Materialism is a way of thinking that holds material things to be disproportionately more valuable than other things, especially the spiritual life. Materialists tend to elevate temporary possessions over eternal ones. Some people are conscious materialists and say things like “Whoever said ‘money can’t buy happiness’ never had any.” Others are subconscious materialists who are seemingly unaware that they love their new truck or new pair of shoes more than Christ.
Materialist are often workaholics, overdoing it to afford the things they want. Forget church—Sunday is another workday! Sadly, this kind of materialist has very little time to play with their stuff. A rotting boat or RV lying dormant in their yard often functions as a symbol of their unwise way of thinking.
Other materialists don’t want to work that hard, so they max out their credit cards. Once their credit is shot, they no longer have access to buy the things they want. Many people in this category have succumbed to a life of thievery, or they sit around miserably jealous of others who have the things they want (a sin called coveting).
All varieties of materialism are extremely common in the U.S. So many cool toys are paraded before our faces every day! Shoppers can’t resist the one-click option. Gimme that $30 shirt! Gimme that new watch! Even Christmas, a day meant for quiet and reflective worship and praise, has been turned into a materialistic free-for-all. Many people build their entire identity around their shopping habits (“I’m a Belk’s girl”).
Christians should be fighting viciously against our materialistic tendencies. We must seek to follow the commands of our Master Jesus: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But we should also be training our kids to do the same. While the fight against materialism will look different in every family, and while there is no specific set of rules that Scripture requires for every believer, I’ve listed some suggestions below that may help you lead your little ones away from the sorrow of materialism.
Set the Example
If you always have the latest and greatest automobile, don’t be surprised if your child develops into a materialist. When you overspend on the best clothing, the best carpet, the best lighting, the best yard, the best computer, or the best phone, your child will be watching and learning. Like it or not, they will tend to follow your ways. Don’t be shocked when they demand a $300 baseball bat and $200 cleats for the upcoming season!
On the other hand, if you are content to live within your means, cut up, or at least control, the credit cards, drive older vehicles, live in a modest home, preserve clothes as long as possible, keep your phone for multiple years, and so on, your child will learn how to put things in their proper order. Show your kids what you think is top priority by how you use your money. “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:7-8).
Say No at Stores
Try to avoid spending a lot of time shopping with your kids. Of course, they’ll go in stores with you from time to time, but when they do, don’t be afraid to say no. “Can I have this toy?” No. “I want some candy!” No. If they throw a fit, leave the story quickly and let them pout all the way home. Don’t give in.
I realize this sounds almost cruel. Occasionally, I like to buy my kids things at the store, so I’m not the Grinch. But this must happen on the parents’ terms, not theirs. For the most part, it’s wise for parents to be an early speed bump for their kids at the place where materialism is most likely to develop—the store.
Eat at Home
My family of seven can eat a full and tasty dinner at home for around $15 to $20 (thank you, Aldi). This includes a good meat, several veggies on the side, and a cookie for dessert. I mean, everybody gets full. If we go to McDonald’s, we can expect to pay $35 to $40. If we go to a sit-down restaurant, $50 to $100! Sure, like most folks in America, we like to have a family outing on occasion, but if we go out every evening, what message are we sending to our kids?
Not only is it more affordable, but eating at home is also a great way to build stronger relationships with your kids. As the next point shows, this is another major way of fighting materialism.
Focus on the Value of Relationships
Kids have a hard time understanding that relationships are more valuable than stuff. Many youngsters would honestly rather have an iPhone than a father or mother. Teach your kids that having parents, siblings, and friends is better than having billions of dollars.
Surveys from around the world consistently show that if a person is involved in really good relationships with family and friends, they are happy overall, even if they don’t have much money. On the other hand, if a person is a loner, no amount of money or possessions can make them happy. Most of these surveys are secular in nature, but the truth is truth wherever it’s found. No matter how cool they are, toys cannot elevate our spirits or fill us with joy like good relationships with others.
Especially teach your kids that if they are happy in their relationship with God through Jesus, they will ultimately be happy no matter how much or how little money they have: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7).
Give Money Away
Let your kids see you giving money away. I know we shouldn’t be generous for show, but this is not about showing off. This is about teaching important realities to our kids. Let them see you put the check in the plate at church. Give them some cash so they can drop some in there, too. Tell them (if it is appropriate) when you give money to a family member or friend in need. Take them with you to Chick-fil-A when you buy that nugget tray for a grieving family. Show them that being generous with money is so much more important than hoarding material possessions: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
Restore Things Together
One of the best ways to teach kids not to be materialists is to put more value on the quality of the things you have rather than the quantity. For example, learn how to keep your washer and dryer going instead of buying new ones. These days, you can buy all the parts you need online for these appliances and watch videos that walk you through the repair process. When you let your child help bolt a new motor in an old dryer, and talk to him about how it is now “good as new” and how you are saving seven hundred dollars by not buying a new one, it could have a major impact on your child’s way of thinking about material possessions. You can do the same thing with sewing buttons on shirts, cleaning stains out of carpets, or replacing a starter on an older vehicle. Show your kids that it’s not about how many things they have but rather about how they steward the things God has given them.
Preach the Gospel
Lest this article read like a legalistic rant, let me conclude with Jesus. Materialism is a version of the sin of idolatry combined with the sin of covetousness. The reason we are materialists (and we all are) is because we love stuff more than Jesus. But Jesus loves us more than stuff. He was born in a stable, not a palace. He gave up all his earthly possessions in order to minister to those in need, and he died with nothing. He would not have been featured on the cover of Forbes or Yacht magazine. And yet Jesus is the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10).
The only way we can fight materialism, and teach our kids to do the same, is by trusting the One who owns it all and yet gave it all away for love. Make sure your kids know that stuff and toys might be nice for a season, but they will never save or satisfy the soul. Only Jesus does that.