Monday, November 3, 2008

American Materialism: Suzy Orman on Oprah

There's an interesting discussion going on at A Homegrown Life blog that I wanted a little more room to talk about, rather than just in the comment box. The basis of the posting is an Oprah show featuring Suzy Orman. Suzy apparently told a woman who was expecting her second baby that she wouldn't be able to afford to stay home with her kids, even though the husband would be making over $6500 a month, and they had plenty of money in savings.

If you click on the link above and read the rest of the post, this advice has gotten we stay-at-home and/or homeschooling mom types pretty riled up, since most of us do it with a significantly smaller budget. But I think the posting and follow-up comments bring up some very important points that ought to be explored further. One is that parents have an instinctual desire to provide materially for their children. The second is the danger of this instinct when it careens out of control. And then the third is the fact that material comforts and quality time with kids are often viewed as an either/or situation.

Obviously, parents have an instinctive desire to provide materially for their children. Without that instinct, children wouldn't survive to adulthood! We all want our children to eat well, have clothes, a roof over their heads, etc. But the problem is, how far do we go with that? Should we buy the more expensive, organic food? Should we get the house that has enough room for a playroom, or a school room? Should we buy brand name clothes, or clothes from Wal-Mart? It's hard to know where to draw the line. To figure out which things are really important to give to our children, and which are extraneous. It's particularly difficult to do so when we live in a culture that says more is always better -- more and more money, and more and more possessions. And the message is not only that more is better just for its own sake, but that we must buy the latest and greatest products or we will cause irreversible harm to our children. This message is particularly insidious because it attempts to hide the blatant materialism by preying on our most basic instincts to protect and care for our children. So we buy the latest products because they are educational! Or because they will make our children healthier! Or because they will keep our children safe! I know these messages work on me. For example, when we needed a new car, we bought the newest Honda minivan, rather than a cheaper, used vehicle, because the new one had more safety features. It's not bad to want to protect our kids, but how do we know when we've gone too far?

There are quite a few books being published lately that talk about the negative influence of extreme materialism on family life. (Some good examples include The Price of Privilege, by Madeline Levine; Too Much of a Good Thing, by Dan Kindlon; Generation Me, Jean Twenge.) These books all talk about how children who come from wealthy families and who have many material possessions experience extremely high rates of problems such as depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. They also talk about the fact that along with material possessions, the parenting style of many wealthy families has parents protecting their children from any sort of failure and disappointment. I'm guessing this is something many of us do to some degree, whether we believe ourselves to be wealthy or not -- due partly to the fact that we are mostly all wealthy compared to families in other countries and in the past, and also due to the fact that we live in this culture of over-protectiveness and materialism and it probably rubs off on us whether we want it to our not. I know I'm guilty of this from time to time, and I'm trying to do better at being aware of it.

BUT the thing that strikes me most in these books is that most of the children and adolescents who are being showered with gifts and protected from disappointments are spending very little time with their families. And this bothers children. Even teenagers, who in our culture are supposed to despise their parents, instead of wanting to spend time with them. According to Dan Kindlon in Too Much of a Good Thing, "the number one concern expressed by kids was not having enough time together with their parents" (91). And many parents don't seem to notice this, since "adolescents were three times as lively as their parents to say that this was a problem." Kindlon goes on to say that "other research shows that if teenagers don't spend time with their parents ... they're at double or even triple the risk for sexual activity at a young age, drug use, and emotional problems." And research shows that parents really do spend less time with their children these days. According to a University of Michigan study, "between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time families spent talking with one another declined 100 percent" (94).

These are just a few examples from one book. There are many other studies which show how important time and attention from parents is on the mental and emotional health of children. Why then, are we as a society, so bad at paying attention to our kids? Why do quality time with kids and basic material comforts have to be mutually exclusive? I think the answer is pretty obvious. We believe that we need way more money than we actually do need. Certainly, this isn't true for everyone, and there are families who struggle just to put food on the table. But those of us who are middle class or above are often guilty of this. I know I am. Even though our family has chosen to live on one income in order to give our children more time and attention, I know I'm still guilty of buying way more than I really need too. Of thinking that I need things that I really don't need. I'm aware of it. I know that culture is giving me this message. I try to do it less. And yet I still do it.

I don't have a solution for the problem, really. If anyone wants to comment with suggestions of what has worked for you, please do! I think being aware of the problem does help. As does a commitment to try and live differently from the culture. As a homeschooler, I do this every day. And the longer I homeschool, the more aware I become of just how differently we our living our lives. I'm hoping it will keep changing me more and more for the better!

1 comment:

SmallWorld at Home said...

All my published poetry has been in anthologies or lit mags. Here are links to a few of these that I put on my blog. I started getting weird about putting my poetry up because I'd be really mad if someone copied my stuff, but then I think, who really cares? I don't know how I stand on that.