"Obviously, Matthew is a lot more in touch with the market than we are," said my husband, as we stuffed our unsold books and baby clothes into boxes we'll drag over to the church rummage sale next fall. Like many teens, Matthew updates his wardrobe more often than his parents do. Since kids, unlike their parents, aren't making mortgage payments or saving for college, their allowances and part-time job earnings are sheer disposable income, nothing but net. I read a market report recently that said the 31 million teens in the United States spend $141 billion a year--on clothing, entertainment, and food, in that order--and influence parents' purchases of everything from groceries to computers to vacations, to the tune of another $240 billion.
No wonder parents worry that their teens are too materialistic.
Whatever happened to the days when wonder shone from their wide eyes, when they found joy in a fallen leaf, when they seemed to be so much closer to God than adults? Can't we find a way to preserve that innocent spirituality?
Some parents try. There are those who pluck their kids out of the market economy, move way out to the country, and homeschool at the kitchen table. Others stay put but try to counter the prevailing climate with clichés that only reinforce the cultural split between body and soul. "Money isn't really important," they say. "The best things in life are free." "Money can't buy happiness."
Meanwhile our kids hear us talking about our 401Ks, our stock options, our health-care costs, our losses on the Nasdaq, and the fund-raising campaign to fix the church roof. They learn about the glass ceiling, the income gap between whites and African-Americans, the widening disparity between rich and poor. Is it any wonder, then, that when we hand them clichés about money, they roll their eyes and ask us to drive them to the mall?
So can the act of dreaming. When our kids tell us that one day they'll live in a mansion and drive a fancy car, they are in fact embracing life, sharing the adolescent's dream of greatness and endless possibilities. The problem is not that our kids want too much, but that they dream too little.
We need to help them expand their vision of how to use money so that it brings them joy. We don't need to pretend that money doesn't matter. In fact, we need to talk more about money, not less.
A minister I know likes to tell people, "Show me your checkbook, and I'll tell you about your spiritual life." Those entries are a kind of shorthand for what matters most to you--whether it be CDs, massages, books, a new electric guitar, or a donation to charity.
Likewise, when we engage in a dialogue with teens, it helps to get very specific. Instead of preaching or criticizing (or just handing them a $20), we need to encourage them to talk about their getting and spending. Why did she buy this sweater instead of that one? Why this CD? Questions like these might not sound terribly spiritual, but they are a way of meeting kids where they are and getting them to think about what really matters to them. When we ask questions, we affirm our kids as individuals who can make their own decisions. We stop competing with marketers for the right to brainwash them and instead invite kids to become more intentional about money, to learn to listen to their own inner voice.
And we need to hold up our end of the dialogue, to speak honestly of our own struggles with money in a way we rarely have the courage to do--even with friends. We need to talk about the choices we make from day to day, about what we can and can't afford, about what we've learned the hard way.
And we need to be sure that we're not giving our teens money and things when they really need us. At an age when the culture is telling them that they themselves are not much more than commodities--measuring their value by their grades and test scores and clothing labels--they need to know we make time for the hugs and smiles and listening and touch that communicate their infinite worth.