We moved to the suburbs, like most young families, because they were affordably safe. No danger of gang violence, drive-by shootings or (gasp) low standardized test scores at neighborhood schools. Not even the danger that our neighbor might paint his trim blue or park his F-150 on the front yard. Affordable safety – what could be better?
As it turns out, our suburban neighbors – with the help of dual incomes, starting families later in life, smaller family sizes and ample credit limits – are able to afford much more than physical safety for themselves and their children. Hence, the first-grader with the cell phone, the fourth-grader with the iPod Touch, the seventh-grader with the $300 purse and professionally colored hair and the 16-year-old with the Mustang GT. The clothes, vacations, parties, electronics and activities which surround the suburban child make our own childhoods look downright deprived, but most parents are happy to forget that stripped-down upbringing. They take satisfaction in knowing that they have given their children more than was given to them.
Ironically, the affordable safety of the suburbs turns out to be neither affordable nor safe. The price tag for chasing our children’s material desires will be far higher than the total on our credit card statements. As Christian parents, we must think clearly about what our spending patterns teach our children. What do we risk by immersing our children in the suburban baptismal of “stuff”?
- We gamble on the future. If current economic trends hold, our children can expect to live at a lower standard of living than the one in which they are being raised. Compassionate parents raise their children to be prepared for an uncertain future. Raising children who feel entitled to suburban affluence is neither compassionate nor wise. Raising children who understand that possessions are given to us by God to steward prepares them for a future of plenty or of lack.
- We feed low self-esteem. Researchers have identified a direct link between low self-esteem and materialism in children: the lower a child’s self-esteem, the more materialistic tendencies that child will exhibit. Many parents pacify guilt over time spent away from their children by purchasing them things. But what children really need from us is not our presents but our presence. Materialism devalues relationships by placing purchases over people. When we prioritize spending time with our children, we teach them to value relationships over things. We teach them their immeasurable value to us and to God and instill in them a sense of belonging.
- We act neither alien nor strange. First Peter 2:11-12 urges believers to live as aliens and strangers in the world. In other words, our lives should look quite different from those of our unbelieving neighbors. Materialism feeds on our desire to fit in, to be accepted, to live in comfort now. Christianity commands us to stand apart, to expect rejection, to forgo comfort now. Fundamental to our faith is the concept of delayed gratification. Our home is elsewhere and so is our treasure. To train delayed gratification, parents must recognize that love withholds as often as it gives.
- We crush contentment. The Bible instructs us that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). By continually giving our children more of the latest “stuff,” we teach them not to be content, but to long constantly for what comes next. We offer them the bread of insatiability, we who are charged with holding out to them the bread of life. Rather than granting our children satisfaction, we sabotage their ability to find it at all. Through our words and our actions we must teach our children to forgo the cultural curse of insatiability for the great gain of godly contentment.
The price tag for suburban affluence, untempered by godly wisdom, is far too high for the Christian parent to pay. The danger, though not physical, is real. We must point our children toward the truth that satisfaction is found in God alone. This need not be a call to asceticism so much as a call to sober reflection: Ultimately, the stuff is not the problem – our hearts are. We must think hard about the choices we make in our spending. With God’s grace we may spare our children from the poverty of a life spent chasing what will not last by pointing them toward what truly satisfies.