Discretionary Income Causing a Values Clash?

At a recent media event in Southern California, I was speaking to a roomful of journalists from various Hispanic media organizations. My talk featured several Latino entrepreneurs in the green economy and I discussed learning how their innovations were sparked by the cultural imperative Latinos have to creatively reuse, conserve and preserve. As I wrapped up my talk, one woman asked me a fascinating question which I want to post to all parents (and those who are thinking of soon becoming parents). Here's the question I was asked, "How do we balance the desire to use our discretionary income to shower our kids with gifts we never had with our desire to continue to teach these important cultural values of conservation and creative reuse?"

It was a fascinating question that led to further discussion. Someone at my table wondered, "Didn't I go to the university so I could earn enough money to be able to buy actual Barbie clothes for my daughter inside of having to make clothes from old socks?" I answered the question this way and would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Yes, of course as an educated parent, likely earning many more times what your father earned, you may feel the desire (or need) to spend money to constantly buy nonessential items (toys, gadgets, etc) for your children, just because you can. That's understandable and our American consumer culture makes the case for this behavior thousands of times a day in front of your eyes and ears. But does that mean you stop teaching creative reuse, reduction, preservation and conservation? Does this mean that only poor Latino families have the responsibility to creatively use available resources and that those with significant discretionary income must join the over-the-top consumption/throwaway thinking so prevalent in the USA?

I think not. As parents, we recognize the need to balance teaching both. We want to pass down the cultural, familial values we learned from our ancestors about giving things away, finding other uses for them and giving objects a second life. We hopefully also want to teach financial literacy and delayed gratification in a consumer culture, values that are more readily taught within a family not purely struggling to survive. You have to have money to manage money, right?

This is how we do it in my home, with my children. We teach creative problem solving and reuse (yes, Barbie and other dolls can have gorgeous sock/used fabric-based clothes, properly accessorized with fancy beads and fabric paint.) 2011-10-25-BarbiesecowearlorezP3270527.jpg 2011-10-25-yukofashiondivalowrez.jpg

We teach organic gardening not because we can't afford vegetables but because it's an important skill and relationship with the earth that my husband and I want our children to have. 2011-10-25-gardeningathome.JPG

But we also teach financial literacy using a clever piggy bank that teach the 70-10-10-10 formula for using/saving their allowances. We don't shower them with excessive gifts but instead teach goal setting so they can purchase something special, as little consumers, with money they earned and saved. We also teach that money that buys experiences (instead of stuff) so that they can learn to make these choices too. These lessons are much more important we feel than having them feel temporarily happy with the gadget du jour that they'll lose interest in within 96 hours because it didn't really satisfy a need.

Our conversation at the media lunch brought out other questions I want to pose here for readers to consider as we get bombarded with Christmas messages before the pumpkins have gone moldy:

What good comes from our children learning instant gratification? How does that help them become productive, contributing, responsible citizens as adults? Isn't teaching delayed gratification more important? If you don't teach the process of delayed gratification to your children, who will? Do you feel torn between the need to consume and the need to teach your children important cultural values about reuse and conservation? Have you achieved a balance you can live with?