Dear Elaine: My husband and I are amazed at how materialistic our two teenage boys are. We're trying to simplify, but they fight us every step of the way. Not only do they constantly want more stuff, but they don't want to let go of things they haven't used in years. Do you have any ideas?
Dear Mary: I frequently meet parents who find that their kids don't automatically share their newfound enthusiasm for simplifying. But if we've spent years with closets crammed full of clothes and garages overflowing with the castoffs of our consumer binges, we have no one but ourselves to blame if our kids want to spend every spare minute in the mall.
So we have to be patient, especially with our teenagers, whose spending habits are often deeply ingrained.
How do you get your kids to cut back on the amount of stuff they feel they have to have and to start living more simply? Here are three things you can do:
1. Involve your kids in the decision to simplify. If you arbitrarily announce to your children, "We're unplugging the TV," or "No more gifts till Christmas," they'll resist. Instead, sit down as a family and talk about how your lives are complicated. Have each child come up with specific ways to cut back.
2. Expect to encounter resistance, and be prepared to handle it lovingly but firmly. There'll be times when kids will beg you to make an exception. One mother told me about their new family rule to help cut back on the amount of stuff: No new toys except on birthdays and holidays.
Her 8-year-old daughter desperately wanted a new Barbie ensemble. She begged and pleaded: "Please, Mommy, just this once! I have to have it."
The mother told me: "I didn't lecture her. I just said, 'Add it to your birthday list.' I stood firm. Now when we go shopping, my kids don't even ask. If they see something they want, they put it on their wish list. It's been an amazing transformation."
With preteens and teenagers, give them a set monthly allowance to cover their expenses, including clothes, books, bus money, entertainment and birthday gifts for friends. Show them how to plan for expenses so they can make it through the month. But make it clear that if they run out of money before their next "payday," they'll just have to tough it out.
You may have to tough it out, too, and stand by your rule. If you do, your kids will quickly learn that they can't buy everything they see. I guarantee they'll learn to be more careful with their own money than they have been with yours.
3. Teach your kids to think of others. If your kids have trouble letting go of things they no longer use, arrange a trip to a homeless shelter or a transition house where families have very little.
A father in St. Louis described to me his family's annual Give-Away Day, which they schedule the weekend before Christmas. Every person in the family fills a box with clothes, toys, books and other items in good condition to give away. Then they take the boxes to a transition house for women and children so the kids can see for themselves how their things can be put to good use.
This has worked so well that his kids actually look forward to their annual clean-out day, and there's been a dramatic reduction in their requests for toys.
* Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111.