January 3, 2013

The Cult Of Stuff

After one of our Christmas break adventures, we stopped and had dinner at a restaurant connected to a local mall. This mall has a reputation. It's pricey. Like, so pricey you expect to be required to flash three months worth of pay stubs and a Rolex to get in the door. When you make it past the bouncers, you're almost immediately surrounded by Gucci, Fendi, Juicy and other way too expensive stores that end in an i sound, not to mention people whose boobs and noses are only slightly more expensive than their clothes. And when we made our way down a couple of escalators we found ourselves next to the most inexpensive place in the joint (Starbucks) and the most expensive car I've ever touched. I can't for the life of me remember what it was but the list price was $272,000. In response to Owen's reaction to the car, I immediately found myself repeating two things:

- "In the name of Liberace don't you dare touch that thing."
- "No, we cannot buy it."

Then I had a flashback to Christmas.

[Make Wayne's World flashback sounds and hand gestures here.]

Our Christmas was bountiful this year. To put it mildly. Each year Beth and I decide what to buy the kids- augmenting what we think Santa's going to bring, of course - and try our best to stick to it. But for some reason, this year the pile of gifts under the tree kept growing. And growing. To the point at which presents could no longer fit anywhere in the vicinity of the tree and had to be placed on the other side of the room. I'm of two minds about this.

"This is great. We love our kids and want them to have things they like. I mean, there wasn't a whole lot of cheap plastic crap under the tree. No, instead there was a guitar for Mia, lots of books, a castle that Owen will play with until he's 27. Well...okay so there was a lot of plastic crap under the tree but they're things that the kids will enjoy and get use out of," argued Mind One.

"Be that as it may," Mind Two chimed in, "we're insane and we're teaching our kids that life is one giant mall you can walk through, buy anything you want, credit limits and delayed gratification be damned."

Both minds made convincing arguments.

The truth is somewhere in between. I don't think our kids know the value of a dollar but they're not clueless either. But neither financial management or the finer points of capitalism are things I expect my kids to have mastered. But we're trying. They know that things have to be earned, that those things don't grow on trees, and that sometimes money is a very real barrier between what they want and what we can give them.

The problem is that our (society's, that is) cult of stuff sends them the complete opposite message. We all need stuff - bigger TVs, nicer cars, a truckload of gadgets, limitless entertainment to watch - and we wait in line for the privilege of paying money for those things, whether it's a new iPhone or a Black Friday shopping spree at 2:00 in the morning. I'm part of the problem. How hypocritical of me.

I'm not sure what the solution is or how to impress upon anyone - adults or kids - that things don't matter. Precisely the opposite. The things you can't go out and buy, hold, have, put in a box, collect dust upon are the things that matter most.

Posted by Chris at January 3, 2013 7:24 AM

I have so very many thoughts about this! First, I bet I know what mall that was, and wow is it a temple of unabashed crazed consumption and capitalism. I'm always amused because it was just a regular mall when I was in high school and then it got all super-posh.

Second, having just made it through my first Christmas with a kid...it is so hard to stop buying presents! In fact, we ended up giving him the first two presents we bought way before Christmas just because it is so much fun to give him stuff. Then when you add in the fact that his birthday is tomorrow, well, there was a lot of present buying. And he isn't even old enough to care. I handed him a plastic bowl the other day and he played with it for 15 minutes.

So yeah, I need to figure out where that line is. And that's not even getting into how I like to buy stuff for myself that I don't need, particularly gadgets, shoes and purses.

Posted by: Hillary at January 3, 2013 9:11 AM

Like Hillary - I am way too indulgent for myself. I have a weakness for shoes and bags, and well books and music? Yeah...I admittedly have a problem at times.

My husband and I don't have children, so we don't have to do the 'toy shuffle' all that much - we get little things for our nieces and the children of our friends - but their parents and Santa take care of all of the big things.

Friends of mine started a new 'tradition' in their family this year. Each person gets 4 things. Something they want, Something they need, something to wear, and something to read. It keeps the gifting somewhat reasonable - and reduces the 'gimme monsters' that they were seeing coming out of their children when holiday lists were made. One other thing that they do, is that they have the children pick a few of their toys that they don't play with any longer, and leave them out for Santa. Santa picks them up, takes them back to the North Pole, fixes them up if they need it, and then gives them to other children who don't have as many toys as they have. I like that idea, it starts to build the spirit of charity and giving in kids.

I'm not sure how to reduce the problem - because it's so pervasive. I think that society as a whole is missing something big - because we're so wrapped up in 'stuff' rather than in people. Tied to the bottom dollar rather than experiences. It's hard to put into words - but I'm with you - trying to figure out where to draw the line and get back to a simpler life.

Posted by: Kellie at January 3, 2013 9:18 AM

I'm pretty sure I work right near that mall you describe and I feel sorely inadequate every time I walk in there. It's insane to feel underdressed in a mall when you are WEARING A SUIT.

Posted by: stephanie at January 3, 2013 9:28 AM

In years past, we had that overflowing present issue. This year, I decided to implement a policy of "one nice present" from Santa, us, set of grandparents #1, set of grandparents #2, etc. We still ended up with a lot of stuff. But at least it fit under the tree. Small steps.

Posted by: Mandy at January 3, 2013 11:11 AM

I love that mall! because there are usually no people in it!
(and it has my favorite store for buying cheap, good, cooking tools)

The cult is not going away. With fiscal cliffs, irresponsible government, sensationalized media, stock markets, and 24-hr news cycles, there will always be lots of bandwagon brainwashing.
There is only one thing you can do as a parent; heck, as a member of society...
Teach/remind everyone how to filter.

... so long as we all remember that these things do not define who we are and that they are not necessary for happiness. Just because others do, doesn't mean that we have to as well. Commercialism is a reality. But making the purchase and how you feel about it is in your control.

I think it is all connected...
how you chose to eat, what you think about politics, how you select a cleaning product, the big and the small... it is thoughtfulness that we risk losing, and all the "stuff" is a good practice on filtering so that choice is made via thoughtfulness and not reaction.

Posted by: Lisa at January 3, 2013 11:39 AM

It's a McLaren, and I was also in that mall over Christmas with a 2 year old that was just itching to touch that car. But he was good, instead he just told his dad he should buy one.

Still, Cheesecake Factory was nice!

Posted by: Kerry at January 3, 2013 2:11 PM

We decided at the end of September that our Christmas gift for the kids this year would be a 2-day family getaway. Nothing extravagant - indoor water park a few hours away. But, that also put a dent early on in what we would typically spend on each kid. Santa has always been pretty frugal in our house and we have done our best to talk about how you don't get everything on your list (reasoning that: a) if he did, what would all your other relatives get you? and b) Santa and the elves have to give presents to all the children in the world so you need to share). Moreover, sometimes Santa gets his shopping done long before the lists come out. As Z entered public school this year, I started to worry about how strong that message would hold. I needn't have worried. At her holiday "open house", I saw a writing she did about Christmas. "My favorite thing about Christmas is that Santa brings surprises for me and Owen." The kid is just excited about the magic and anticipation of it all. We'll do what we can to keep that going.

As another reader commented, we also do the toy donation prior to Christmas. This year, that also included selecting, cleaning up, and wrapping gifts for their cousins from among their old toys (we all agreed to keep costs down). They were so excited for the littler kids to open their gifts on Christmas, and, for our family, the spirit of giving is what it's all about. So great they are joining in now!

Posted by: kate at January 3, 2013 9:05 PM

I don't have kids, but I can tell you from experience that yeah, money doesn't buy happiness. After 10 years in Houston and its materialistic culture (you know it), I ended up getting divorced and blowing an huge chunk of change inheritance - on what, I'm largely unsure. In the end, bankruptcy was the only way out, and now that I'm on Social Security Disability as well, I live on let's just say, a very, very, very limited income with no credit cards and constant month to month financial worries. Yet I can say I truly am happier than I've been in years. When you scrimp and save and still worry and fret and consider returning something even though it is something you have truly turned over and over in your mind as something that you truly truly want and are willing to sacrifice other things for (say peanut butter instead of ham and cheese, 64 on the thermostat instead of 68), it truly becomes that much more appreciated.

Posted by: Heather at January 3, 2013 10:41 PM

This year we instated a new policy re: christmas. We're already pretty charity minded. We donate clothes and toys on a regular basis. but this year we went with the "one thing you want, one thing you need, one thing you wear, and one thing you read". We allowed her to bump that to two things in each catagory. These are things that Santa brings her and that she asks him for. Santa supplemented the 8 things she asked for with a couple of things he knew she wanted (3 things) and that was it. After Christmas I asked her how she thought it was. Her answer "Mom it was OVER THE TOP!" and a big hug. So I was pleased!! Sometimes it helps to keep those expectations low and I started back in the summer talking about our more minimal approch this year.

Posted by: CJ at January 4, 2013 2:15 PM