It happened again just the other day. We were driving home from an outing, and I hear a voice from the back seat saying, “I think the next American Girl doll I want is ____.”
Me: But you just got a new doll for Christmas not even two weeks ago.
Her: I know. But I need this one because…”
I didn’t even listen to the reason another doll was necessary. Rather, I was frustrated and angry that despite my best efforts, my children are falling prey to what is one of the biggest hindrances to the gospel and discipleship in Western culture – Consumerism.
The numbers vary, but research reveals that children are exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages each day. Included in this number are television commercials, billboards, magazines, and even brand logos. Pediatric psychologists say children under the age of 8 are defenseless against the onslaught of messages telling them what to buy. You don’t have to be a Christian to have a problem with this. Parents of all beliefs and backgrounds put up a daily fight to protect their kids from advertisers and to teach their children how to be savvy decoders of the messages advertisers bombard us with.
What is the the real message advertisers are sending? Is it that my daughter needs a new doll? On the surface, yes. But it’s more subtle that than. The subtext of the ad, in this case a magazine, and the real message she’s hearing, is that more stuff will make her happy. More stuff from American Girl, specifically. As Don Draper, the fictional advertising executive from the show Mad Men says, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.”
Watch this scene as Don pitches an advertising slogan to the Lucky Strike cigarette company whose executives are scrambling to stay in business after the government declared smoking tobacco a health hazard.
In a different episode Draper is again talking about the power of effective advertising and its connection to happiness saying, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
We consume because we want to be happy, and we believe the messages telling us if we buy this or own that we will be happy. Yet, we never are satisfied.
So, what does consumerism mean for how our children understand the gospel and for their own spiritual development?
First of all, they are receiving a false message that more stuff = happiness and contentment. As Paul teaches the church at Philippi, we must learn to be content whether in plenty or in need (Phil. 3). When our kids search for meaning and satisfaction through what they can buy, their experience of happiness will always be limited to the “moment before [they] need more happiness.” It’s not easy, but continually redirecting them to experience contentment and happiness in relationships with other people and with God is one way to combat any messages contrary to that truth. Contentment in Christ comes with maturity, and I don’t expect my 2nd and 5th graders to get it when I struggle with it myself. But, I pray that over time they will come to understand this for themselves.
Second, consumerism teaches our kids that church is about getting their needs met. The Church exists for those who are not yet part of it. It is a place for broken people to hear the gospel message that Jesus came to show us God’s deep love for us, and for those outside the Church to find rest and hope. However, it has become all too common in U.S. churches for people to choose a congregation that meets their “needs” with little or no thought given to how that church meets the needs of the community surrounding it. Jesus taught his disciples to put the needs of others above their own needs. He said following him was hard — that to be his disciple means to deny yourself, that those who follow him will have to lose their life to find it. If we continue to allow our kids to fall prey to the lies of consumerism, the church will become even more myopic and ineffective. Rather, the church needs people who participate for the sake of others, and who aren’t simply looking to have their own spiritual needs satisfied.
That conversation in the car about the new doll, and others like it, are much weightier than they seem. It’s not just a matter of teaching my girls how to budget their money, or even that more stuff isn’t the answer to life’s problems. It’s about them becoming devoted followers of Christ who grow into maturity. And it’s about them participating in a fellowship of Christ-followers who, with God’s help, are making a difference in the lives of those around them. Aside from knowing God’s love deep inside their souls, I believe learning to combat consumerism is the most important thing my husband and I can teach our girls.
Many other articles and books have been written about this topic which contain lots of great ideas and tips both for ourselves and for our kids. Here are just a few:
The Diving Commodity by Skye Jethani
Radical by David Platt
At Christmas, the Advent Conspiracy offers great ideas for the whole family.