“How do I keep my kids from always wanting more stuff?”
I have been asked this question countless times. It’s a hard one to answer—mostly because the answer includes something we don’t like to think about: our own actions.
But the simple truth is this: We can’t expect our kids to stop constantly wanting new things until we stop constantly wanting new things. When we model contentment, our kids will learn it from us.
Have you ever noticed that your children take their cues from you? You may hear it when they repeat a catch phrase or joke you use. Harder to see are the worries or desires kids acquire from their parents. You may not be able to see it, but your children pick up on your stress or joy.
The same goes for contentment. Our kids can tell if we are content or not. They hear our complaints, they see our unnecessary upgrades, and they take note of our gratitude. When we start to be content with what we have, our kids will notice and begin to be content as well.
In teaching about financial literacy, author Sam X Renick reminds parents: “If you want your children to develop good spending and saving habits, they need to see you making smart spending and saving choices. In short, practice what you preach.”
There is science behind Renick’s advice. Behavior formation through modeling is so strong that researchers have been writing about it for years, and there is a theory based on the reality of imitating the behaviors of others.
Social learning theory states that we learn from the models of what others around us are doing. Learning takes place in a social context, and we make changes in our knowledge or behavior based on positive or negative experiences we witness in others’ behavior. That’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about how orphaned children are cared for around the world.
If we want kids who are content, pursuing meaningful lives of purpose, we must begin by modeling contentment ourselves.
We should not be surprised that our kids want stuff they don’t need when our entire homes are filled with stuff that we don’t need—we’re modeling for them, and they are fast learners.
It’s hard to convince our kids they have too many toys in their toy room when we can’t park in our own garage. When it comes to our children, so often life lessons are caught more than taught.
Here are six ways we can model contentment for our children:
1. We can be content with our mode of transportation.
Whether we bike, walk, drive, or take public transportation, we can be grateful for the ability to get from here to there. Our car may not be the latest and greatest; our walk to work may mean we need to build more time into our routine; the bus might sometimes be late. But think about the purpose of your transportation and be grateful that it gets you where you need to go. Voice those grateful thoughts instead of complaints.
2. We can be content with our food.
There are those who like variety in their meals, others who prefer the ease of repetition, and still others who have no choice. Learn to be content with the food you have to nourish you each day. What is the purpose of food? To sustain our bodies, to give us energy to tackle our purpose every day, and to share as a means of friendship or service. Whether dinner with a flair or leftovers again, be grateful for the food you have.
3. We can be content with our entertainment and toys.
Recreation is a good thing. We need time to play and relax, time to connect with others over sports or games or movies. Think through your choices of entertainment. Can you be content with a hike through the woods or a picnic at a local park, a pick-up game of flag football instead of season tickets in box seats at the stadium?
There are times for extravagant trips and events, but if we’re always looking for the next big adventure, our children will learn that it’s more important to spend a lot of money rather than to spend time together.
4. We can be content with our exercise.
Another area where we can model contentment is in our opportunities to exercise our bodies. Instead of adding one more machine to your home gym, lace up your running shoes and take your kid to the high school track for a few laps in the sun. Choose to park far away from the store so everyday errands become simple forms of extra movement for your body. See limits on your resources as opportunities to get creative.
5. We can be content with our relationships.
Relationships are essential, and they take work. Show your kids contentment by investing in the relationships you already have—even the tough ones. Instead of going through relationships like some of us go through new sweaters, take time and energy for the relationships already in place. Voice your gratitude for those relationships so your kids can hear it.
6. We can be content with our possessions.
We can model contentment for our kids when we find contentment in our possessions, no matter how many or few we may have. Next time you want to buy an unnecessary item, ask yourself: If my child asks “Why did you buy that?” what would I say to them?
In addition, model contentment with your possessions by practicing generosity. When your child sees you holding things lightly and giving freely to others, they learn that you are not defined by your possessions.
Ultimately, as parents we have to accept the fact that our children will make their own choices. Embracing a life of contentment with fewer possessions, however, models for them the important truth that we are not defined by our possessions, our vehicles, or our gym memberships.
Celebrate with your kids what you already have, and teach them through your actions the values of gratitude and contentment.