Steer kids away from materialistic culture early

Source: The Sunday Times,  Oct 21, 2012

By Lee Wei Ling

It was an advertisement in this paper: a boy, probably five years old, grinning widely and holding a computer game controller. “I want a room full of video games and my very own TV,” he says.

One friend told me that what the child was demanding was somewhat outdated. “The ‘in’ things now are iPhones and iPads,” she said. “No more video games and TV.”

But then, she knew what was “in”. And she does give her children some of these “in” things – in moderation, she says, or as a reward for good academic performance. She says she never gives way when her children demand things from her without having earned them in some way.

I can understand that parents today who grew up poor are more than willing to give their children the luxuries that they themselves did not have. If they do so carefully, I don’t think they will cause their children much harm.

What I worry about is when a boy who demands a room full of video games and his own TV set gets what he wants without having to earn them. His parents may be loving in acceding to his demands, but they obviously don’t know how to guide him. If he gets all that he wants, he will think there is no limit to what he deserves – a most dangerous idea that will not help him when he grows up.

How do young children become so materialistic? Granted, they usually hanker after things. Their parents may think it is too early to teach them frugality, but it is never too early to teach children that kindness to others and helping those who need help is more important than getting a new toy.

By the time children get to secondary school, peer pressure can lead them astray. That is why it is important to instil values, a sense of right and wrong, from an early age.

If a child does not learn that all his wishes cannot be instantly granted, he will suffer in later life – beginning with national service in the case of males. He will treat every obstacle to his pleasure as a personal insult, and react to it angrily, perhaps even aggressively. Such behaviour will obviously not be welcomed in the military.

Those of us “older folk” who interact with adults below the age of 30 today have often found them less hard-working, less driven and more demanding of what they think is rightly theirs than we were at their age. I see this among some of the junior doctors, and the senior nurses see it among the junior nurses.

Perhaps every generation tends to think less of the one that comes next. Certainly, I recall my parents’ generation saying similar things about mine. Still, the perception that many young adults of today are self-centred or narcissistic is shared by many older adults. I think it is an accurate assessment.

I have no children, but I will still be around when the spoilt children of today grow up to be spoilt adults of tomorrow. Will they willingly help support their parents and grandparents, the people who worked long and hard to bring Singapore from Third World to First? For that reason alone if nothing else, I hope parents and schools today will nurture less self-centred and more altruistic instincts among the young.

The advertisement I saw sold the idea that achieving a certain socio-economic status gives families the ability to give their children whatever they want – “a room full of video games and my very own TV”. I disagree with that point of view.

We can be happy as long as we are moderate and contented with the simple things in life and do not hanker after luxuries. If our goal in life is to accumulate material pleasures, then we will forever try to earn more money, and there would be no limit to how much we want.

A recent OCBC survey suggested that Singaporeans are becoming less materialistic. Seventy per cent of those polled said happy families were more important to them than pursuing financial gain. Less than 12 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively, picked owning a luxury car and a country club membership as worthy life goals.

If the survey’s findings are accurate, perhaps advertisers should stop selling greed. I doubt, though, that day will come any time soon.