Speaking out: Obsession with material goods affects our community

Speaking out: Obsession with material goods affects our community


I thought I was alone, regularly cursing at the amount of stuff in my home. Then I discovered I was not alone, and I realized something about modern parenting. These days, parenting is affected by the surplus of possessions that “belong” to our children. It turns out quite a few of my local friends know this frustration. Whether it’s an abundance of gifted clothes, or an endless trail of tiny plastics littering our floors, many of us feel burdened.

In my experience, children assign little value to toys and clothes when they’re abundant. Even candy has lost some of its charm due to its abundance. A younger baby boomer made an interesting comment on the subject. As a child, he and friends would gather every single candy thrown during any parade. He noted that these days, many thrown candies are simply left on the street.

Of course it’s unrealistic to expect children to maturely manage many possessions. It’s for this reason that we should discreetly seek permission from parents before providing gifts, large and small. Are we providing a gift because it genuinely improves the life of a child, or simply because we enjoy shopping? Is a child’s life truly enhanced by receiving a new dress when she already has several dozen of every clothing type? One local mother who has a daughter and multiple sons told me her daughter is the only one regularly gifted clothes. Her sons need clothes as much as anyone, but it seems folks just aren’t as interested in clothing her sons. Her experience really highlights that some gifting has become more about shoppers’ pleasure than about children’s needs.

The abundance of cheaper goods once seemed empowering. More affordable clothes, food, household items and toys certainly helped many families meet their needs. There comes a point, though, when goods are so cheaply available that they can’t be escaped. And while the parents charged with housekeeping do experience a special kind of struggle, you don’t have to be a parent to struggle with creeping materialism and consumerism.

When every event has a souvenir, every club has a T-shirt, and every gathering has party favors and gifts exchanged, we become overwhelmed. When folks express love through redundant gifts rather than quality time, we feel the effects of clutter in our homes. We’ve become stewards of stuff, much of it acquired without deep intention. Many of us house possessions in garages and storage units. Meanwhile, there are members of our community who don’t even have homes for themselves. Is that really what we want?

I am sure many people simply throw away what they don’t need. However, sending a continuous stream of pointless waste to landfills is problematic. China no longer wants to process our plastic recycling, leading many recyclables right to landfills. Fast fashion is so abundant that many clothing donations aren’t readily put to use. Many blended fabrics aren’t recyclable anyway. The industrial production of trinkets we don’t really need puts more carbon in our atmosphere. Finally, poverty wages of overseas workers are a key reason many of us in North Dakota have more stuff than we need. Is this a global economy we should feel good about?

The research of my colleague Dr. Travis Carter has shown that experiences create more satisfaction compared with material goods. Next time you’re inclined to give a gift, consider an experience, like a trip to the movies. The next time you’re hosting a gathering, consider skipping the party favors and simply share a great time with others.

Ellie Shockley is a social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan.


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