Everyone who has kids or who has ever been a kid knows that there is enormous pressure for young people to keep up with the latest toys and gadgets. It not only applies to kids, but also to grown-ups. We call it, "Keeping up with the Joneses." Sometimes, depending on whom our kids hang out with, the toys and gadgets can get pretty elaborate -- and expensive.
Lately, I have been under fierce pressure from my daughter to keep up with her Joneses. Her keeping up, however, involves my wallet, and at the moment, something called an iPhone 5C. Despite the fact that many other less expensive models can perform the same tricks, apparently only the 5C will do. When I presented this dilemma to a mother I know, she told me that my daughter would never be able to pull out a flip phone with her friends, and that I shouldn't make her have to. The deafening absurdity of this mom's comment got me thinking about the topic, and mostly, about the great benefits and spiritual lessons in NOT keeping up with the Joneses.
Perhaps the most important thing that we can teach our children is gratitude. Gratitude as a concept is hard to teach, however. It is not something that just talking about makes happen. Rather, it is more about providing a life that inspires a child to appreciate what she receives. If a child is always getting everything she wants, it is unreasonable to expect her to be genuinely grateful. She may not know any other way is even possible. Gratitude in children seems to arise from two main things: First, being exposed to circumstances that are different and less than their own, for example, when my daughter meets orphans from Uganda, whose Christmas wish is for a pencil so that they can go to school. Secondly, gratitude comes from -- sometimes -- NOT getting what they want. The experience of NOT getting cannot be conceptual if it is going to truly teach appreciation. It is very basic... when we have to do without something that we want, we appreciate it more when we actually do get it.
NOT keeping up with the Joneses is also important for developing self-esteem. While my friend's comment suggests that getting everything their friends have will give them self-esteem, it is really just a recipe for insecurity. Children begin to believe that if they don't get that next EOS lip balm, Crazy Aaron's silly putty, pair of Uggs, iPhone 5C, Xbox 1... they will no longer be included in the group. Their membership is dependent upon having the same toys as their friends. Not getting helps children develop the confidence that their value as a person is based on more than just owning what their friends own, and their friendships about sharing more than just products.
Children who sometimes have to do without have to explain why they don't have the thing that everyone else has, and that explaining builds character. Children realize, in this simple example, that they can be liked and wanted for more than just what they buy. There is no way for a child to learn this if the message reinforced is that in order to be liked, they must be able to get the same things as their friends.
Finally, NOT keeping up with the Joneses, in the long run, could helps children avoid feeling unfulfilled later in life. Each time we develop a craving for the next toy, the deep belief behind that craving, conscious or otherwise, is that that next toy will bring us happiness. We chase one thing after another, and each brings a few moments of pleasure. But soon, each fails us in terms of providing any kind of lasting happiness. With each failure, we shift our craving onto the next item, and with it, our hope for lasting happiness. Giving our children everything they want encourages the belief that happiness and satisfaction will be found externally -- inside the next best thing. When we have to do without a bit however, we are forced to develop internal aspects of ourselves, to develop the skills that create a true sense of well-being. In so doing, not getting allows us to avoid the despair and emptiness that result from chasing external objects in search of internal wholeness. NOT keeping up with the Joneses (even when it means having to pull out a flip phone) helps our children (and us adults) to grow, and ultimately, to find what we really want. As it turns out, the best gift (sorry, Santa) may not be under the tree.