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Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Yesterday I stumbled on the book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine. This discovery came on the heels of Judith Warner's New York Times piece on $10,000summer camps where the counselors make the kids' beds. My daughter says she'd like to go to such a camp, and my son says I should pay him $5 for a five minute chore so he can buy a computer game. All of this just means it is time for another post about how hard it is to practice simplicity in a materialistic culture.

I haven't read all of Levine's book yet, but the gist seems to be that in her affluent community, and many others like it, children are given so much stuff that they feel empty when they discover that stuff can't make them happy. They also have parents so quick to jump in and solve their problems that they never learn self-reliance, a point that was echoed in an NPR piece last night about a camp where kids get to do truly dangerous things to counterbalance their normally over-protected lives. While our family is clearly not among the most egregious spoilers, all these authors trigger a few fears: Am I doing enough to protect my children from the materialism of our culture? Am I teaching them to be independent?

Recently another Quaker mother asked me what our policy was on video games. She was concerned that her son was being socially isolated by her stand against them and was considering getting him something. I ended up telling the whole long story of how my daughter wanted an iPod Nano (a subject that I've blogged about before, though I don't think I ever told the final resolution) and asked for it for moths and months to the point where she was leaving little notes on our pillows about it. Finally, remembering Sarah's blog comment about listening to our children's wants, we decided on a compromise. Our daughter had already promised not to listen to the iPod excessively or on high volume, so the remaining objection was cost. We agreed that she could buy an iPod Nano herself, but she had to earn at least half the money (rather than using gift money from family). We figured saving up for something you want is a valuable experience. And she did a great job. Not only did she save all her allowance (which we finally started paying as part of this process), she baked cookies on her own to sell on our sidewalk, cleaned part of the basement for an extra payment, and made little friendship bracelets to sell. (In what I found to be an amusing moment, a Friend at Yearly Meeting saw her making the bracelets and asked what worthy cause she was raising money for. My daughter confidently replied that she was raising money to buy an iPod Nano because her parents wouldn't buy her one.) She also did a great job researching prices on the Internet and finding a bargain. Since getting the iPod, she has done a good job of listening in moderation and at moderate volume. A parenting success story, except...

Because we allowed our daughter to save up for something she wanted, of course our son wanted to do the same, and he wanted a DS (a hand-held video game player that needs a $30 game to function). He also did a good job saving, and we found a game acceptable to everyone, but he has quickly mastered it and now wants more $30 games, which is why he is trying to swindle me out of $5 for a five minute chore, to shorten his wait for the next game. He talks about this quite a lot, which is really my biggest problem with it all. I don't want every conversation we have to be a negotiation. I find it quite exhausting, all this boundary setting. And now my daughter mentions a good friend just got a new cell phone, which I can't resist pointing out is what all the unhappy teenagers on the cover of Levine's book are holding.

Maybe I'm exaggerating the size of these questions in our family's life, but they seem to loom large sometimes. The number of pieces in the media recently suggests I'm not alone.


Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

Living in a materialistic culture totally sucks, in my opinion. It is so hard to try to protect little precious areas of their lives and souls from it. I do think having stuff contributes to a feeling of emptiness - at the very least, it makes stuff itself less special.

10:38 PM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

It is SO hard to find any kind of balance with this stuff. I find it so frustrating.

When I read about your son's new DS, I wondered if your library might have games for check out? If not, maybe they would consider buying some. I've found our library to be very open to ordering things I want, but I've never asked for video games. They carry computer games though, so why not? Just an idea...

11:29 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I think that's an amusing moment at yearly meeting too.

So far, we haven't had too much pressure for these things, but my kids are young still and my oldest is more socially oblivious than some kids.

I think it helps that we don't have a tv at all. Just in the last year we've started watching DVDs on the laptop computer, a few times a month. I don't know if this is the beginning of the slippery slope.

I know my mom refused to let me have a walkman in high school. We probably couldn't afford it, but her given reason was "you don't need to be entertained all the time." I plan on using that when the time comes.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

I agree that it helps not having a TV, but we are definitely at the age where this comes from the social environment. One child at our Quaker school said to my son, in my presence, "Don't worry. When you grow up, you won't have to be a Quaker, so you can play all the violent video games you want."

6:53 AM  
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