Expensive sneakers. Designer clothes. Cutting-edge devices. Popular toys.
If you think your students care too much about these kinds of material things, you're probably right. Studies show that today's kids tend to be more materialistic than children of the past. They often judge others by their possessions and assign a higher social status to those who have the "coolest" stuff. Many mistakenly believe that owning the right things—and plenty of them!—will lead to happiness.
Materialism may seem like a huge problem that's beyond your control. You can't change our whole society! But you can take action in your classroom to discourage materialism—and to encourage a more meaningful, faith-based approach to life. Here are some suggestions about how to do that:
Talk the talk.
Studies show that role models like parents and teachers can inadvertently encourage materialism in kids. When you interact with your students, try to focus on non-material things. Instead of complimenting new clothes or other items of appearance, praise kind actions or good effort. Notice special personality traits or talents instead of new possessions. When kids talk about belongings, steer the conversation to activities, family, church, and other more meaningful topics. (Follow these suggestions when you're talking with your fellow teachers, too. Kids like to listen to your conversations!)
Walk the walk.
Limit the use of material rewards as much as you can. Giving too many prizes or treats reinforces the idea that things really do matter—maybe even more than the behavior you're rewarding. Kids can get the idea that learning, working hard, being responsible, treating others respectfully, and other intangibles are not valuable in and of themselves. Whenever possible, substitute rewarding experiences for the goodies: a game, some time to read or draw, a few minutes of your attention, a special job.
Research shows that developing thankfulness decreases the negative effects of materialism. You can encourage gratitude by modelling it yourself: thank your students often and let them see you thank others. Classroom activities can also be effective for growing gratitude. Assign and discuss gratitude journals, encourage kids to make thank-you cards, or just take a few minutes now and then (not just at Thanksgiving!) for everyone to share what they're thankful for.
Show kids how to have fun the old-fashioned way.
You know… without devices, electronic games, pricey toys, or even internet access. Many kids have forgotten—or never experienced—the enjoyment of low-tech games like Charades, Simon Says, Telephone, Hangman, Dots and Boxes, and the like. These kinds of games show that fun can cost nothing at all. They also offer another choice for entertainment besides finding new things to buy, a favorite pastime for many of today's children.
Encourage generosity with service.
Increased generosity saps power from its opposite, materialism. You might already be opening your students' hearts with special service projects like holiday food drives or volunteer events, but don't stop there. Point out how service isn't just for special times of year and only for needy strangers. Talk about being generous with non-material things: time, friendship, kindness, patience. Ask your students to discuss or write about how they could be giving to the people around them, and encourage a commitment to do so every day. And be sure to comment whenever you observe generous behavior!
Teach the truth about advertising.
Familiarize your students with common advertising ploys such as making exaggerated claims, playing on emotion, presenting "facts" that can't be proven, or using celebrities and characters to sell products. Encourage kids to avoid these "tricks" by muting commercials or fast-forwarding through them. Explain that what happens in their favorite TV shows and movies may be influenced by the sales potential of advertisements and tie-in toys. (For example, characters might be added to a program just so more action figures can be sold.) Your students will probably still want many advertised items, but understanding how advertising works is a good first step toward being wise consumers.
Examine materialism in the context of faith.
Read and discuss Jesus' teachings about not valuing possessions. (Since there are so many scripture passages on this topic, you can revisit the subject again and again!) Pope Francis has also offered guidance on materialism. Share his words about rejecting the selfishness of consumerism. Teach your students about inspiring saints who cast aside worldly things and lived with love and generosity. And regularly lead your class in prayers of gratitude, thanking God for his many gifts.
Yes, materialism is a huge challenge for today's kids, but you can help your students deal with it. Your guidance can develop their understanding of what really matters in life and encourage them to tackle the challenges of materialism with the power of their faith.
by Diana Jenkins
After over twenty years as a special education teacher, Diana R. Jenkins became a freelance writer. She has written hundreds of magazine stories, articles, and comic strips for kids and teens. Her books include Goodness Graces! Ten Short Stories about the Sacraments, Stepping Stones – The Comic Collection, and Spotlight on Saints! A Year of Funny Readers Theatre for Today's Catholic Kids. Her latest book, Tackling Tough Topics with Faith and Fiction, is a resource for adults who want to help young teens face modern challenges with a faith perspective. Visit her on the web at www.dianarjenkins.bravehost.com, read her blog at http://djsthoughts-dj.blogspot.com, and find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dianajenkins.