Attention is the best antidote for materialism.
Once when my son John was around 13, he was sitting in the living room watching television. It was a daily soap opera that he ab-so-lute-ly had to see so he could join in with peer group discussions. Another stupid show riddled with commercial breaks. My 16-year-old daughter Pauline and I were still sitting at the dinner table. We were having one of our endless talks about money, about rich people and poor people, and the question of which group was morally superior.
My stance was fairly simplistic back then: I stubbornly maintained that rich people were, by definition, bad because it’s impossible to get rich in an honest way. Pauline’s view was that egotism and altruism were equally present in both groups. It was a heated debate, as it often was in those days. My daughter’s neutral standpoint felt vaguely threatening to me. If I were to admit that she was right, quite a few of my choices would seem less logical than I was wont to believe. So I ardently defended my old leftist ideals, which she challenged with equal vigour.
A little while later John got up, turned off the television – even though the soap was not yet over – and joined us at the table. ‘It’s more exciting to listen to you two,’ he remarked.
Advertisers have wiggled their way between parents and their children, write Jonathan Rowe and Gary Ruskin in this issue of Ode. They have young people all to themselves and can exercise their baneful influence in an unbridled fashion, drilling children into obedient consumers. The most important question that springs to my mind is how these advertisers have been able to do this? Where were the parents when the advertisers seized power? What were the parents doing when their children were handed over to commercialism?
The answer is, they were at work.
Rowe and Ruskin’s complaint includes a bizarre paradox. Among all those people who make the ads that corrupt American children – the academics that supply them with information, the manufacturers and marketers of the brand name goods, those who create the television programmes, films, videos and the organisers of sponsored events – there are a lot of parents. While they’re working their tails off to become rich and successful, their children are sitting in front of the television. Where do these people – who have helped create our materialistic culture – get the nerve to complain about how that materialistic culture affects our children?
Much research has been done into the needs of children and teenagers. Most of it reveals that contact with adults tops their wish list. Children want to be seen felt, heard, appreciated. That is the best antidote to our materialistic culture. The studies also show that parents have a lot more influence on their children than they think. The effects of advertising only appear to take hold in families in which the parents no longer talk with their adolescent children. It has been clearly proven that parents can reduce or even counteract the negative effects of watching television, and this applies also to the influence of advertising.
‘Ad creators are increasingly able to focus on children,’ write Rowe and Ruskin. The more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to write a letter of complaint to absentee parents. Parents need to raise their children themselves, and not shove the imparting of norms and values onto the babysitter, school or television. Those who leave it to ‘the culture’ to educate children about what we consider important, shouldn’t be surprised if that culture sends kids to the shopping mall. And those who consider earning money more important than raising children, shouldn’t become indignant if those children fill up the emptiness with spending money.
As a financially single mother, I was not able to give my children anywhere near all the time and attention they needed. But I did share my life with them. I started to work as a freelancer as soon as I became a mom, so that I didn’t spend all day away from home. Even more importantly, from the very start I told them about my ideas and convictions, my efforts at self-discovery, my inner struggles and my spiritual ambitions. Even with very small children you can have great conversations.
As inspired as I was by all types of spiritual movements, I had a fixed ideal. I wanted my children to develop a ‘consciousness of abundance’ – not the ‘consciousness of depravity’ I was raised with myself. Abundance is the principle of the ‘economy of enough’. This is nicely summarised in Gandhi’s speech in which he says there is enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. Scarcity is the fundamental principle of our economy, in which everyone competes with everyone else. You have to fight for your daily bread, the strongest wo(man) amasses piles of gold and the weakest dies like a dog. The Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer taught me that suppressing the archetype of abundance automatically creates the two shadow sides of scarcity and greed.
It seemed logical to me that you instil the principle of scarcity in children if you don’t take their clear needs seriously. ‘No, you won’t get a sandwich because it’s not mealtime. You’re not hungry, don’t be childish.’ ‘Even if the whole class has that backpack, you don’t need one. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?’ I can still hear my own mother’s voice… It was only much later that I was able to express that I would much rather jump off the bridge with the other kids than stand alone and watch.
But how do you create a consciousness of abundance in children? Not by giving them everything they want, that quickly became clear. In the early years, as a family we spent freely while on holiday. If someone wanted a souvenir or trinket, they got it. The result was negative: the children became whiny and unhappy. So we scrapped that tradition.
My children were very small when I heard a story from the Sufi tradition. A king sees a beggar sitting by the gate of his palace and offers to give him whatever he wants. The beggar laughs and says: ‘What I want, you cannot give me.’ The king insists and the beggar finally replies: ‘Fill this begging bowl.’ The king empties his purse into the bowl, but as soon as the money hits the bottom, it disappears. The same happens with a large sack full of coins. The king empties sack after sack into the bowl until the country’s entire fortune has vanished. Finally, the king slumps down at the feet of the beggar and says: ‘Master, reveal to me the secret of your bowl.’ The beggar laughs and says: ‘It is simple. This bowl was created from the human mind.’ It is an expressive rendition of the old saying: ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness.’
I told this story to my children – not just once, but many times. We’ve also often validated it to one another. ‘See what happened to that toy you absolutely had to have last week? It’s already been thrown in the corner of your room and you don’t even look at it anymore.’ Not as an accusation, but as an observation. ‘So the story is true. See? You’ve already forgotten about the toy.’ We did empirical research into the functioning of the human mind.
We also discovered what we called the ‘Ikea effect’. That became a family expression. We noticed that we always ended up in a bad mood after walking around a department store, no matter how happily we had started the excursion. Again and again, we went in full of expectation and excitement… only to leave a little while later in a combative mood. We analysed it and reached a conclusion: Ikea deludes you. So do all the other alluring department stores with their unrealistic promises: ‘Everything you always wanted is right here, and it will make you happy’. But even if I entered with money in my pocket and in a generous mood, that promise was never fulfilled. This is because what your heart’s desires cannot be bought, it’s as simple as that. Warmth, relaxation, pleasure, mutual understanding and fellowship are not things you can simply pay for and wrap up. So every actual purchase comes with a little disappointment. At first you might think that having yet another desirable object will fulfil that promise. But no, it doesn’t. Finally, disappointment creeps in and with it, irritation and friction.
When we recognised and labelled the Ikea effect, it lost its power over us. And with that the store – not coincidentally – lost a lot of its appeal.
I think a consciousness of abundance means that every time you want something you ask yourself if you really need it. And I mean ‘need’ in a broad sense. You may need it for your body or for your soul. An ice cream, for example, can be a very wise purchase. (I’ve even noticed that at times, ice cream can even heal children’s tummy aches.) But eating ice cream all day long won’t make a child happy. Girls around age seven sometimes also need a princess costume: a shiny satiny dress with so many frills and bows that I could never make one as nice. But constantly buying clothes won’t make you a princess. It is often a question of finding the middle ground.
Striking that happy medium is a lot easier if you don’t have a choice. There was a certain tidal pattern to my freelance income. When the tide was high I was generous, and when it was low I became frugal. I have always been straightforward about it, as I am about nearly everything. Whining had no effect on me and my children never did it. But I honestly wouldn’t know how to approach child rearing if you’re very wealthy.
Not that all my experiments were always successful. As the children got older my income increased and, with it, their level of consumption. I tried to give them as much financial freedom as possible, which included a jar for five-guilder (_ 2.2) coins. The jar had a loose-fitting lid, and was kept in a cupboard in the living room. Everyone was allowed to take money out of the jar if they needed it, for instance if the window washer came for his money when I wasn’t home or someone collecting for charity. Or if one of the kids suddenly had a burning desire to go to the pool. For a long time the jar remained filled to the brim, what we spent was replenished. But as time went by the temptation appeared to get the better of my adolescent children, who wanted to buy pricey snacks during their breaks at school instead of making healthy sandwiches at home. The system broke down and was abandoned. But it, too, was educational.
I can’t yet say whether I have succeeded in raising my children to be financially autonomous and self-restrained. They are now 20 and 17 and only time will tell. And of course it’s not just a question of how they were raised. Personality, attitude and their life plan also play a role. But I’m hopeful. Up to now they appear to have a relaxed attitude about money. I would call it a kind of post-materialism. When it’s there, they spend it freely and when it’s not, I don’t hear them complain.
The debate about money and morals is still in full swing. My daughter recently said she has shifted a little towards my viewpoint, having discovered that money could also negatively affect people. Meanwhile, I’m increasingly realising that if you have a lot of money, you can also do a lot of good.
Lisette Thooft is a freelance journalist and author. Her articles regularly appear in various Dutch daily and weekly publications. She is also the editor-in-chief of Genoeg (Enough), a ‘non-glossy lifestyle magazine’ for people who have had enough of ‘indifferent waste, hectic materialism and spineless submission to merciless consumerism’. She wrote this article at Ode’s request.