Back to School: Kids, Consumerism and Faith

Last week I noticed the first “Back-to-School” ads in the newspaper.  While these ads seem to come out earlier every year, always taking me by surprise, I really do look forward to fall. It’s time for a fresh start – football games, falling leaves, and everything new - new classes, new books, new schedules, new clothes . . .


But all this talk of “new” things raises another issue.  Fall becomes one of the prime times for me to be aware of the siren song of our consumer culture – to make everything fresh and new, just go shopping!    A fresh start for the school year requires the right stuff.  But a nagging inner voice counters, “At what cost?  What is the cost to me and my children?” And both as a parent and Christian educator, I begin to consider the impact consumer culture has on our soul and on our faith.


What are the consequences of consumer culture, particularly for our children?  One issue that comes to mind immediately is the conflict between what we believe as Christians about the worth of every individual, rooted in our understanding of Genesis 1, and the implicit message rooted in consumer culture that our worth is found in our ability to buy stuff.  What is really communicated to our children when we say, “you are a valuable child of God, created in the image of God, and full of inestimable worth,” but unconsciously live our lives according to the principle that we are what we buy? 


We know that children and adults both wrestle with existential issues, issues which are essentially spiritual, including the questions of personal worth and vocation – “Why am I here?” “What am I to do?” “What is life really all about, anyway?”  as well as questions of death, freedom and aloneness.   Consumer culture offers a simple answer to all of these issues, an answer simultaneously cheap and costly, an answer which really serves as an anesthetic to these questions of ultimate meaning, rather than providing any kind of an answer at all.


I have to admit that I can feel discouraged over this dilemma, because it is easy to be overwhelmed by the invisibility of our consumer culture – it is, indeed, the sea in which we swim, and therefore, not always easy to identify.  It is tempting to feel that there is little families can do to offer a message that challenges this culture, to truly equip our children to face the existential issues that haunt us all, simply because we’re human.   


We can find some clues to solving this dilemma from the children and youth themselves.  In 2002 The Center for a New American Dream sponsored an art and essay contest , asking youth to respond to the question “What do you really want that money can’t buy?”  The answers:  “love, respect, more free time, more contact with extended family and the natural world, and a healthier, more peaceful planet.”   Betsy Taylor turned the responses from this contest into the book, What Kids Really Want that Money Can’t Buy, in which she offers these positive family actions and attentions, as an antidote to consumerism: 


•    Family Ritual: mealtimes, sabbath, commemoration of special events and life transitions, family service to those in need
•    Silence and Stillness
•    Singing and Music
•    Compassion
•    Nature
•    Spiritual education and study.


From my own experience, primarily influenced by years of working with children through the framework of Godly Play, I would add:


•    Story: family stories, faith stories, stories which engage wonder and imagination
•    Play
•    Blessing one another and creation through intentional care of each other and our environment.


All of these actions and attentions take place in the safe space of family and are supported through our engagement as a Christian community, in and around nature, and our concern for our environment.  Paying attention to our family life in these ways challenges the ethic of consumption, and replaces it with an ethic of blessing, remembering how God blesses all of creation in the Genesis accounts, and how Jesus blessed the children and scolded those who attempted to keep the children from approaching him. 


So, I need to take another look at the list of school “needs.”  Yes, my children will have the supplies necessary to function in their classes.  After all, much of it is already lying around the house, perhaps even left in backpacks from the last day of school in June.  I should probably check.   And I should probably check in with my kids, too.  Maybe time spent playing croquet or cards or sharing a story is more important than a night racing around.  And I might just discover the answer to “What do I really want that money can’t buy?” in the process.

Cindy Spencer, Faith Formation Hub: Children and Family Ministries