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Raising Kids to Be Less Stuff-Centered

by Annie Leonard


Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the Director of the Story of Stuff Project and author of the book, The Story of Stuff. Read more »

Sorry, Annie Leonard is no longer taking questions.

Since launching The Story of Stuff film and book, some people have accused me of being against stuff. I’m not; in fact I consider myself pro-stuff! I want people to appreciate their stuff more. I want us to think about the resources and energy that went into making our stuff, to respect and care for it and make it last as long as possible, rather than mindlessly buying, using, tossing and replacing it as such a frenzied pace.

I’m certainly not advocating we stop consuming stuff altogether; I’m advocating that we have a more aware, more balanced relationship with stuff. Too often, we turn to acquiring stuff to meet our emotional, social, recreational and other needs. This consumer-mania isn’t good for our resource-stressed planet, isn’t good for our family budgets and ultimately doesn’t work. We have more stuff than previous generations could have dreamed of, but we also have less leisure time, fewer friends and spend less time with our kids. There is a better way.

One of the toughest places to combat excessive consumerism is with today’s kids. Advertisers spend millions of dollars and employ teams of child psychologists to convince our children to constantly want more stuff. Some youth advertisers actually call parents “gatekeepers” whom they must circumvent to reach the kids. Of course we’re gatekeepers! We’re parents! It’s our job to protect and nurture and help our children grow into healthy, confident and caring adults. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this even in our stuff-focused culture.

Here are some tips I’ve gathered from my own experience in parenting, as well as from the thousands of parents who have emailed The Story of Stuff Project to share ideas.

  1. Model it. Raising kids to be less stuff-centered must be integrated into the overall way we live and work and play. Develop family traditions around creative time together, rather than buying stuff. Encourage homemade gifts rather than store bought, board games rather than commercial television, outings with friends and family to parks and museums rather than shopping malls. The more that choosing community and creativity over stuff is a part of who we are, the more natural and fun it becomes.

  2. Create Community. Seek out other families that value people based on their character rather than their stuff. Befriend neighbors and find parents at your child’s school with similar values, It’s a harder sell to preach consumer restraint if all your kid’s friends have the latest electronic gadgets or wear only brand name clothes.

  3. Nurture non-product based identities. Most kids want some kind of group-based identifier. We can help them develop identities that aren’t based on the logos they wear or the type of cell phone they own. Sports teams, theater groups, musical ensembles, hobby groups and cultural clubs all offer healthy non-commercial group identities.

  4. Bring back sharing! With parents working longer hours than previous generations, we spend less time getting to know our neighbors. One result is the erosion of the traditional networks for sharing. We don’t all need our own wheelbarrow, bundt pan and glue gun!. Sharing is good for our budgets, battling clutter in our homes, and good for building community since we have to talk to share. I’ve heard from
    families who’velaunched toy sharing circles so kids can have access to a variety toys without buying each and every one. My neighborhood has an annual book swap brunch for kids to swap books they’ve finished for new ones to read. The Sharing Solution has lots of tips for ramping up sharing in your community.

  5. Talk about it. Cultivating a resistance to the constant barrage of commercial messages takes awareness. Make it fun. Kids don’t like being duped; explain how advertisers try to trick people into associating products with status and success and make a game of deciphering the techniques you see. My daughter and I play a game when we see a commercial: who can be the first to guess what the product is that’s actually being sold. Whenever the commercial starts with a picture of an untouched green forest, she shouts out “new car!” Naming the tricks advertisers use is a great way to eliminate their ability to influence us.

  6. Protect commercial free zones, especially for kids. We simply must reclaim our physical and mental landscape from the constant barrage of messages telling us that we will be happier, more successful, and more loved if we buy more stuff. If we want our kids to develop a sense of self beyond being consumers, some places simply have to be off limits for commercial messages. Join a group to keep commercial messages out of schools. Watch public commercial-free TV.

Combating the constant messages encouraging kids to buy stuff can be hard, but it can also be fun and can make our families, and our communities, stronger and healthier. And remember, you’re not alone. There are great organizations, like the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, The Story of Stuff and of course PBS KIDS which promote a less stuff-focused culture. And speaking of PBS KIDS, I worked with WGBH to create age-appropriate videos that get kids thinking about their stuff. You can check them out on Loop Scoops.


I’d love to hear your stories about trying any of these or other strategies that have worked in your families.

Sorry, Annie Leonard is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

Sophie Hahn writes...

We taught our kids early on that if something is really great, it won't need to be advertized - your family and friends will know about it. Only crap that no one would ever recommend to a friend ends up on TV commercials so simply by virtue of being advertized it MUST be useless, bad for you, not-fun, not-good-tasting, etc. They basically don't look at or listen to ads as they know that only crap being pushed by people trying to make money off of them ends up on TV. Over the years (they are now 12-14-16) they have nevertheless been captivated by a few products they saw on TV, and under pressure I have relented and purchased. Plug-in Rock Band TV games was the last major commercial-inspired item that entered our home a few years ago. They played with it 5 times, and since then it has been idle junk in the play room. Every time we step over it I say "see, it's just like we always say - if you learn about it on TV it's junk" - and they wholeheartedly agree. I am embarassed to admit that it's in the garbage can right now - a bunch of useless plastic stuff headed for the landfill. We try not to do this, ever, but once in a while it's worth it - if only for the ample teaching moments it presents.

Kenny writes...

My wife and I raised relatively unmaterialistic kids through a simple motto: Don't Be Fooled. We showed them that there were people behind the ads and behind the logos who were trying to manipulate them into buying stuff so they, the manipulators, could make some money.

This is pretty easy to demonstrate to just about any age kid since it's 100% true. That goes for whether a product is junk or really well made.

And kids (like grownups) hate to be fooled.

Selina writes...

I have to admit that being a single mother and working and running a blog as a side job, i don't always have enough time or patience and i do give up and just buy some new toy my boy wants. I know i shouldn't so im really avoiding to do that, and i always try to buy him some educational toy instead, its just sometimes it's too hard to fight.
♥~~Selina~~♥

Naheed writes...

Hello! I agree with you, because people have become very materialistic. Everyone is trying to win this race; when we look at a person we judge him/her through the brands he is carrying along with him in the form of his clothes, mobile and many more. We unconciously have ingrained the same values in our kids. They also demand more and more stuff to match up with the kids sorrounding them. Secondly, media has added to this, and we cant stop it. But we can teach kids to adopt simple ways of living by practicing ourselves.

(Edited for clarification by PBS Parents.)

Catherine writes...

Thanks so much for a great article that gives families concrete ideas on how to integrate this into their lives. So much of this is about sharing discussions with our children and modeling the behaviour ourselves. We must ask ourselves, "What ARE our priorities for our families and to the earth?"

Connie writes...

This is such valuable information. My husband and I have modeled our lives around recycle and reuse as well as only buy what is necessary (with the occasional exception like my new I pad). We have raised two sons to adulthood who are definitely on the same path. They understand how much money we were able to save from being careful as well as the environmental plus. It was, at times, a struggle when they were young as we would be compared to other families. I give young parents encouragement to stay firm...the values lesson is more of a gift for your child than the stuff!

Jen writes...

Thanks so much for writing this! I totally agree, we have a 20month old and this is just the article I needed :) we own a tv, but we don't have cable or satellite, just Netflix, our son isn't even interested in watching it, he loves to read, play outside and be on the farm. I am finding a lot of opposition to our parenting style. no 5 yr old needs a cell phone and we didn even buy our son a toy cell phone, we also chose not to open gifts at his bday party, we waited till everyone was gone. I don't mind narrow-mindedness b/c in the end our son always says please and thank you and in the years to come he will be a wiser consumer :) I work too hard for my money to waste it on stuff.

Jodi writes...

Even when you do everything "right" it isn't easy with kids. Our family has a very non-materialistic lifestyle: We live simply, buy used when possible, pass things along, reuse, repurpose, recycle, all those good buzzwords. Our 11 year-old embraces those ideals so much that it's sometimes hard to buy him gifts because he doesn't feel like he really needs anything he doesn't have, and books, his favorites, can be taken out of the library.

Our 7 year-old, on the other hand, is entirely different. Same household, same school, same low exposure to media & advertising, but a different kid. She's a collector, wants what her friends have, wants EVERYTHING! She doesn't care if it's new or used, but if she has a toy she wants all that goes with it. A stuffed bear it needs bear "friends" to keep it company--and they need clothes, shoes, beds,.... She'll gladly make them, they don't need to be bought (though she loves to shop!!) but she fills her room with stuff, stuff & more stuff. She's always been this way, since she was tiny. My line is, "Things will never make you feel full, you'll always want more. You need experiences and people to fill you up." She gets it, but it hasn't really sunk in. Maybe with age.

Lisa writes...

There's a great book that speaks to this topic, The Buying and Selling of Teenage America. It gets to the heart of the way commercials target and exploit kids/tweens/teens all in the name of profit for multi-million dollar corporations. I used excerpts with high school students a few years ago and found that my students were almost outraged at how they were being manipulated by marketing strategists. This book is a great read for teens and their parents to share and discuss together.

Jana writes...

Great refresher, thanks.
Worth keeping in mind, though, even "commercial-free" media has corporate sponsors--the content you're watching wouldn't exist unless there was a benefit to them (i.e. "brought to you by Archer Daniels Midland", aka world's largest producer of high fructose corn syrup).

Flack Mom writes...

Drugstores are the worst environment. When we first walk in, I ask my kids "Why do they put the candy and gum right in front?" "Why do they have all this cool seasonal stuff at kid level?" Since they were toddlers we've been having this conversation -- they both now answer "Because they want us to whine at you until you give in and buy it! But that doesn't work on us! We're too smart!" (My preteen just rolls her eyes now, but this concept is more important for her to hear than ever.)

As many have said, not only do kids hate being lied to or tricked, by having this conversation the power dynamic is flipped and they are the ones doing the tricking. I've had many a grandma smile and tell the kids they have a smart mama, which helps me so much.

Next time you overhear kids and parents having conversations like these, do the parents a favor and give them a thumbs up. Their parents need all the reinforcement they can get!

Christine writes...

We put this concept into play when we moved to France for 8 months for my husband's job. My children were 3 and 5 at the time. We each had a suitcase (kids had a carry-on size!) The only toys that would fit were crayons, markers, and a few matchbox cars. Even for Christmas, they only received toys that we practical and not able to carry home. We gradually noticed that our children were playing together more and becoming really good friends. The toys back at home separated them from each other eg. dolls for our daughter, cars for our son. Minimizing the "stuff" for all of us made us a more together kind of family!

LeAnne writes...

It always helps (in several ways!) to emphasize service to community, church, etc. They can all do it and they will love it. And with everyone trying to spend our money wisely, get them involved in figuring out what the best deal is. It is good training for when they are on their own, obviously. (Edited by PBS Parents.)

Annie? writes...

For those of you engaged in faith-based communities, please check out the youth study and action guides we offer at storyofstuff.org under the teaching resources section. These are guided programs to work with youth groups to examine their relationship with stuff, consumption, the environment through the lens of your faith. We have a Christian and Jewish version online now with more in the works. Feel free to download and share!

Cheers,
Annie

Paul writes...

Another part of this project should be recycling stuff. Using stuff over again and looking for new uses for older stuff.

alex writes...

this is the same as the hippie movement in the sixties, they want to get rid of the whole system, just chuck it out and start over, rather than use the good aspects of it, i myself like PBS, but that doesn't keep me from watching BONES or CASTLE every week, me and my parents mute the commercials, buy from yardsales, thriftstores, and get perfectly good toys and tools from the trash that people throw out, i can sorta see where they are coming from, but the whole thing of the only channels to have programmed being 24/7 weather, and PBS just means that when they find out about the stuff from other sources means that they will be even more likely to want all the stuff, and trust me, when kids read a magazine in the library that the parentss don't know about, all the stuff that they want you to do above goes straight down the drain, the best way to teach them about the problems with each thing is before you buy it you look it up online with them, and then you look at reviews, and if it doesn't look good the kids will decide for themselves that they don't want it, rather then have them throw a fit over not getting it.

Mike writes...

What a bunch of anti-capitalist garbage. This is Green Propaganda at it's worst. I don't need you to tell me what values to teach my kids. The only thing worse than this is your Story of Cismetics, which is pure scare science that has no factual basis whatsoever. It's an affront to the entire cosmetics industry and to those employed. Please peddle your left wing propaganda elsewhere.

Shilpa writes...

Love the last point - 'Protect commercial free zones, especially for kids'!
But the problem is, even if we protect our kids from these zones, are the friends of our kids protected from these zones? That's where all their so-called 'NEEDS' come from. These days kids don't just 'WANT' something, because someone in his class has, they 'NEED' it! She has so many 'silly bands', he has so many 'BeyBlades'!! We hadn't even heard about these things until my kids came home & started saying that they needed them as all their friends in school have them. Now even if we try to explain to them that they don't really need them, the peer pressure of all their friends having this & they being the only one without it is too much for them to handle!
Would appreciate any advice on this.

Annie? writes...

Hi Shilpa,

As a parent of a middle schooler, I can really relate. I mean, what was up with those ridiculous silly bands anyway? In that case, when my daughter asked about them, we spent some time online figuring out what they are made of, where they came from, looking at pictures of factories and dumps. We discussed their whole life cycle. Then we also discussed the other little plastic things that were trends in previous years but now sit untouched - remember the Polly Pocket craze? The cute little eraser phase. I told her embarrassing stories from my youth when we all felt like we just had to have some object which now just seems so silly in hindsight. Putting the latest phase in some context helps diffuse some of the pull of each one. In fact, with a little context, giving in to the latest silly consumer craze (rather than rushing out and buying whatever the object du jour is) becomes embarrassing.

Another tactic I've used is starting a bank account in my child's name and cultivating a respect for saving money. Then she has an immediate alternative option to spending her birthday money from Grandma or her hard earned babysitting money on some plastic junk. She really enjoys watching her savings grow and thinking of bigger better things she can do with her funds than piddle it away on silly little stuff.

Cheers,
Annie

Liz writes...

This isn't "left/green propaganda"... This is reality. This is telling us all what we dont want to hear, that stuff doesnt grow on trees. That there isnt an endless supply of stuff. Not propaganda. FACT. its encouraging personal responsibility and a more person-centered life. I dont see how that can offend anyone.

Jack writes...

ConcernedMom has it right and so does Mike. Liz doesn't see the big picture, IMO. Stuff does grow on trees. It's called manufacturing, a dirty word to the Environmentalists. Most resources can be replenished and manufactured stuff rarely relies on finite resources. As for personal responsibility, I don't need anti-capitalists to lecture me, especially when these are the dame people who blame corporations and Conservatives for their woes.

char writes...

Why the animosity, guys? Really.

What were you already angry about before you read this post? And why did you read it, probably knowing it would annoy you?

Okay. You win. You get to be right. Take all your stuff with you to your grave. Bury it neatly in a coffin or landfill. Life will go on without us humans here to muck it up.

Jack writes...

Why the animosity? Because I don't need a Liberal anti-capitalist telling me what values to have to "save the planet". It's also misleading and filled with inaccuracies. The worst offense is the junk
Scare science sequel about cosmetics, which was complete and total garbage. It's riddled with inaccuracies and makes blatantly false assertions. That's why the animosity.

Karen writes...

Anti-capitalist, pro-marxist, left wing propaganda...it's so convenient to put labels on something rather than really talking about it.

For those who are saying it is anti-capitalist - you do realize we do not live in a pure system, right?

In regards to pro-Marxist - there is a difference between socialism and communism, and many people who toss around either label do not know much about it (other than the stereotype).

In regards to the left wing propaganda, that's just an easy way to not confront the issue. After all, what does left wing propaganda mean anyway?

Please confront what it is you have a problem with, rather than labeling it and moving on. It makes for a much better discussion.

Annie? writes...

Thanks for all your comments! It is great to hear from so many people grappling with the same issues – how to raise our kids to value quality of character rather than quantity of stuff; how to develop our sense of community and civic responsibility when we’re bombarded with messages emphasizing our role as consumers. I especially appreciate hearing the positive report backs about how cultivating a critical awareness about stuff not only saves money and helps battle clutter, but really does enhance family life more broadly.

I’m not surprised. Some years ago, the Center for a New American Dream commissioned a nationwide poll asking kids what they really wanted and the answer was pretty consistent: more quality time with parents.

The study showed that 90% of kids ages 9-14 say friends and family are "way more important" than things that money can buy. And while a strong majority of survey participants say they feel pressure to buy things in order to fit in, nearly six out of ten say they'd rather spend time having fun with their parents than head out to the mall to go shopping.

I wanted to let you all know about a good opportunity coming up to spend time together, join with other kids working to make the world better and have fun as a family. A group of young people who want to make the world better have joined together in a group called iMatter. They recognize that kids are the generation which will most suffer most from climate change and its consequences. And, kids are also the generation who will bring about the change needed to create a sustainable and just society. So, iMatter is organizing youth marches all over the world from May 7 – 14, 2011. In many U.S. cities, the march happens on Mother’s Day, May 8th.

If you’re looking for a special way to spend a special day, consider joining my family and many others to show kids that they do matter. You can find a march near you, or host one yourself, at imattermarch.org. If you do attend an iMatter March, please let us all know how it was. Any interesting stories or reflections to share?

Cheers,
Annie Leonard


Cheryl writes...

The method we have used with our two boys(3yrs and 11months)when it comes to watching cartoons or educational tv is netflix. NO commericals, to advertise the latest toy, cereal or candy. Not only that the lack of commerical distraction is good for the attention span. No interruptions.

Annie Leonard writes...

For anyone who is interested in getting more information on the topics covered in our films, please check out www.storyofstuff.org.

There, you'll find a variety of short animated films addressing issues such as manufactured demand (eg. Bottled Water), toxic chemicals in everyday products (eg. personal care products) and planned obsolescence (eg. electronics). You will also find additional readings and teaching tools, annotated and footnoted scripts for each one of our films, and most importantly, groups to connect with to help make all the stuff in our lives safer, healthier and more fair.

Happy viewing, happy reading and, happy getting invovled!

Cheers, Annie

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