What more can we do to guide our children toward godly contentment in a consumer culture?
Squelch Stupid Comparisons
Around age 6, children become aware of the purchasing patterns of others. They begin to ask for things that their peers are wearing, playing with or bringing in their lunchboxes. The child asks: "Can I have light-up sneakers like so-and-so has?" The parent hears: "Don't you love me as much as so-and-so’s parents?"
It is difficult to say who wants to "fit in" more – the child or the parent. Christian parents must recognize that "keeping up with the Joneses" has no place in the life of the believer. As those called to live as aliens and strangers, our expenditures should not be targeted at fitting in.
When my son was 12, he asked for a cell phone. All his friends had one, and he felt left out. My husband and I encouraged him to pay attention to that feeling of being different, to lean into it. We explained that the Christian life is marked by the tension of not belonging, and our spending choices would not be geared toward helping him feel accepted by others. The problem was not that he wanted a phone, but that he wanted a phone to find acceptance with his peers.
Promote Valid Comparisons
Show your children how much they have in comparison to others. Sponsor a child in a third-world country. Let your children contribute to the support and write letters. Volunteer as a family at a food pantry so your children can see the faces of those who live in daily need. If possible, go on a mission trip together or send your kids on one through your church.
Look for allies in Christian families of a similar income level who also spend with care. Point your children toward their example when the charge is leveled that "we're the only ones who don’t have ____."
As a general rule, try not to respond "yes" to a first-time request, particularly with young children. Requests made in the heat of the shopping moment rarely represent a child’s true desire to own something. Those that recur over a period of time are more likely genuine requests. Even if you can afford the purchase, wait a couple of weeks. Let your child know the joy of patient waiting and receiving.
Let big purchases be "milestone purchases." You can have an iPod when you turn 12. You can have a phone when you turn 14. Once the milestone has been clearly set, all negotiations on the part of the child should cease. If they continue, simply ask the child, "When did we say that would happen?" If the child persists, say "I have already answered that" and move on. Bear in mind that whatever milestone age and corresponding purchase you set will need to be repeatable for younger siblings.
Understand a True "Deal"
Just because something is affordable doesn’t mean it is a good purchase for your child. When we finally made the cell phone purchase for our son, we were faced with two options: add him to our plan at virtually no extra cost or let him foot the bill. We went with option two. Because he pays the bill, he texts and calls very little, using his phone for needful communication instead of recreation. The price tag is higher, but the payoff is huge. Our son learned a lesson in stewardship he would otherwise have missed. True "deals" are purchases that can teach as well as meet a need or want.
Do a Gut Check
Check your motive for wanting to give in to a request: Is it fear or love? Fear purchases to avoid drama or rejection. Love purchases (or withholds a purchase) to bless. Fear tends to parent in the short-term (to get through the day, meal or shopping trip). Love parents for the long-term (to get a child to functioning adulthood). Fear concerns itself with avoiding or encouraging a child’s outward behaviors. Love concerns itself with training and equipping the heart.
A parent who sets good spending habits for their child but fails to exercise them themselves will likely learn the hard truth about actions speaking louder than words. Our children watch us to see if our words and actions are consistent. Work hard to model godly contentment for your children. Pray hard that God would teach you yourself to desire contentment above all possessions. In your example lies your child's greatest hope for finding satisfaction beyond "stuff."