5 Ways to Protect your Kid against Materialism

Kids want stuff. Fact of life. They want new stuff that they see on TV or YouTube or at their friend’s house, and they ask for things.

Wanting stuff is not the best thing for us, though. Kids (and adults) who get too caught up in wanting stuff are less happy than who don’t. Wanting more stuff tends to lead to bad spending decisions, bad savings habits, and bad priorities. It also leads makes most people dissatisfied with what they do have.

Materialism is a problem, and I’d just as soon my daughter escape into adulthood without picking up a bunch of materialistic habits.

As a parent, I feel it’s my job to protect my kid against materialism.

Barbie Ads and Materialism

I was skimming the internet yesterday, and saw a headline that caught my attention.

Barbie’s Got a New Body – and now Mattel is tackling her other Big Image Problem

I have a little Barbie-lover, so I was interested in what the image problem was. I knew that Mattel had made new Barbie dolls that moved away from her time-tested unrealistic image. They added Barbies of different shapes and skin tones, so that little girls would find Barbies that looked just a little more like them.

But what was this other problem?

Evidently, after years of pushing Barbie cars, fashions, and the inimitable Dream House, Mattel realized that Barbie seems just a wee bit more materialistic than modern mamas would like. 

Mattel realized that to a lot of parents, materialism is not an attractive attribute. The millennial mom in particular sees the need to protect her kid against materialism.

Instead of showing Barbie interacting with her stuff, Mattel will run new ads showing girls interacting with Barbie. Barbie at school, Barbie in the workplace, Chef Barbie, President Barbie, Astronaut Barbie.

Parents of Barbie-loving kids (or potential Barbie-loving kids) are supposed to be reassured that Barbie is about a lot more than hitting the mall and driving around in a shiny convertible.

Okay, an ad campaign doesn’t change anything. Barbie is still Barbie, even if she can be a computer programmer instead of just hang out with Ken in the Malibu Beach House. But I thought it was interesting that Mattel was worried about Barbie’s shopaholic fashionista image enough to try to change it.

Dang, even Mattel, which wants to sell my kid more stuff, realizes that I want to protect my kid against materialism. 

5 Ways to Protect your Kid against Materialism

So how do you protect your Barbie-loving kid (or Spiderman-loving kid, or XBox-loving kid, or clothes-loving kid) against the tide of materialism?

It’s not easy. As a matter of fact, protecting your kid against materialism might be a lifelong commitment.

Protecting your kid against materialism starts with being less materialistic yourself.

Be a Good Example

If you want your kids to value relationships and experiences over stuff, you need to be careful about the stuff you bring in to your life.

Children learn from your example. If you are concentrating on what you have and don’t have, your children will copy that behavior. If you show that your happiness is not dependent on having more or newer things, your child is less likely to pick up consumerist values.

Remember to be grateful for what you have and show that gratitude. Enjoy the little things in life, and work at letting go of your more material impulses. Hopefully, your kid will follow.

Create Non-Materialist Memories

What do you remember most and best about childhood?

Some of my most powerful memories are watching my grandmother bake bread, “helping” my dad on his construction projects, and reading to my mom. Those birthday parties? They all run together. Sitting at the kids’ table with my cousins at Thanksgiving and Christmas? I remember that more strongly than any one toy.

Good times make stronger memories than stuff any day.

Spend time with your kids. Do things, even especially mundane every day things, and make them fun and silly and special. Make dinner. Rake leaves, and don’t forget to jump in the leaf piles with them. Wash a car on a hot day, and squirt each other with the hose. Change the sheets and pretend to be ghosts or make a fort before you wash the old ones. HAVE FUN!

(and yes, I mean to shout. Fun is important in making memories.)

Give to Others

Part of our daughter’s allowance goes to a giveaway jar. She decides what charitable cause she’ll give to, but every week part of her allowance must go in the jar.

Because she participated in a charity event at school, she tells me this year that her money will go to the American Heart Association.

Last year, it was her school’s Backpack Buddies program to help food insecure classmates.

We’ve also done a food packing event for Stop Hunger Now. All three of us spent a couple of hours packing rice, soy, and dehydrated vegetables to go somewhere people were hungry. It was a great way to bring up the reality that some people live with a lot less than we do.

Kids can help others in so many ways. Giving your child a chance to donate money or time to help others goes a long way toward helping them become less materialistic. It helps them learn gratitude for what they have and responsibility for others. They learn to spend less time thinking about themselves and their wants, and that will help free them of the need for more stuff.

Delay Gratification and Encourage Saving

Our daughter has saved her allowance for some awesome toys, and we’re really proud that she has done so. She’s learned that “if you save more and you save longer, you can get cooler stuff.” For right now, that means toys. I hope that in the future, it will mean that she learns that she can save for a down payment on a house, or save for a car, or save for retirement.

Does that mean she never buys a cheap toy at Dollar Tree? No, but then I buy the occasional latte or e-book. Everyone spends on stuff, but Little Bit is also building her savings muscle.

Some of Little Bit’s money each week also has to go to her savings account. A couple of times per year we take her savings jar to the credit union and dump it in the coin counter. Then we deposit the proceeds in her bank account. Little Bit knows that each week she’s contributing a little money that someday will go to pay for her college education. She is an active participant in her future.

Be Proud of the Stuff Your Kid Makes

Kids naturally like to make stuff. They are really proud of it, too.

Be proud too.

My daughter loves to dress her Barbies in new clothes, so she makes them. Little Bit carefully crafts new dresses from tissue paper, construction paper, yarn, bits of cloth, and even PlayDoh.

Maybe she’ll be a designer some day. Or maybe not. In the meantime, she’s reusing the bits and pieces of various things she finds around the house to have fun and to create.

It’s important that you nurture that creative instinct. If you learn to make stuff (like my daughter makes doll clothes) you learn you don’t really need to buy as much. You learn to make do with what you have. Plus, your kid has fun and builds new memories. Yes, the memories are a little bit about stuff, but they are more about the act of making something and the pride of creation.

Do Your Part

We know that we can’t always protect our kids against all of the dangers they face.

Kids will be exposed to materialism in the media and from their peers. They’ll get the message that stuff is cool, whether we want them to or not. They will go into the world and make their own choices and live their own lives. And yes, they’ll buy their own stuff.

The best we can do is give them a little inoculation against the viral message of materialism with the lessons we teach them at home. 

So protect your kid against materialism. Protect their future happiness and their future financial stability by teaching them that stuff won’t make them happy. Relationships, self confidence, fun experiences and giving to others will.

What’s your best tip for teaching kids to value stuff less? What’s your best tip for escaping your own materialist tendencies?


5 Ways to Protect Your Kid Against Materialism Big


*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, A Disease Called Debt and One More Broke Twenty-Something*

26 thoughts on “5 Ways to Protect your Kid against Materialism

  1. Leading by example is really a good way for a parent to teach their children. When they are old enough giving to others in need or volunteering for the less fortunate is a great way for them to see and be thankful for their own situation.
    Brian @ debt discipline recently posted…Lottery MentallyMy Profile

    • I don’t think kids need to be that old to start doing a little volunteering, at least in small ways. I don’t know how helpful Little Bit actually is, but we do think it’s important for her to do things and give away a bit of money. It’s been cool, because she’ll push Jon and me to be more generous that we probably would be otherwise by wanting to participate in food drives and other giving opportunities.

  2. I know I hated Barbie for all of the reasons above and never actually got my daughter one until someone introduced her to them (to my dismay) at her birthday party. Once she brought a barbie book home from school that was about other barbies stealing each other’s men! I nicely explained to her that Barbie doesn’t share our values and we don’t need to fight with others over humans as if they are a piece of property, lol. Now that Mattel is trying to turn the tide, I may come to a new conclusion but they have a lot of work to do to impress me.
    Latoya @ Life and a Budget recently posted…How to Create a Plan of Attack on Student Loan InterestMy Profile

    • Ha ha, that’s a funny story about the Barbie book. Because 5-7 year olds really need to see Erica Kane antics as an example, I guess.

      I had a mini-post’s worth of Barbie ambivalence I deleted when I realized that really I needed to be talking about materialism in general rather than just the doll. I had pretty much considered her evil and was never going to buy one, but then my sister-in-law got a couple for my daughter and I had to deal with Barbie love. I still don’t love the fashion dolls, but Barbie’s no worse than Monster High or the rest of them. I get Mattel’s point, Little Bit’s Barbies go on some interesting advantures. But Mattel’s really just trying to change the image so the brand stays relevant.

  3. Awesome post, Emily! Love all of your suggestions. I had to give myself a little pat on the back as I read through them, as we’ve done them all (admittedly some more than others). Though time will tell how well it all sticks, I’d say so far, so good. Except when we do have to go shopping for something (like shoes), it’s like pulling teeth because neither of them can stand to go shopping (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess).
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Weekend Money Tip: How to change your own oil (seriously, if I did it, so can you!)My Profile

    • Thanks Amanda! If your kids are toning down materialism as teens, when peer pressure and insecurity can lead to a lot of image conscious wants, I’d say the kids are in good shape!

  4. Great post! We offered our nieces the choice of a big present or an entire day–sibling free–with us for each birthday and Christmas. We weren’t sure what they’d choose, but they chose the experience. Going to the park, baking cookies, watching a movie at home with stovetop popcorn, playing memory and Jenga, going on hikes, etc. It’s simple stuff, but they get an entire day of quality time and 2 on 1 attention and now they start planning out their special day activities months in advance.
    Julie@ChooseBetterLife recently posted…Navigating Your Emergency Department VisitMy Profile

  5. What a great lesson here! Your 5 ways ring so true for how we are aproaching this with our kids. As they get older I also think it is important to teach them to critically think about ads and other media messages.

    • Yes! We talk about that the basics even now. Does that ad look realistic? How much stuff on that ad do you think is “extra”?

      But I think it’s especially true as kids get older and more body conscious to talk about bigger issues. Pictures are airbrushed. Houses on commercials/tv shows aren’t where most people live. TV behavior isn’t what most people do (especially not TV teens on WB shows.) Kids often think what they see in the media is the norm but that’s just not true.

    • Thanks Hannah! We are trying to make good memories. It can be easy for adults to forget to make things fun for kids, or to get wrapped up in “busy” or “important.” We have to step back and remember play is really important too.

  6. You and Jon are doing such a great job with Little Bit. I really admire how you’re handling these complex issues and breaking them down into morsels she can understand and grow with. And I love her creativity with the outfits for her Barbies. I wish I had thought of that for mine!
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…Minor League Baseball Warms the Cockles of My HeartMy Profile

    • Thanks, Mrs. Groovy. We try. It helps that for the most part she’s a happy kid who wants to please.

      I love the doll clothes she makes. Except the PlayDoh ones because someone got a little crazy with the PlayDoh last night.

  7. My kids do pretty well about not asking for stuff, but they’re still little (5 and 3). Recently we had to have a conversation about respecting the things we own. I heard my son say, “If I break it, we can just buy another one.” Oh heck no! It seemed so out of character for him to say, but we immediately started a discussion (still ongoing) about how and why we respect our things. I think I might have been the cause of it – he gave me one of his toy cars before school one day, and I thought I lost it (oops – bad mom). I saw another one at Kroger, and replaced it for a dollar, but then he found the first one – it had rolled under my car seat!

    • Fortunately I’m enough of a loser of things that I wait a while to see if things turn up (they almost always do) so I’ve only had to worry about broken items and not lost ones.

      We’re still working on “Respect your stuff. And respect other people’s stuff too.” Little Bit broke a flying toy that we had given her for Christmas and insisted we needed to buy her a replacement. Nope. We told her she could use her own allowance if she wanted, but we would not be buying a new one. She has had enough money to replace it a couple of times, but hasn’t chosen to do so.

      We’ve also threatened to “garnish” her allowance if she messes up family items due to her carelessness. Once we tell her how long she’d have to go without an allowance to pay for new blinds, she usually stops messing with them. Kids break stuff, and accidents happen, but there’s no sense in letting them actively mistreat items.

    • Some kids learn by bad example and decide “That’s not what I want to do.” And some kids will do things regardless of what you try to teach them. It’s a lot easier to learn from a good example, though, especially in this case when it’s so easy to show kids the other side…and its consequences. Keep up the good work with your nephew!

  8. Aw, yay for happy memories. A lot of mine are from camping as a kid. I also remember my mom dressing up in a sheet as ghost and knocking on the window when I had a junior high sleepover and scarring me and my friends for life – but it was also hilarious. Memories do mean a lot more and even as a kid, I talked about that stuff a lot longer than any new toy I got.
    Mel @ brokeGIRLrich recently posted…The Little Costs of FriendshipMy Profile

    • That’s one to file away for when Little Bit is older! Actually I can see her dad trying to fake an alien landing in the backyard. It’s great that your mom went to such an effort to make your sleepover memorable (although she was probably having a blast too.)

  9. This is great. Our daughter sells her old toy to buy all of her new toys. She also raises money for numerous charities. She is currently working on her next endeavor. I think we’ve done ok with her. 🙂
    Jlll recently posted…prosopagnosia: face blindness.My Profile

  10. Great post! I think kids are just naturally materialistic to start…they want everything and they want it now. However, as parents we have to curb that instinct as they grow and these are all great tips for doing that.

    My daughter is also learning the value of money by saving what she has in her piggy bank. There are many times when she tells me she can’t live without a certain toy but when I tell her she has to use her own money, that toy doesn’t seem so important anymore.

    • It’s amazing how much more easily kids would spend your money than they spend their own, isn’t it? My daughter’s the same way…as soon as I say “Is that how you want to spend your money?”, she tends to change her mind about wanting dollar store treats, grocery store knick knacks and candy.

  11. What wonderful advice. I especially like number two. I can barely remember any of the Christmas gifts I received while young. I do remember when my mother called me an “a**hole” at Christmas dinner one year, though. I was in college at the time, and I deserved it. And now it’s one of the family’s most cherished Christmas memories. Thanks for sharing such sage advice, Emily. It’s really good to know.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…Reflections of a Financial Tough GuyMy Profile

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