As anyone who drives Coastal Highway after Thanksgiving can attest, the holidays are certainly the time to buy stuff! And indeed, it’s good for your mental health to appreciate material things such as your car, your clothes, your house – whatever. But, wait … wasn’t I supposed to say something like, “Things aren’t really important. It’s your ‘inner life’ (whatever that means) that counts?” Well, if inner life means self-esteem and your state of mind, then these things are indeed crucial to your mental health. The serenity of enjoying your possessions requires that you first be at peace with yourself.
Well-off parents often find themselves in a bind when it comes to their kids. On the surface, it seems that, “Oh, they’re so fortunate. Why can’t they appreciate what they have?” It’s a particularly American pattern, because our standard of living tends to improve with each generation. But kids or young adults only know what they know. They can’t be expected to grasp what it’s like to create the financial comforts their parents have provided for them. Over time, this often changes. Maturity develops as they start to work and experience successes and failures while paying taxes, credit card bills, mortgages, etc. You can’t look at your 17 year-old and proclaim, “You should appreciate what you have!” Why should he? Thanks to your love and generosity he’s probably never known it any other way.
The only way to make a young person appreciate what he or she has is to take it away or never provide it in the first place. But this goes against what most parents want for their kids. In “Titan,” the biography of John D. Rockefeller, the family patriarch required his kids to live for periods of time in relatively humble circumstances, away from the family mansion. He wanted them to understand what it means to earn nice things and not take them for granted. He realized that young people are going to quite naturally feel entitled to whatever is provided to them unconditionally. You can’t yell at kids for expecting nice things if you provided these things to them free of charge.
In the meantime, you can follow some of Rockefeller’s example by making your kids work for at least some of their possessions. Reduce their dependence on you with, say, a checking account that you help them manage. Or maybe even saying “no” to some of their requests. And beware of the guilt-inducing plea, “So-and-so’s parents gave them a [fill in the blank with the latest cool thing], so why won’t you?” Tell them you’re not buying it – quite literally.
Our things are important to us, and it’s healthy to value them because possessions are desirable. They represent what we care about and what we’ve earned. But they exist for our gratification. We own them; not the other way around. If you become a slave to your possessions, you’ll never be happy until you have more of them. Of course, by definition, there’s never enough, so naturally you’re never happy.
So-called materialism and capitalism are unfairly blamed for this attitude. Neither the material things nor the social system that produced them is at fault. The fault lies with the mindset of those who are slaves to their belongings and can’t escape from that destructive cycle. Fortunately, that mindset can be changed.
Things that are honestly and conscientiously earned bring a sense of reality to your hard work. Your home, your time at the beach, your car or whatever you love are all concrete evidence of your accomplishments. Self-esteem and personal gratification come from working for and enjoying what you own, whether it cost a dollar or a million dollars.
It’s not easy for kids to automatically understand something they’ve never experienced. They can better appreciate things if you help them work for more of what they have. Their sense of self-worth and their appreciation for the results of what they’ve earned will result in a happy and well-adjusted adulthood.
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