Materialism and Family Life: Good Intentions Gone Bad

“Wealth is the number of things we can do without.” Leo Tolstoy

If you’re one of the many people who are going overboard this holiday season, this article may not be for you. On the other hand, it may be perfect for you. So many of us express our love for others by buying things for them. We just don’t know how to do it differently. We equate love with gift giving. We exhibit the expected materialism of our culture and do so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately our best intentions can have some harmful results particularly when our materialism is a way of life, not just a holiday splurge.

Myrna and Burt, parents of three young adults, have the courage to best express this sentiment:

I wish I could tell you that Burt and I have given our children everything they ever needed. Unfortunately that’s part of our problem. We gave too much of the wrong things. When Debbie wanted to go to the expensive college out East, we said, “Why not?! After all that’s what parents are for.” We could have asked her to pay for part of her college costs. When Mark said he wanted to go to a technical school to learn professional cooking we said, “No. How would it look on your resume that you didn’t graduate college?” We could have trusted him to make his own decisions. Of course our oldest son, Rick, who has always done everything right and excelled in sports and academics, thanks to our pressure, expected us to pay for his exotic wedding in Hawaii. His plea, “Now mom and day, you know this is the age of sexual equality” left us with no response. How could we look like cheapskates to our future daughter-in-law and her family? It’s not like we’re made of money. We just acted that way. Indeed we could have worried less about our image. I wish we knew then what we know now. Sadly, we’ve all suffered. Although our kids love us, they hardly ever see us. Debbie continues to change careers in marketing out East and struggles with an eating disorder. Mark works part-time at a greasy spoon restaurant and smokes pot the rest of the time. Our beloved Rick has two kids, works like a dog for a prestigious law firm in Hawaii and hardly ever sees his wife. Oy vey! When I compare ourselves with other parents we don’t look all that different. We all have nice kids who take us for granted and are not very happy. Worst of all I don’t think our kids understand relationships. I guess we taught them to be into things, not people.

Although we parents aren’t totally responsible for our children’s lives we certainly can, with the best of intentions, give them a set of values that undermines their happiness and personal growth. Let’s examine how this unfortunate result happens in families.

What is materialism in family life?

Many of us don’t even grasp materialism. We think that’s just the way life should be. Let’s grasp it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with encouraging children to be successful in school and achieve material success. However, when through our own insecurities, we teach our children to over focus on material achievement to the detriment of their relationships with friends, family and themselves, then we are promoting materialistic values and hurting them. A materialistic mindset equates worthiness with success and achievement and doesn’t allow us to accept ourselves unless we are successful. It is a superficial evaluation of our worth as human beings. Such a way of thinking emphasizes perfectionism, cutthroat competition, status-seeking, rugged individualism, careerism and mindless consumerism. You don’t have to be affluent to be materialistic nor all all affluent families materialistic. The essence of materialism is replacing relationship with things. Often parents aren’t even aware of their materialism and feel they are doing what good parents are expected to do. They see no alternative. They think their children are happy with more stuff and opportunities when in fact they are not. Tragically materialism in families considerably hurts children no matter how much they succeed and it hurts them to the core.

The price of obsessive living

Although we may truly love our children, we parents may inadvertently overemphasize grades, popularity, sports achievements, career success and other aspects of materialism and insist that our children do likewise. Doing so satisfies our needs, not our children’s. In the process, we may lose track of our children’s value apart from what they do. When this occurs we unknowingly give our children a devastating message: “You’re only lovable if you succeed.” This message carries failure whether our children succeed or fail. After all, successful kids are only as good as their latest achievement. Being obsessed with goals is the death of love between parents and their children. Love has nothing to do with obsessing about goals and children become crushed by the loss of love. Moreover, constant achieving is endlessly anxiety producing. Having to continually prove your worth as a person results in the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints and eating disorders among our children. The cost to mental health cannot be minimized. While American families have enjoyed considerable material gains since 1950, the teen suicide rate has quadrupled in that same period. Getting more stuff doesn’t make us happier.

In fact when family meals together are avoided, when playing video games alone in one’s room is preferred to enjoying touch football as a family, and when parents hand out credit cards to their children to assuage their guilt over their working too much and never seeing their children, bad things happen. Children disconnect emotionally from parents, pretend to be happy around parents, become greedy and entitled and lead a secret depressive life separate from their parents. They think that if their parents ever really knew them as imperfect people, they would be rejected. The pressures of materialism only worsen this fear. The loss of emotional bonds with parents is devastating for children. They go into the adult world with a fragile sense of self, pretending and feeling like impostors, making questionable relationship choices and eventually crashing as their materialistic world comes tumbling down. Parents also suffer as their best intentions carry lifelong heartache over their children and they feel painfully helpless in resolving their children’s current difficulties in adult life. Materialistic families have the highest rates of mood and depressive disorders among all families.

Signals of materialism in families

Your family may overemphasize having things over having good relationships when:

  • family dinners together are continually put off due to sports practices, excessive after-school activities or parental work demands
  • the only rituals for offering love involve buying things for people
  • loved ones rarely spend quiet time together as a family such as taking walks, baking cookies or sitting in silence by a fire
  • non-conformity in life achievement is frowned upon
  • there is a continual need to look good or compete with the neighbors
  • getting into the best college becomes a consuming family quest
  • there is an absence of spiritual practices and volunteer work that gives back to others
  • idle time is discouraged or unheard of
  • children lead a secret “double life” to keep their parents happy
  • designer clothes and the latest electronica are must-have’s
  • there is an abdication of parental authority and limit setting
  • family members are seen as objects – a means to an end – rather than as real and respected people

Why do we choose things over people?

Clearly we live in a capitalistic society that’s often over the top. Freud couldn’t stand the superficiality of America when he visited it years ago. He called America, “Money-land” and couldn’t wait to get back to Vienna. The real and imagined financial pressures on families are incredible. Too many of us live with heightened anxiety and believe that any day we will be under a bridge with our loved ones. This current economic crisis only worsens such worries. The sad part is that having more money doesn’t lessen such fears. Money isn’t the cure for anxiety. Studies of lottery winners show that on average the happiness level of such lucky families eight weeks after winning return to the same level they were before winning. Indeed, wealthy families often have the greatest levels of such angst and insecurity since they’ve become overreliant on their bank accounts. Accordingly, privileged people often choose things over people and they suffer.

If money doesn’t make us happy, what does? Trust in our relationships makes us happy. Studies show that kids who are raised by authoritative parents who are compassionate and warm when their children make mistakes, hold their children and themselves accountable for their behaviors and exude a “I’m going to love you no matter what” mentality have the highest rates of happiness, serenity and career success. We choose things over people because we’re too scared to trust our relationships.

Making small changes

If you see yourself as part of a materialistic family don’t freak out or flagellate yourself. All is not lost. Big changes can’t happen overnight. In over focusing on your financial well-being you certainly are in good company and undoubtedly have the best of intentions. Unfortunately the road to hell is paved with good intentions and change is necessary. There are many ways to tweak the health and well-being of your family. Perhaps the relationships in your family have been weakened by overemphasizing material success. To make changes the best place to start is with yourself, not others. Read The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine (Harper Collins, 2006). This well-written and carefully researched expose describes the problems of and offers solutions to materialistic families.

Slowly replace things with relationships. Start with the relationship you have with yourself. Are you someone who is always doing things for others and has no time for yourself? Do you exhaust yourself competing with others and always having to look good to others? Get involved in a group that nurtures you and doesn’t emphasize success – a good book club, or spiritual practice group. Discover that part of you that is good enough just as you are. In other words, get a life! You will slowly developing a new and healing perspective on your family that you never knew existed and get support for changes. Involve your partner. Work on the authenticity and emotional closeness of your marriage and insist that your partner join you in such efforts. If he or she doesn’t join you, start without him or her.

Get honest emotional and spiritual support from friends, professionals, and anybody who will help you. Expose your failings and insecurities. Get to know your kids as real persons who are already good enough and let them know you as a real person. Do simple stuff with them – like making popcorn together – and they will show you who they are. Let them amaze you as you amaze them. Be warm with them but set firm limits with their testing, overscheduling and hold them accountable for their behaviors. You will never need to buy their love, expect them to achieve or worry about their happiness. You are all they need. Trust the power of love.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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