Thanksgiving has been one of my favorite holidays since I was a child, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. It may seem like the focus is on food more than thankfulness, but as a parent you don’t have to fight terribly hard to help your children remember what it’s all about. Cut out the classic hand turkey, write something to be thankful for on each finger-feather, and you’re good. Plus, any holiday that involves pie has something going for it, I don’t care what you’re celebrating.
Nevertheless I can’t help cringing each year as November rolls around and I remember what approaches as Thanksgiving does: THE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SEASON! BLACK FRIDAY! PRE-BLACK FRIDAY! If ever there was a time for getting your family off the grid, it’s gotta be the month of November.
Everywhere you look people are trying to get you to buy more Stuff. And of course, you aren’t the only target: marketers find children to be more and more lucrative. Although the corporate world’s ability to make kids think they “need” certain things has always been impressive (Cabbage Patch Kids, anyone?), one must admit that its marketing strategies have grown exponentially in recent decades.
The increasingly prevalent notion that one of man’s essential purposes is to strive for ever more and ever better material goods is the soul-draining vice known as consumerism. As Pope St. John Paul II pointed out in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, consumerism puts people in bondage, restraining them from following the commandment to love and give themselves freely to others [n. 41]. The pull that material goods places on the person afflicted with consumerism keeps him from striving always to spend himself in service to God and others.
Consumerism conflicts directly with the family’s call to be a school of love—a place where small people learn what it means to serve God and others. Love requires freedom. Young people who are enslaved by their possessions will not be free to follow the call of love. How then should Catholic parents respond to the invasive threat of consumerism?
Before I offer an answer to that question, a few side notes. Many of us with large families and/or limited financial means might feel that consumerism is not a temptation for us because we simply can’t afford it. Not so. St. John Paul noted that the problem exists among both the affluent and the poor (and everywhere in between) [Centisimus Annus n. 19]. It may actually be a greater burden for the poor. When we recall that consumerism consists simply in falling prey repeatedly to the desire for material things over and above the desire for God—becoming the servants of our material goods rather than their masters—then we can see why a man of any means may be prone to it.
Resisting consumerism, by the way, is not the same as being thrifty. Justifying unneeded purchases by noting “what a good deal” we got on them does not negate the spiritual harm (and probably does little to negate the harm to your bank account either, but that’s another story). I’m all for thrift; my younger children probably think “Good Will” is some sort of indulgent uncle for all the times he sends along furniture and clothing. But spending less, though definitely a good in its own right, does not itself keep one from falling prey to consumerism. Crap from Salvation Army can take over your life just as quickly as crap from Bloomingdale’s.
I find that the first great way to reduce consumerism in the family is to reduce your exposure to marketing. As in, just say no to kid movies and all their marketing tie-in’s. Your kids will not be harmed by not seeing Frozen. (In fact they may thank you later for that extra 90 minutes of their childhood.) My six-year-old daughter hasn’t seen it, and she really doesn’t mind at all. It may help that we homeschool. That might seem like a drastic way to limit the pressure on your children to see certain movies, but it sure is effective.
So forget the kid movies. Let the TV be an occasional tool, not the master of the house or the go-to babysitter. Cancel magazines that are really just shills for new merchandise. Tell the catalog companies to take you off their mailing lists. “So,” you’re saying, “if I decide to help my family resist consumerism we’re pretty much done having any fun. I’ll have to say no to everything.” By no means is this the case. An essential component in fighting any vice is promoting its opposing virtue. What will fill the void of all the marketing of stuff hype?
One virtue opposed to consumerism is temperance, which moderates our use of material goods. I know, temperance doesn’t sound very fun either. Bear with me. According to the Catechism [n. 1809] temperance also “directs [our] sensitive appetites toward what is good.” Now we’re talking!
So we replace for our children the consumerist with the creative, the disposable with the eternal, always striving to direct their gaze away from what is enslaving and toward what is good and freeing. If you are intentional about choosing what to give your children, Christmas presents can be an opportunity to help them understand the purpose of material things. When considering gifts for your children, ask yourself: is this item going to broaden my child’s view of what is true, good, and beautiful? Will it lead him to appreciation of God’s world? Will it help him create, or will it drive him toward more consumption?
This doesn’t mean your gifts will be lame, ending up at Goodwill where I will have to buy them for my kids. It means that you’ll buy things like an electronics kit for your 12-year-old or a flower press for your little girl; a genealogy book for a teen interested in her family history or cloth puppets for your young dramatist. The possibilities are endless… and enriching, in the best sense of the word.
Consumerism deadens our spirits. A man in its grip has replaced with the quest for material things his noblest quest: the search for God. Rather than finding himself by giving himself away, he has lost himself in a bid for more and more Things. Material goods that could rightly be used as tools for serving others are, in a sense, abused—they become a means of self-gratification. Instead of starting our children on this culture-of-death byroad—in the bitterly ironic guise of celebrating Christ’s birth—let’s teach them that true contentment comes from God alone. We find our happiness in Him, in others, in virtue, and in His beautiful creation, not Stuff. “Only one thing is necessary,” our Lord said. Like Mary of Bethany, may we choose the better part!