad, jealous, and perhaps even unworthy. If we instead turn our attention to all of the things we do have, we feel grateful, happy, and content.
Practice gratitude. Teach your children how to begin their own gratitude practice. That could be through incorporating gratitude into daily conversations or by writing down things you and your kids are grateful for and keeping them to review later.
Discuss family values
The why behind choosing a simpler way of living is incredibly important. It should be something you feel strongly about and are able to put into words. If you aren’t sure, take some time to think about your why.
Once you have your own thoughts clearly formulated, share them with your family. Have a family meeting and discuss your values. Create a family mission statement together that encompasses what you stand for and how you as a family want to live. I created a worksheet to help you.
Print out that mission statement to reinforce it in your home. When making decisions about whether or not to buy or do things, refer back to the mission statement to ensure that your decisions are in alignment with your goals and values.
Traditions and celebrations
When you choose to live simply in a consumer culture, your practices for holidays and birthdays may look different as well. The values that you came up in the mission statement still apply on special occasions.
It’s important that we’re consistent with the messages we give our kids. We aren’t choosing to live simply every day except Christmas. We are choosing to live simply even on or perhaps especially on Christmas.
Living simply may mean you change the way you do gifts at Christmas. You may choose to focus more on experiences and traditions than on buying a lot of presents.
Birthdays may be similar. Perhaps you opt-out of having large parties and keep the celebration more simple with immediate family. Or if you do choose to host a larger party, you request no gifts, donations for a local organization, or a fiver party instead.
There are various options for how to handle the holidays. There isn’t one way that works equally well for everyone. Just know and expect that comparisons are more likely to occur around these times of year when kids see what their friends got. Refer back to the gratitude section and your family’s mission statement.
Not just about stuff
Living simply in our over-committed culture isn’t just about what we choose to (or not to) spend our money on. It’s also reflected in our schedules. Our culture focuses on work, work, work to make more money so you can buy, buy, buy.
Choosing to live simply looks for a more balanced approach. Margin is important and should be protected. Rest is valued and the goal is to maintain a slower-paced schedule with more breathing room.
If your schedule isn’t reflecting your values, it’s time to reassess your commitments.
Talk about advertising
Part of helping kids to live simply in a consumer culture is teaching them about advertising. When you see signs and advertisements, talk to them about it.
If you are in a grocery store with them, explain how they stock sugar cereals on lower levels to promote them to children. Understanding the messaging that is being directed at them can help take away its power and allure.
Choose to limit the advertising directed at them if you can. In the days of Netflix, commercials can mostly be avoided. Don’t hand them catalogs that come in the mail and ask them what they want. This promotes consumerism, not simplicity.
Teach how to manage finances
One of the great tragedies of modern culture is the normalcy of debt. People are buying things they can’t actually afford on credit. Advertisers have done a great job of making it seem like these anchors aren’t actually going to make you sink.
Often kids are growing up not having been taught how to manage money. They go to college and receive lots of opportunities to open credit cards and get into debt quickly.
Don’t let this be your kids. Teach them how to get a handle on their finances before they leave your house.
There are many resources available for teaching your kids about money. The basic principles behind tithing, spending, and saving that Dave Ramsey teaches can be started when your kids are young.
This isn’t about depriving kids. This is teaching them life skills.
That is not to say that they will always and forever make the best choices with money, but you’re giving them a much better shot if they have a foundational understanding of how to manage money.
How my parents taught me about money
My parents did an excellent job with this. I opened a checking account and a credit card with my dad when I was a teenager. He oversaw my finances and I never did get into any (non-school) debt.
My parents always paid their credit card off in full every month. It never occurred to me to do things any other way.
My dad also gave me a clothing allowance when I was in my early teen years. Every season I would get a certain amount of money to buy new clothes. It wasn’t a lot, but it taught me to budget well and to get the most for my money. I learned about sales, coupons, and second-hand shopping.
When it came time for college, my dad again told me what amount they would contribute. The rest was up to me. I chose a private school that was more expensive.
This meant taking out my own loans and working to help pay for it. I also took summer classes at a community college so I could graduate a semester early. College wasn’t something I took for granted.
From both their example as well as teaching me about bank accounts, credit cards, and budgeting I had an excellent foundation that I took with me into adulthood. Teaching your kids to live within their means is a gift.
A tale of two mothers
A close relative of mine is a talented artist who sells handmade baskets at a local farmers market each weekend. In the past few months, she’s had a variety of customers from children to the elderly.
One weekend a little girl came by and looked at the baskets. She went and told her dad she wanted one. Dad talked to mom and came back with the credit card saying ‘mom said to get her whatever she wants’. The little girl left with her $90 artisan basket.
More recently she had another young customer came by to admire her work. This little girl also found something she loved. A necklace. This necklace was one of the least expensive options at just $12.
The little girl asked her mother for it. This mom said ‘well that is more than you have in your piggy bank right now. Let’s take a business card and put it on your goal board as a reminder of what you really want to save your money for.”
What do you think these 2 little girls learned? Who do you think would have appreciated their item more?
Patience & debt
We live in a culture that doesn’t like to wait. Kids naturally don’t want to wait, but they can’t learn to be patient if we never teach them to wait for things.
Living simply and intentionally isn’t just about choosing less. It’s also choosing to be patient and wait to buy things we might want.
In a culture that tends to live beyond its means, teaching kids to live simply is a greater challenge. But we are better preparing them for life and helping them to stay focused on what matters most.
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