Most 5-year-olds approach the material world with basic instincts: greed and a simple brand of justice. They like pretty objects and interesting toys, and they want them for themselves. And if your child’s best friend has three Barbies, it doesn’t seem fair if she only has one.
Of course, children of all ages vary widely in their acquisitive feelings, depending on how strongly materialism is emphasized at home, whether through exposure to TV or by older siblings or parents themselves. But, in general, this is the age when children begin to want things simply because other kids have them.
Sometimes it seems like the kid with the most stuff is having the most fun. And a sensitive 5-year-old may find herself struggling with the first feelings of shame when her friends tease her because her classmates think her hairstyle is ‘funny’.
What you can do
Set a good example. You are the best role model for helping your child cope with this complicated material world. If you want to discourage her from developing an insatiable appetite for possessions, let her see you behaving with restraint and wisdom. Take her along to the cobbler and explain why it’s worth re-heeling your favorite shoes instead of buying new ones (you save money, and besides, your old shoes are so comfy). Don’t let mail-order catalogs take up all your reading time, and comment that while you like her aunt’s new Mercedes, your 6-year-old Vitz still runs just fine. Enjoy window-shopping together without buying anything to show that while it’s fun to look at store displays and gather ideas for gifts and other purchases, you don’t need to buy something every time you go to a store. A few offhand comments explaining your views will get the message across.
Television probably wields the greatest influence on children, who watch toy commercials as avidly as they watch programs. Toy company executives know this, and they advertise relentlessly during children’s cartoon programs. Limit your child’s exposure to TV commercials, and she’ll be less likely to develop a lengthy wish list.
Don’t fulfill every request. Children who get everything they ask for don’t learn to handle disappointment, and they don’t learn to work — or even just wait — for things they desire. Do yourself and your child a favor by saying no to unending requests, even if that provokes tantrums in the toy store at first. Enlist the aid of friends and grandparents — who often delight in “spoiling” your child — by suggesting they buy only one gift at birthdays or holidays, instead of half a dozen.
Teach your child about money. Even 5-year-olds can begin to learn about the value of possessions by paying for them themselves. Giving your child an allowance provides her with cash and you with the opportunity to teach her how to use it. Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Building Moral Intelligence, suggests giving kindergartners little piggy banks — even as small sweets jars — so they don’t get overly discouraged by the time it takes to fill them up. Once your child learns to save her money, her cries of “Oh, I want that!” at the store can be met with, “That costs 500 shillings. Do you have enough of your own money to pay for it?” If you want to institute spending rules, set them up right away so she knows from the start that, for example, half of her money should go into savings and half is hers to spend as she chooses.
At this age, children can also start to understand that some expenditures — like groceries and rent or school uniform— are necessities, while others — like movies— are optional. When your child whines, “But I want a new bike!” you can respond sympathetically, “I understand that you want it,” and then explain why she doesn’t truly need it: “You already have one, and they’re too expensive to collect.” Or calmly point out, “Everyone has to make choices with their money. If we spend ours on this, we won’t have it for other things we need or want.” This teaches her that there are logical reasons behind purchasing decisions. It’s wise to avoid bringing adult feelings of failure or resentment into the conversation.
Teach her to prioritize
When holidays and birthdays are coming up, and your child is focusing on getting lots of presents, give her some paper and ask her to draw pictures of the three things she most wants. Then tell her to put the pictures in order of importance to her. This helps teach prioritizing and goal setting. It could also be of help telling your kindergartner, “Before your birthday arrives, lets clean out your closet so you’ve got room. We’ll give away some of your old toys.” If she helps you donate some of her old toys to children’s homes, she’ll be learning about empathy and generosity. This act may also start her thinking about how much she really wants lots of new toys if it means getting rid of old favorites.
Teach your kindergartner to think hard about whether she really wants that new doll by first making her wait for it. Have her draw a picture of the item she wants and post it on the fridge along with a timeline of days — one or two weeks, say — until the date that she can go out and buy it with you. She can check off the days every morning. Finally getting it will be a much-anticipated treat, but if she loses interest before the time is up, even she may agree that she didn’t really want it after all.
Show an appreciation for the deeper value of things. Your child can learn that you prize objects not for how costly or trendy they are but for their inherent quality or sentimental value. “I like this doll because she’s sewn together so well. You can tell someone put a lot of work into making her,” you can point out. Or mention “This vase means a lot to me because Grandma gave it to me for my 21st birthday.” Your child may not begin to adopt your reasoning right away, but over time she’ll see that popularity and high price tags aren’t the only factors that make objects beloved, and that quality is better than quantity.
Find out the cause
Find out what’s fueling her desire. Sometimes even kindergartners crave possessions to fulfill an emotional need. If you notice that your child, who never cared about dolls, suddenly wants a Princess Barbie, talk with her about why that toy is appealing. If the answer is that her two best friends both have one, you can have a simple conversation about the fact that it’s okay to like different toys than the rest of the crowd. Or help her figure out whether she’s afraid her friends won’t like her if she doesn’t have the same toys they do.
Show how to give to others. Try to do something with your child that’s focused on giving to others in a way that she can see. Take her with you to bring dinner to a sick neighbor. That kind of activity can foster an attitude that will help counter materialism more powerfully than almost anything else.
Spend time rather than money on your kids. It’s not easy in our hectic lives to give children the time and attention they crave, but that’s the best way to ward off the “gimmes.” If Mom and Dad are always busy, then the kids will retreat to their toys and TV and playstations, which is all materialism. Kids have to have something, namely a family life, to replace that. So try not to give your child things as a substitute for spending time with her. And make an effort to spend time together doing things that don’t cost anything — go to the playground and the library, take nature walks, play hide-and-seek. No matter what your child says, she wants — and needs — a secure sense of family more than a roomful of possessions.