As the holidays approach and children are bombarded with advertisements for new toys and encouraged to acquire more and more possessions, a Wake Forest University counseling professor offers suggestions for parents on how to counteract the messages of materialism.
First, talking more to children about the reasons for making purchasing decisions throughout the year can help children better navigate our complicated material world, says Donna Henderson, associate professor of counselor education.
“To help children develop reasoning skills, parents should say out loud what they are thinking when deciding whether or not to buy something,” says Henderson, who has 12 years experience as a teacher and school counselor. “We do this so quickly in our minds, but we need to actually say it to give children a model for their own decision-making.”
For example, she says, if a parent sees something in a store or catalog that is appealing, the parent might say: “This would look good with my black skirt, but it is expensive and I bought something last week that I can wear with that. I’ll save my money today for something that I need more later.”
Providing a “script” for younger children to use for situations when they want a new toy or a new article of clothing helps develop their cognitive thinking skills.
This works well when considering a new purchase, but also works well when parents are trying to encourage helping others.
“If you are donating food to a homeless shelter or doing charity work, explain the thought process you went through,” Henderson says. “Think out loud. Let them know your reasons for wanting to do what you are doing.”
The process can help make abstract values — like learning to compromise, thinking of others and learning to set priorities — more concrete for children.
“The self-talk becomes our moral code. Adults are responsible for developing this ability in children,” the Wake Forest professor says.
She also suggests other ways to shift children’s focus from getting to giving.
“Ask, ‘What are you giving for Christmas?’ to help balance all the, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ messages,” Henderson says. “Let them create a holiday wish list, but set limits,” she says. “It can’t be a free-for-all.”
“The joy of the holiday season is sharing and giving. In meaningful ways, what kinds of things can they give? When asking for their wish lists, you can also give them your wish list with things like: clean dishes for a day, make a new drawing to put on the refrigerator or something else that the child can do for you or make for you,” she says.
Year-round, Henderson recommends taking the focus away from a desired object and figuring out what the child’s emotional needs are. “Are they really needing your undivided attention and think throwing a fit about getting a new toy is a good way to get it?”
Most importantly, Henderson says, parents should make sure they are giving their children the most important gift of all — their time.
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