We may be living in a material world, but that doesn't mean we can't instill values that counteract the constant advertising bombarding our children, the lure of "stuff" that they see in the store or covet over a friend's house, and even the natural tendency of most small children to be at least a little selfish by nature. When you add in the young child's lack of understanding of the real value of money and the current state of the economy, their budding materialism can be plenty frustrating to deal with, especially around birthdays, holidays, and back-to-school.
So here's some ideas aimed at the preschool and younger elementary set to help you avoid raising a Material Child.
Limit Exposure to Marketing Aimed at Kids. Whether that is via television or websites aimed at children, or attractive packaging at the store, children are big business. Huge business, actually. I rarely allow The Disney Channel or Nickelodeon due to their ad-heavy programs, but PBS or Sprout or Noggin are relatively safe in this regard. And for older kids, if you have a DVR, there's no reason not to teach them how to use it to zip through the commercials. As for the grocery store, even a 4 year old child can understand that they put junky sugary cereal low so kids will want it and the healthy stuff up high. The same goes, of course, for the candy and toys in the check-out lane. Children can actually understand marketing once it's shown to them and I think we have a duty to point out the advertiser's sneaky tricks to them.
Praise Their Efforts to Share. And praise other kids who share and assist others, even if your kid isn't feeling so generous. Seemingly small things, like letting a sibling borrow her special lovey when he hurt himself are actually huge steps. And even sharing a toy they didn't want to play with to begin with is a good first step for the younger toddler.
Suggest Borrowing. Do you really need 2 of everything if you have two children? My boys (4 and 5) ask to borrow items from the other. The borrower then states the length of time the item may be borrowed, which is usually a ridiculous amount, like "thirnteen days." And so a contract is formed. They learned this on their own, possibly from going to the library so often, but it works for them. Perhaps in your house there is a limit of items that may be borrowed - say 3 at any given time? And a standard time, such as 24 hours. Whatever works for your family. I would suggest you let the kids decide on the details, though - it does wonders for compliance.
Be a Role Model. If you spend too much time shopping for wants rather than needs, or trolling the internet for your next designer shoe purchase, try to curb that behavior, especially in front of Junior. I think we are all guilty of that at times, but the key is to minimize glorifying it around the children. How many jokes/cliches are there about "Shopping" or "retail therapy" which, when examined, paint a pretty shallow picture of our culture? I don't want that in my home - it's not good for ANY of us.
Just Say No. Does your kid need it or just want it? Does he already have something just like it? Is he pitching a fit for it? Has he gotten other treats recently? Would he accept buying it as a gift for the next birthday party he attends? Or better yet, would he like to buy it for a child who has no toys or a sick friend? Would he prefer a trip to the playground or picking what's for dinner instead of that toy? Kids don't need a new trinket each time they go to the store. They may not believe us, but it's true - and importantly, they should not expect a treat each time they go to a store, even if they are well-behaved. A compromise is to buy a treat only on some trips out and only if they do not ask for one.
Reuse, Repurpose, Reinvent, Re-do. Extol the virtues of being green and wearing those perfectly nice hand-me-downs or last year's backpack for the sake of the environment. Explain that it doesn't have to be brand new to be nice - and sometimes old things (antiques) are even more valuable than the new ones. Most children are aware of recycling and the good it does for our planet; build on that idea. Take it further and explain that it's not just plastic bottles that we need to worry about, but all consumer items. Buying from a thrift store can not only be fun, but you get more loot for your money. If she compromises and agrees to re-using last year's lunch kit (or big sister's old one), then maybe you can refurbish it and put a special ribbon on it to make it special.
Teach About Budgets and Spending. Every child past the age of eating coins should have a piggy bank. Kids now see mom whip out a plastic card and take home bags of loot - they don't understand that mom is paying with actual money. Have them earn money at home by helping out and then take them to spend it to get a better idea of how much work it takes to buy one Hotwheels Car or a pack of M&Ms.
Talk to them about Saving. Teach about saving their money money longterm. For every dollar they earn, encourage them to save a portion for something big. And take them to open a bank account or other savings device that you can make deposits in a few times a year - consider letting them add to their own college fund or investing in a mutual fund once they are old enoug to understand the concept.
Make Things. OK, no one wants to show up at a birthday with a purple PlayDoh "snake" as their offering, but there's no reason your child can't make the card. That saves between $1 and $4. Multiplied by 12 or so parties a year...well, a child can understand that's quite a sum. A sum better spent on groceries and bills or saved for an important purchase. The same goes for teacher's gifts, babysitter's gifts, Father's and Mother's Day, grandparent's gifts - your child can make the card as well as (help make) the gift - perhaps a beautiful loaf of homemade banana bread or any of a number of lovely items - a quick google search for "homemade gifts" turns up dozens of fantastic links.
Talk to them About Charitable Giving. Along with saving their money, encourage them to share with people who need it. Even toddlers can put money in the Salvation Army holiday buckets and know they are buying things for people who don't have enough money for food and other necessities. I'd encourage you to pick a charity that they can see the good being done firsthand. Giving to church, for example, may be important to your family (even if it does good works), but it's quite abstract for a child to really comprehend where the money is going. Consider something more basic, like a food bank, animal shelter, or children's hospital. And instead of giving just money, many groups have wish lists on the internet - a child who takes their own money to buy dog food for abandoned dogs and then takes it to the shelter herself, will see the fruit of her actions. Similarly, delivering a box of box to a children's hospital is really something that a child can fully process. And it's fun too, as well as a good reminder for the rest of the family to be grateful for what you do have.