How Consumerism Undermines Your Child's Well-Being – and How to Fix It

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Think of all the ways our homes reflect consumer culture: overflowing toy boxes, jam-packed drawers, gadget-filled garages. Unfortunately, too much focus on material possessions damages our well-being – and that of our children. Research has consistently shown that materialism is connected to a decrease in life satisfaction, happiness, vitality, and social cooperation, as well as "increased depression, anxiety, racism, and antisocial behavior." It also reflects a disregard for the environment.

Some argue that consumerism breeds narcissism and may be partially responsible for the recent drop in empathy. Advertising to children is big business and hard to avoid. The message being delivered to our kids is that consumer goods bring happiness. As parents, we have the power to counter and control this. Here's how…

–Jenny Friedman, Executive Director


DGT has reviewed the studies on kids and consumerism. The advice from researchers on how to raise healthier, happier children closely mirrors the practices DGT has been proposing for years. These simple, actionable ideas will help your family live a life that aligns with your deepest values.


Happiness. Although "stuff" can feel like an easy way to create happy children –and show our love –    other pursuits can bring longer-lasting joy. Also remember that overindulgence can lead to lifelong problems, including overeating and overspending.

Try this: Spend more time as a family on activities that are linked to enhanced well-being: the outdoors, creative arts, imaginative play, physical activity, service and kindness projects, time with family and friends, and reading

Moderation. Research suggests that when parents focus on consumption and talk a lot about the importance of possessions, their child is more likely to be materialistic.

Try this: Show restraint in your purchases -- and talk often about the pleasure of relationships and shared experiences. Minimize time spent shopping.  

Limits. Advertisers spend billions per year marketing to children. Kids see more than 40,000 commercials annually on TV alone. This exposure leads to wanting more stuff and –  researchers have discovered –  to more parent-child conflict and unhappiness.

Try this: Limit exposure to commercials (on TV and online). One way to do this is to use digital recording devices (such as Tivo), or watch shows on streaming apps which don't include commercials. Just as important, educate your child about the impact of advertising, and explain how slick ad campaigns manipulate us into buying things. (This applies to digital devices too, but for an added cost, ad-free options are available and may be worth the extra money.)

Gratitude. One reason that materialistic people are less happy is that they lack gratitude. But (thankfully!) the reverse is also true. Practicing gratitude can reduce materialism.

Try this: Make practicing gratitude a family routine by instituting fun dinner table conversations (such as taking turns saying what you were grateful for that day), creating imaginative gratitude displays, and reading books that spark conversations about appreciation.

Mindfulness. "You own twice as much rug if you're twice as aware of the rug," said poet and Buddhist thinker Allen Ginsberg. It's true. Practicing mindfulness can help you feel that what you have is enough.

Try this: Practice mindfulness with your children. It has a host of benefits and can be fun. Here are four simple activities to get started.

Minimize. Consumerism can lead to more and more stuff. Studies show that the inevitable clutter is linked to procrastination, stress, and diminished productivity.

Try this: Encourage family and friends to give your children the gift of time and experiences rather than things. Be generous about donating no-longer-used items to those who might need them. Some families have a rule that every time a child receives a new toy, an old one is donated. (The same can apply to new clothing purchases for grownups!)

Giving. Although it may feel counter-intuitive, the research is clear that giving makes us happier than getting.

Try this: Make sure that practicing kindness and serving others is part of your family's routine. Simple at-home service activities (keeping a food donation bag in your kitchen, decorating cards for hospitalized children, making chew toys for rescued dogs) signal the value you place on sharing your time and your resources. In chats about money management, stress to children the importance of sharing as well as saving and spending.


Conversations about materialism, simplicity, and finances should occur throughout childhood. 

  • Talk about the difference between wants and needs. This video can help make it fun.

  • Talk about dollars in terms of the power it gives us to make a difference for others. Emphasize the sense of satisfaction that comes from giving.  

  • Share how your family's financial decisions are made. Let your children know that you are careful with what you buy -- and that all buying decisions involve trade-offs. Point out the times when you pass up something because it's not in your budget.

  • A few weeks after your child makes a purchase, encourage him or her to examine it in hindsight: How do you feel about what you bought? Would you still buy it if you had it to do over? Why or why not?

  • Talk about the environmental impact of your purchases, including the packaging. Work toward zero waste. 

  • Explain that shopping produces dopamine, a brain chemical that tricks the mind into thinking that material goods bring lasting happiness. Discuss other reasons that people want "things" so much, including the impact of advertising. Then talk through non-materialistic ways to find pleasure that are healthier for us – and for the planet.


Read these stories together to spark a conversation about kindness and inner peace.

The Biggest House in the World  by Leo Lionni (ages 3-8). The heartwarming story of a snail who dreams of having a bigger shell. When his father tells him about another snail that had the same dream, he begins to rethink his wish.

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis (ages 2-4). This simple tale inspires the imagination and illustrates the endless possibilities that come from the magic of pretend.

The Quiltmaker's Gift Jeff Brumbeau (ages 4-8). A talented woman makes beautiful quilts for people who are poor and homeless. A king who has everything decides he must have a quilt, but she will give him one only if he gives away everything. In the process of shedding his possessions, the king finds true happiness.

Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest. Countering the culture of excess and busyness, this book gives parents practical ideas for simplifying and honing in on family values and priorities. Sharing their own experiences and those of others, the authors illustrate how we can find more joy with less. 


"Observe a child and parent in a store. That high-pitched whining you'll hear coming from the cereal aisle is more than just the pleadings of a single kid bent on getting a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of thousands of hours of market research, of an immense coordination of people, ideas, and resources, of decades of social and economic change all rolled into a single, Mommy, pleeease!"

---- Dan Cook, assistant professor of Advertising and Sociology, University of Illinois

"There is mounting evidence to suggest that the structure of childhood is eroding and children are suffering from serious physical, emotional, and social deficits directly related to consumerism."

---- Jennifer Ann Hill,author of "Endangered Childhoods: How Consumerism Is Impacting Child and Youth Identity"