Q: We are dismayed. Our 15-year old-granddaughter is so interested in buying things. She wants all the latest electronics, and only designer clothes. Her 13-year-old brother is following in her footsteps. They are good kids and do fairly well in school, but they are preoccupied with thoughts of acquiring the latest styles. Is this typical of teens?
A: Teens have a strong desire to fit in, to be like the rest of the kids. Paradoxically, in their search for identity they tend to succumb to peer pressure by dressing alike, listening to the same music and using similar language. (I remember when wearing ‘sloppy joe’ oversized sweaters and saddle shoes were the “mandatory” dress in my high school. If you didn’t conform , you didn’t feel a part of the group.)
Adolescence is described by psychologist Theodore Lidz “as a time of physical and emotional metamorphosis during which the youth feels estranged from the self, the child he had known. It is a time of seeking: a seeking inward to find who one is; a searching outward to locate one’s place in life; a longing for another with whom to satisfy cravings for intimacy and fulfillment”. It is a turbulent time, a time of uncertainty which makes the need to ‘fit in’ a paramount concern. Most of us would not want to relive our teen years and are happy to have been there, done that.
So what is going on with your teenage grandchildren? They have, most likely, developed the self-consciousness that comes with their newly acquired ability to think abstractly and are susceptible to the marketers who have seized on the teenaged search for identity and their need to belong – and have attempted to redirect these needs into making them consumers.
Teens are vulnerable to a marketplace where a plethora of goods are seeking buyers: with their impulsiveness and unformed tastes, they are a major target. Marketers and merchandisers are consciously courting them via advertising, marketing, branding and the endorsements of celebrities, encouraging them to buy goods they don’t need. Susan Linn, a child-development scholar, calls it, “The hostile takeover of childhood.”
As grandparents , we are our grandchildren’s philosophy teachers. We can influence them and help to shape their values. But we must do this carefully, and without criticism. As soon as we become judgmental, they’ll shut us out.
The first step is teaching “media literacy.” We can ask them “Who created this ad?” and “What are they promising?”
Materialism has been said to be “a disease among us.” We can counteract this by helping to raise our grandchildren’s awareness of people in need. For example, as the holidays approached, I asked my grandson if he’d ever worried about not having a big Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, he hadn’t — and he had never thought about those in our community who do worry. He chose some turkeys at the supermarket and together we delivered to our food bank.
Encouraging community service or volunteering with the children to serve meals at homeless shelters will help them develop appreciation and gratitude for what they have. (One grandfather we know gave each of his grandchildren $100 at Christmas. He told them to give the money away and then, at Easter, explain who they gave the money to, and why they made that decision.)
Part of being adult is learning not to act on every urge, to delay gratification. Don’t be deceived by a teen’s veneer of apparent sophistication. Under that seeming adult behavior is a vulnerable child in transition who is in need of a loving adult who believes in them. At a time when teens are trying to separate their identity from their parents, you can have a powerful influence as a role model — and by providing a listening ear.
I am reminded of the Native American wisdom: Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may not remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”
Dr. LILIAN CARSON