When my daughter was little I decided to cancel cable television to avoid the constant commercials throughout all children’s programming, encouraging them to buy the latest, greatest toy. I implemented a household policy that at the holidays we would trade out old toys for the new gifts received, donating them to a children’s shelter. I reminded my 3 year-old each time we went shopping not to ask for anything that was not on the list. These were all solid techniques for helping my young child avoid consumer culture and not develop the habit of saying “I want” at every aisle in the grocery store.
Recently I’ve noticed more consumer attitudes in our household. While my daughter still has a strong sense of giving to others and doesn’t ask for many things, the influence of teenage life has shifted more toward the consumer culture we are immersed in. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just an issue for our kids. I struggle with consumerism as well. The latest iPhone always gets my attention, even while knowing that precious minerals are mined under horrible circumstances to create the technology and smartphones we so love to buy. It’s an exercise in balance and it’s a spiritual practice to resist those times when the material things I desire start to control me and alter my lived values.
Raising a teenager, even without the influence of cable television, means watching them become more of a consumer. In many cases they have their own money from a weekly allowance, chores, or even a part time job. The influence of friends becomes stronger while at the same time the influence of parents takes a back seat as youth struggle to find their autonomy and express their sense of self, often through purchases to reflect interests.
This is a time when the faith community becomes even more important. Having other adults who share your values and are in community with your kids provides more voices reinforcing shared values to your children and teens. A strong peer group within the congregation can promote deeper reflection around the struggles our teenagers face as they navigate a new stage of development and new challenges.
Incidentally, it may also be a time when teens no longer want to come each week. This is where I encourage parents to push, make agreements about regular attendance at the Fellowship.
Programs like Coming of Age help our youth wrestle with a sense of self, grounded in faith identity as a Unitarian Universalist, recognizing that to achieve autonomy they must first demonstrate responsibility. As they dive into exploring their free and responsible search for truth and meaning in their lives and begin to craft their credo statements of faith, we help them find that balance of expression and enjoyment of life while living lives of faith and UU values.
For more information about the effects of consumerism on empathy in our kids, see this article.