Practical Dad

Managing the Stuff:  Lessons for the Kids

Life is supposed to be less hectic as the kids grow, but even with Eldest on the cusp of college, the summer passed quickly and busily.  The changes brought home - with startling clarity - one of the more disturbing articles read during the break, the mass of material possessions for the typical American family.  I thought, had hoped, that I was atypical but apparently I'm not.

July article in Boston.com pertains to a recent book published by UCLA sociologists, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century (Amazon.com).  I first became aware of the study several years ago when researching a previous article about electronics; at that time, the sociologists were reported to be spending time in 32 different  households to study how the families interacted with one another as well as the impact of technology.  Indeed, the thrust of the article was that while parents were concerned about the kids' use of technology, they were ceding that ground to them because they were intimidated by it.  But what also caught their eye was the impact of the sheer amount of stuff that these families had accumulated and that finally became the basis of the linked book.

There was an eerie sense that these folks were in my own home, taping my own family as it wended through life and the myriad projects, the most disruptive of which was the room swap.  With Eldest leaving for college, she offered to swap bedrooms with Youngest; hers was the largest of the kids' rooms and his was the smallest although it's become apparent that within three years, he'll physically dwarf her.  My wife's input was that along with the physical shift, each could repaint the room in a color scheme of their choice to which my thought was crap, no fourth grader is gonna paint his own room in two tones and her schedule won't permit her to paint his as well as hers...so I'm on the hook for his.  Repainting a room is disruptive but controllable as furniture can be shifted to the center and covered with tarps but to actually change rooms means that at least one room of furniture is coming out to the hallway and that's what happened; however, when the furniture began to stay in the hallway, I pressed Eldest and she admitted that culling through all of her accumulated stuff was a bit overwhelming and it was after that admission that the process began to move along.  The painting on Youngest's room - which would become Eldest's - was complete and while her furniture was moved in, Youngest's furniture remained in the hallway until I painted his new room; even then, some items that were not going in stayed in the hallway until this morning when I finally caved in and removed them.  Furniture will stay in storage for when the kids start their own places, but the rest has gone to Goodwill or the trash. 

There any multiple reasons for the massive accumulative of kitsch, crap and stuff. 

  • We've been literally programmed and conditioned by decades of advertising that consumption is good.  After the end of the Second World War, business and political leaders made a conscious choice to push advertising that condoned and encouraged consumption.  Why?  Because with the end of the war and the move by government to once again balance the books and pay off the debt - quaint, isn't it? - there would be no driver for business and capital investment unless the American consumer took up the slack; but they also remembered that many citizens would need a strong nudge since the collapse of the banks during the Great Depression left many literally squirreling away their cash in mattresses and under rocks across the country.  So go ahead and spend, it will demonstrate how well off you are.
  • Bad news sells and an ongoing proliferation of disaster/war/collapse scenarios creates a mindset among people that they have to be prepared.  But prepared, how?  We consequently stock up on food and consumer staples that take up space and expend cash but is that really necessary?  Is it realistic to hoard tampons in anticipation of becoming a feminine products broker The Day After?  Likewise, the spectre of inflation means that people stock up now because they're conditioned that they'll have to pay more in the future.  The ongoing debate in this household is whether the number of toilet paper rolls should be in the three digit range.
  • As more mothers returned to the workforce in the 1970s and afterwards, the stress on the American family rose accordingly.  The housework, laundry and cooking continues despite the job and as parents - or parent, as it were - stretched to perform those tasks, there was a greater willingness to buy stuff to occupy the kids so the parents could proceed accordingly; the impulse to purchase was also nudged by parental guilt for having to spend greater time away either because of work or simple exhaustion.  We allowed the kids to anesthetize themselves so that we could anesthetize ourselves from the daily stress of living. 

The issue matters for economic and moral reasons.  Economically, the tide is turning against the American family as incomes drop for the large majority of families.  There simply isn't going to be the funding available to pay for all of these niceties and still keep a roof over the head and food on the table and if the kids don't see conscious decisions and sacrifices made, many won't be able to adjust when they enter the adult world.  Morally, the chronic consumption is oriented inwards and discourages empathy and the building of character; that requires an ability to see and live beyond oneself and if a kid is obsessed with their stuff, they won't develop that empathy and character.  The teen years are, in a sense, a time of cocooning when the child becomes an adult.  While we can't protect them from everything, we can and should try to assure that the most egregious is absent and abject materialism would certainly count as egregious.

Over the past several years, my better half has occasionally wondered why I'm so into downsizing and I have to point out that it isn't downsizing, but simply trying to control the crap that's coming in and through the household.  The process will continue but I'll have to make a more concerted - better - effort to manage and eliminate the stuff so that the kids understand that we should be able to control it and not have it control us.  Likewise, the lesson will be repeated again and again that these things require money that could be better used elsewhere instead of enriching some retailer.

I fear that our society's children will be faced with choices that we never had to make.  While I can't protect them from those choices, I can work now to lessen the pain of the repercussions when that time arrives.

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