The dangers of materialism and overconsumption in relation to gift giving for the holidays.

by Johann Christoph Arnold  

Every holiday season, we are barraged by a flood of advertising reminding us that our love for our children will be measured by how much money we spend on them. It's no surprise that kids take the opportunity to demand things they want but don't need, or that parents make up for the lack of time they
spend with their children by catering to their every whim.

Unwittingly, we have allowed those promoting the misguided values of our consumer culture to exploit our love and affection. We have been hoodwinked by a false notion of love, and in the end our children are the losers. Because genuine happiness can't be bought and sold.

Advertisers, who know our weaknesses all too well, intentionally target the most susceptible and lucrative market-our children and teens. Kids have been harnessed to pull their parents back to the mall again and again. It's easy to blame the materialistic culture at large - but luckily the problem has a solution closer to home.  We can't change the culture, but we can change our attitude toward it.

Having raised eight children of my own, I know the dilemma parents face. In a world increasingly hostile to children, we want to show we care by acting on our spontaneous loving impulses, which usually means spending. But when our kids came home asking for the latest gimmick or designer wear, my wife and I knew we had to say "no" more often than not.  Of course, deciding to have no TV in the house was the first real breakthrough; I doubt we would have won this battle without freeing ourselves from its influence.

As a child, I grew up in what I now see was poverty. For the first few years of my life, I ate only the bare minimum. Yet, I would find it hard to imagine a happier childhood. Why? Because my parents gave us children time and attention on a daily basis. For instance, no matter how hectic their schedule, they tried to eat breakfast with us before we went off to school each morning.

No child should have to live in poverty. But I firmly believe that the happiness of a child does not depend on his or her access to material wealth. I have found, on my travels around the world, that in some of the
most impoverished places on earth there is also the greatest devotion to children. Nigeria, Iraq, Chiapas, Cuba, and the West Bank boast none of the material advantages that we take for granted. Infant mortality rates are high, food is meager, and medicines are always in short supply. Toys are sticks or tin cans; clothes are made of rags; babies lack bottles, cribs, and strollers. Yet nowhere have I seen such radiant smiles or such warmhearted hugs. Nowhere have I seen greater affection between parents and
teens, elderly people and small children, than in these places. What is it about the plush homes and classrooms of our own country, where every material need is more than adequately attended to, that leaves our children in such a different state?

Ultimately, it is the love we give our children, and not the things, that will remain with them for life. Mother Teresa once observed, after a visit to North America, that she had never seen such an abundance of things. But, she went on, she had also never seen "such a poverty of the spirit, of
loneliness, and of being unwanted."

Having worked thirty years as a family counselor, I know that parents really do love their children, and want to do what is best for them. But what does it mean to give a child love? Next time you feel that you have failed your kids, and are tempted to assuage those feelings by bringing home gifts, remember that we can't buy our children's affection. All they really want, and need, is time and attentiveness, a listening ear and an encouraging word.  These are things every parent can provide.

A family counselor and father of eight, Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of eight books including, most recently, 'Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World', available as a free eBook at   This opinion piece first appeared in Parents Magazine. Email the author: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.