Fighting consumerism in kids, one flip-phone at a time

Do my kids want a fancy smart phone? Yes. Are they getting one? Nope.

Philip Lee Harvey | Getty Images

I chose my hill to die on last week, and that hill is called Verizon.

Saturday morning my 11-year-old son and I visited our local provider to purchase his first cell phone. It’s a rite of passage in our household: Entrance into middle school grants you the privilege of owning your own mobile phone … with one caveat: you start with a basic, no-bells-and-whistles flip phone. Rowan’s older brother had received his own flip phone in sixth grade and graduated to a smartphone halfway through middle school, and Rowan would follow suit.

Rowan understood and was on board with this. In fact, he was excited about the prospect of owning his very own cell phone.

Second-guessing myself

But all that changed the moment we stepped through the double doors. Faced with the tantalizing array of smart phones and tablets lining the walls and festooning the display tables, complete with all their technological accoutrement—shiny cases, colorful earbuds, miniature speakers—Rowan crumbled. He argued and pleaded for the entire forty-five minutes we were in the store, and when we finally stepped into the parking lot, flip phone in hand, I could tell my son was trying hard to suppress tears.

I admit, I had wavered. I, too, was dazzled by the variety of options available. I, too, observed the other parents shopping with their elementary and middle schoolers. I saw what Rowan saw. I noticed that not one of them had picked up the single flip phone model available in the store. I second-guessed myself, wondering if I was depriving my child, worrying that my decision to go with the antiquated flip phone would set him up to be teased or even bullied.

But in the end I held my ground.

Rowan was silent on the drive home. When we walked through the front door, he went directly to his room and closed his door. I went directly to the living room, flopped onto the couch, heaved the sigh of a Clydesdale in labor, and closed my eyes. I’d won the battle, but I was war-weary.

More, bigger, better

To live in 21st century America is to live immersed in a constant barrage of messages all essentially saying the same thing: more, bigger, better.

We upgrade our laptops, tablets, cell phones, and gaming systems after owning them a mere year or two. Why settle for the iPhone 5 when you can have an iPhone 6 … or better yet, an iPhone 6 Plus? Why be content with the XBox 360 when the XBox One is newer, better, faster, and more powerful?

We refurbish our bathroom, only to fix our eyes and hearts on the kitchen remodel we spot on HGTV.

We purchase the house of our dreams—3,000 square feet!—only to find ourselves coveting the 5,000-square-foot Tudor down the street.

We can’t wait to catch the next episode of Real Housewives on our new 50-inch big screen, only to notice our neighbors have a brand-new 65-inch television tucked into their newly renovated basement.

Our kids aren’t immune to the push for more, bigger, better either. Park outside any middle school (or even elementary school) at dismissal time and notice how many kids walk up the sidewalk with cell phones in their hand, most of them smart phones (in case you are wondering, 56 percent of children 8–12 have a cell phone).

And the push for more, bigger, better doesn’t end with technology. My friend’s teenage son has no fewer than 10 pairs of brand-new Nikes in his closet (nine of which he purchased himself with money earned at a part-time job). The middle-school-age daughter of another friend carries a Kate Spade purse.

Young kids and teens need a voice of reason and moderation that will counterbalance the incessant “more, bigger, better” consumerist messages they digest day in and day out.

The pressure to succumb to these societal and cultural influences pushing us toward more, bigger, and better is fierce, and it’s increasing all the time. Children and teenagers view an average of 40,000 advertisements on television alone each year. Advertisers spend an estimated $12 billion annually marketing to children. Kids receive the “more, bigger, better” message from all sides—from mainstream and online media, from exposure to fancy merchandise displays in stores, and from their own peers.

Which is exactly why it’s more important than ever for parents to hold their ground on the value of lesser and smaller. Young kids and teens need a voice of reason and moderation that will counterbalance the incessant “more, bigger, better” consumerist messages they digest day in and day out. They need a voice that will remind them that a fancier phone or another pair of name-brand sneakers won’t actually lead to contentment or satisfaction, but instead will simply fuel the ceaseless desire for the next thing and the next thing and the next thing after that.

Later on the same afternoon of our visit to the Verizon store, my son Rowan emerged from his bedroom with his new flip phone in his hand. He’d chosen a ring tone, selected a screen wallpaper, and texted his grandfather in Massachusetts. “I’m getting used to it, and I actually think I’m going to like this phone,” he said. And then he held out his arm and snapped a selfie of the two of us.

5 tips to help you hold your ground

Bucking the “more, bigger, better” trend isn’t easy, especially in the face of so many loud, competing messages and voices. Here are some tips to help you navigate the journey.

Explain why you value smaller. Your decision to say no to the next bigger, better thing is not likely a random one, but your child might assume you’re digging in your heels simply to be stubborn or controlling. If you’re willing to choose this battle as the hill you’ll die on, be willing to explain your reasoning. In my case, I explained to my son that purchasing a phone and adding him to our mobile plan wasn’t cheap, and therefore he needed to demonstrate that he could responsibly care for the less expensive flip phone before graduating to a smart phone. I also explained that having instant access to the Internet and social media at your fingertips can be addictive, so it’s better to adjust to that accessibility slowly in small steps, rather than leaping in all at once.

Work as a team. If you have a spouse, make sure you are both on the same page so you can support each another when your child inevitably pushes back. When Rowan and I returned frustrated (me) and disappointed (him) from Veriz-ageddon, my husband reminded him of our “start small” family cell phone policy and supported my decision to purchase the flip phone. It was easier to hold my ground knowing I had someone in my camp.

Resist comparing your child’s situation to that of his peers. Establish where you draw your line and explain your reasoning to your child without suggesting that it “could be worse.” Full discloser: I failed at this particular point. In an effort to convince Rowan, I mentioned that one of his friends wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone at all until he reached high school. Bad move on my part. Rowan didn’t appreciate the “someone has it worse than you,” argument, and frankly, it was unfair of me to throw another parent bucking the “more, bigger, better” trend under the bus.

Acknowledge your child’s disappointment. It might seem like a minor issue to you, but whatever “have to have” item your child is pining for is likely important to her, at least in the moment. Instead of simply dismissing your child’s disappointment, offer a little empathy. For example, I told Rowan I understood what it was like to feel like the only one who didn’t have “the in thing.” I also reminded him that it was okay to feel disappointed and sad for a little while, and I assured him he would come to enjoy his new phone (for the record, I conveyed more confidence than I felt).

Stand firm, but stay calm. Holding your ground against a persuasive pre-teen is no task for the weak (thus my post-store collapse on the couch). Try to refrain from getting angry, and save your explanations and arguments for neutral ground (like the car or your home). If you need to, simply say, “We’ll talk about this more later,” and then carry on calmly until you have the time and space to engage in a reasonable conversation.

Michelle DeRusha
Michelle DeRusha
A Massachusetts native, Michelle DeRusha moved to Nebraska in 2001, where she discovered the Great Plains, grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens … and God. She is the author of "Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith" and "50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith." Her newest book, "Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk," comes out in January 2017. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband and their two boys.

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