How do we help materialistic kids who are full of the things of this world…still hunger for the things of God?
As a child of the ’70s, I was privileged to grow up around some of the best toys ever: Lincoln Logs, Weebles, Sit ‘N Spin, and the most awesome of all — Stretch Armstrong! The majority of the kids in the 21st century have no idea what those wonderful gadgets of yesteryear are. I remember for my mom to even consider getting me a Stretch Armstrong I had to make straight A’s! I had to work for it and then understand the sacrifice in obtaining that goal. She wanted me to understand that I couldn’t just have whatever I wanted at my beck and call, and she wanted me to be thankful when I did receive a gift from her.
Today it’s computer games, cell phones, and participation in community sports teams — some of which have annual dues costing almost more than what one semester of college room and board cost me in the early ’90s. This is the age of what you want is what you’ll get, and materialism can rob children of the things that really matter. How do we help materialistic kids who are full of things still hunger for the things of God?
High Cost of Materialism
I minister within a community where millionaires are a dime a dozen, and the average household income within a two-mile radius of our church is $250,000-plus. Most of the kids in our area are just handed new stuff at will. If they want it, they have it. Birthdays and Christmas come every day or every week for some of these kids.
I absolutely love my church, and even after being on staff for almost 10 years, I still can’t imagine being anywhere else. I’m blessed to minister alongside some of the most spiritually mature and well-balanced parents around. However, all that being true, our church is located in the heart of one of the wealthiest areas in the United States, and with that comes the blessings and curses of sharing Christ and his truths with those who are ultrawealthy. I have a first-row seat in the arena of watching well-meaning parents damage their children’s spiritual formation without even realizing it. I have elementary-age children coming to church with iPods, cell phones, the latest in handheld video games, and jeans that cost enough to cover my monthly car payment.
But materialism isn’t just a thing for the ultrawealthy. Kids in every social class are at risk of defining themselves by what they own, what they wear, and what their friends own and wear. Our culture’s materialism insidiously distracts from what kids really need. And we as messengers of the hope of Christ can feed kids’ real needs if we understand them.
Kids Need to Connect.
Materialism takes a heavy toll on a family’s well-being because kids want relationships more than things. According to an article by Ted Villaire on pta.org, kids become lonely, depressed, and angry when parents give them things instead of attention. The result is broken relationships and longing.
Feed the Need
To help families connect, encourage them to focus on time rather than on things. Give them opportunities at your church to be together — simple, silly fun is better than a staged show. Provide opportunities for them to play and talk together. Challenge families to have fun nights at home — Board Game Night, Video Night, Take a Hike Night. Give parents the reason — kids long for time with them more than anything else.
Kids Need Satisfaction.
“The problem with being materialistic,” according to Kristin Brooke Beck on kristensguide.com, “is that it’s only a temporary high. You get stuff, you feel good, then the novelty wears off, and you’re forced to buy more stuff to get happy again.” It’s a very unhappy cycle that, truthfully, never satisfies.
Feed the Need
Stop the voracious “gimme” machine by helping kids understand what truly satisfies. Lead them through exercises that help them determine what matters most in life — loving people and God. Help them see how this is truly the eternal treasure their hearts and souls long for.
Kids Need to Matter.
The risk for kids who live in the what you want is what you’ll get zone is that they define themselves by what they have — not by who they are. This leads to self-centeredness and selfishness. In fact, some experts say that children who grow up with extreme materialism will develop unhealthy self-love (narcissism) and a sense that they have a right to be served and given to (entitlement).
Feed the Need
Other than curbing parents’ giving to children (which is a decision children’s ministers cannot control), the best cure for narcissism and a sense of entitlement is to develop a heart of gratitude in children. Gratitude also helps kids get their eyes off themselves so they see others’ needs. An online survey conducted by Harris Interactive reveals that children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 are more generous when they’re grateful for their belongings. According to the study, “Those youth who reported appreciation for loved ones and a desire to help them also were most likely to express generosity toward strangers and those less fortunate,” the study says.
Kids Need to Stand Out.
Kids want to be special. They want to be popular. They want to be looked up to. Often, when self-esteem declines in early adolescence, kids turn to gadgets and brand-name clothing to define themselves. From the Harris Interactive study mentioned above, the study’s authors, Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, say that a drop in self-esteem as children age “mirrors patterns in materialism.”
Feed the Need
“Simple actions to raise self-esteem among young consumers can have a dramatic impact on expressions of materialism,” according to Chaplin and John. “By priming high self-esteem, we reversed the large drop in self-esteem experienced by early adolescents, thereby reducing the steep rise in materialism among this group.”
Try this, though. Instead of feeding children’s egos (which can lead to self-centeredness), strive to give them a Christ-centered self-esteem. Kids need to know who they are in Christ; that’s unchanging and eternal.
Invest in Parents
We’ll never win the war for materialistic children without partnering with parents because they, after all, are the prime source of giving. So what can you do to invest wisely in parents?
Advocate for parents.
The last thing we need to do is rage against these parents. Check your attitude at the door if you’re judgmental. It seems that sometimes it’s easier to minister to those who are obviously poor, but in this case you have to ask God to help you look beyond the mansions and expensive cars to see the poverty of souls. Being wealthy is not a sin. God gives his gifts to those as he wills.
Challenge parents to keep wealth in perspective.
One of my dearest friends is extremely wealthy. He and his wife have six kids, and they probably have more money than their grandchildren could even spend. However, they’ve figured out how to balance that with not overindulging their kids.
It starts with the parents loving Jesus so much that they couldn’t care less about the money. Next, they’re consistently talking to their kids about Jesus and what he means in their lives. They model for their kids that their money belongs to the Lord by giving millions away each year to their local church and to others. Finally, they give practical experience to their kids by taking them on mission trips, taking the entire family down to the City of Refuge to volunteer, adopting kids from around the world through Compassion International, and having their kids write notes to these adopted kids each month.
Teach parents the power of gratitude.
When parents worry more about making their children happy by giving them whatever it is they demand, they’re not teaching their children to be grateful —instead they’re teaching entitlement without gratitude. In their book Boundaries With Kids (Zondervan), Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe the difference very well: “If you give something to entitled, envious people, it profits them or you nothing. They just feel that you have finally paid your debt to them. If you give to grateful people, they feel overwhelmed with how fortunate they are and how good you are. Parents need to help children work through their feelings of entitlement and envy and move to a position of gratitude.”
Help families focus on Christ.
We’re called to help the family become healthy in all areas: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, financial, social, and moral. True spiritual development happens as we teach families to invite Christ into each of those areas and guide their choices.
Give parents three powerful tools.
Howard Dayton, in his book Your Money Counts (Tyndale), says the best way to teach biblical principles to our children is found in three important criteria: verbal communication, modeling, and practical experience. Parents can verbalize to their kids the importance that nothing compares to knowing Jesus and that breeds gratefulness and wisdom. However, just talking about it isn’t enough. We as parents and children’s pastors must truly live these truths out so as to model them before kids.
“We can teach what we believe, but we only reproduce who we really are,” writes Dayton. That’s powerful truth! Along with verbal communication, there must be consistent and ongoing modeling.
Encourage parents to establish boundaries.
A family in our church consistently tries to teach and model for their kids what it means to know Jesus and to live as he would in this world. One of the ways they do this is by only buying their kids gifts on a birthday and at Christmas; and even then, they stay within a strict budget for each child. They’re doing this because they want first and foremost to model for their kids that life isn’t about stuff. Life is about being thankful for what you have no matter how much or how little, and directing that thanks to God.
Create practical applications for families.
Children need to be able to apply what we’re teaching them about values. Give families opportunities to serve in a local mission on a consistent basis. If kids are given an allowance, encourage parents to have them tithe, save 10 percent, and give 10 percent above and beyond their tithe to an outreach that helps those in need. That still leaves them 70 percent to spend on themselves and do with what they want. Encourage parents to keep track of the prayers their family prays for others who have less, and make a big deal out of it when those prayers are answered. Families can adopt a needy family at Christmas, volunteer at a child’s school and look for opportunities to reach out, and pray for God to direct them as they look for ways to turn their children’s hearts toward what God values.
Jesus gave us the best direction to live by in a culture that overflows with materialism. He challenges all of us in Matthew 6:33 to “seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” Let us give our children the wealth of God’s kingdom in their hearts.
Ty Bryant is a children’s pastor at Perimeter Church in Duluth, Georgia.
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