Last week, my children started their new school year. This time of the year is always a joyful time for me - nothing like seeing my children line up a little closer to the "big kids" grades every year to truly hit home how fast they are growing.
While I've always savoured this time of the year, I have to admit, its when they go back to school that I truly experience the pressure to buy. In trying to adhere to a simple, green and frugal lifestyle, I have found that its when they are school that the differences are quite obvious. My daughter walked into school wearing a uniform hand-sewn by me, wearing simple white tennis shoes that were hand decorated by me, carrying a bag I found at an op shop and inside a lunch box with my homemade sandwich wraps. In comparison, I see other children wearing uniforms with labels, wearing recognisably branded shoes, and carrying new bags with pics of the latest fads.
I worry that my children would stand out too much. That they wouldn't fit in. In the UK, the report "Growing Up in a Material World" showed that 55% of respondents have been bullied or know someone who has been bullied because they did not have the latest products.
This is a scary statistic for me. It is difficult enough to try and deconstruct advertising and marketing messages for my children, let alone having to deal with this aspect too.
I once attended an inspiring lecture from Danah Boyd and have followed her work ever since. While her work is not really related to simple, green, frugal living, even she commented once that:
In my own fieldwork, I regularly witnessed the consequences of mass commercialism. Teens had to buy to fit in and if they couldn't buy, they were pressured to steal. Identity is constructed and status is marked by consumption. The goal of so many teens when they grow up is to make money so that they can buy the right things.
Thankfully my children have not yet been bullied nor have they resorted to pressuring me to buy stuff. A huge part of me resists in buying them things because I truly think that using materialism as a way to fit in is not the sort of value I want to teach them. But its not easy...
So how to cope?
Ever since the children were old enough to become aware of products, I have tried to deconstruct many of the media messages with them. I've tried to show them there are other ways of thinking about things. I might offer some of what I do now and perhaps readers would like to share their own thoughts and advice.
1. I try to not use the words "its too expensive" or "we can't afford it" as the reason for not buying things. I once heard somewhere that this puts the acquisition of money as important - it gives the subtle message that "if only I had enough money I would buy that for you". Instead, I tell my children: "I want to spend my money on X instead." or "We already have enough toys/gadgets/clothes - we do not need to buy any more" or "Those toys/gadgets/clothes/stuff were made in ways that I think hurt the Earth, I want to buy things that are were made in ways that is kind to the Earth." The value I try to convey is that they always have a CHOICE when it comes to spending money - and that includes *choosing to not buy*.
2. I offer them alternatives - eg. you would like a new dress? Let's not buy it here, let's buy it from the op shop because then you'd not only get a dress but also help others and be kind to the Earth as well.
3. I try to be generous. Whenever my children's friends have commented on liking something I made for my children, I try and take the time to make that same thing for them too. Slowly, my children's friends have started carrying homemade library bags, homemade sandwich wraps, and even homemade school bags. As almost all my fabric, thread, elastic, cord etc are sourced second hand, its no financial imposition to make these things for others.
In the end, I feel that the pressure to buy will always be there - and for a little longer yet, I think I will continue to feel that pressure from watching my children interact with others at school. I can see how rampant consumerism is in the school yard.
There once was a time when I hoped that what I do will lead my children to fully embrace the values I am trying to teach them. However, I have now realised that their journey is their own. If they choose a path that is different from this simple, green, frugal life that I am trying to live, then I know that I will have to accept that. The best I can hope for is to show them that there are always alternatives and it is never too hard or too late to change paths.
If you want to learn more about this topic, the Children as Consumers article from Global Issues is a fantastic read.
I look forward to reading your thoughts and opinions on this issue. :)