Kids & Materialism: What Thing Were You Obsessed With in 7th Grade?

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In the Atlantic article Why Kids Want Things, Dr. Marsha Richins is interviewed about her research on materialism and children. She explores why kids tend to place the most importance on owning and having things during middle school:

I think of seventh grade as being the worst age of a person’s life. It’s really a fraught time, and there’s all this insecurity that kids have about, “Who am I? Do people like me? What kind of person am I?” So, how do we navigate that? Well, our appearance is one of the things we navigate with. So, what does a kid see when they see another kid? They see the expression on their face, they see the body language, the posture, and the clothes they’re wearing. And so a kid who’s not very self-confident in navigating this is going to maybe feel a little more self-confident if they’re wearing the right kind of clothes rather than the wrong kind of clothes. Here we’re learning, right off the bat, that having things can help us define who we are.

Looking back, middle school was indeed the first time that I really started to want certain clothes. My most vivid memory might be somewhat localized and dated, but the trendy thing to wear in my middle school was a Browning Down Jacket:

This $100 jacket basically signaled that you were rich and cool (and cozily warm). Like SUVs or North Face, it also suggests you do rugged activities on the weekends. I never got one as they were too expensive, but I do remember one of my friends successfully begging his parents to buy him one and then him becoming a “cool kid”. My parents did eventually get me (one) Bart Simpson t-Shirt. Nike Air shoes were another item that did not fit in my parent’s budget until I found a pair on clearance in late high school.

My wife says that her 7th grade obsession was Z. Cavaricci pants. (She never got a pair either. Coincidence?)

Until we had this conversation, she had never heard of Browning jackets and that critical buck logo with antlers. I had never heard of Z. Cavaracci pants and the little label on the zipper. It seems like other places had NFL Starter jackets as the hottest item.

As a parent, I’ll have to brace myself against this materialistic tide when the time comes. Is it me, or do the trendy things seem to be more expensive now (iPhones! Apple Watch! Hydroflask that you lose within a week!). I’ll have to try and be a good role model in the meantime:

But one of the most consistent findings is the association between the person’s current level of materialism and how they perceived their parents using things when they were growing up. […] The helpful thing for parents here—and also the harmful—is yes, peers are really important, but our kids are watching us. Our kids are learning from us. A lot of what kids take to be normal comes from what they see us doing. Kids are going to learn what their relationship with products should be by looking at our relationship with products.

See also: We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things

What thing do you remember coveting in 7th grade?

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  1. I wanted a pair of Air Jordans REAL bad – but fortunately(?) Mom wasn’t having any of that and I managed to get by – while learning that a cool pair of shoes don’t actually make you cool.

  2. What a timing Jonathan!! My son is in 7th grade and he started wanting things from last year but this year more branded. He wants a Lebron James Nike shoe and he designed it and cost $150 bucks. That’s 4 shoes for me for 2 years if you ask it. We are working through him and trying to explain. He is great kid and good performing kid and my wife do want to spend for him to acknowledge his hard work and take pride on it. I am like, it’s $150 for shoes. We are still debating but surely I can see that it’s peer pressure identity crisis acting up at this age. He wants to show he is cool both in grades and sports..

  3. Such a timely article. I got into a never ending argument with my 7th grader last night about $30 earbuds that he wants to buy when all I wanted was for him to look at options and see if he could find something better for little less.
    It is truly the beginning of those years.
    However, I am sometimes confused about the argument about how they perceived their parents using things.
    Because most of the times, it comes down to “Things were different in your times. We NEED all these things.”

  4. What I wonder is how it influences you to get the Thing or not (i.e., whether to get my child whatever the Thing is.)

    I feel like if you eventually find some kind of place in the school world and you didn’t get the Thing, you learn that you can get along without Things. If you find your place and did get the Thing, you probably don’t assume you need the Thing to get along, you probably look back and assume it was down to your own actions and just forget about the Thing.

    I feel like if you don’t ever find your place and/or too much of your social experience in school is traumatic and you didn’t get the Thing, you might keep blaming not getting the thing. If your experience was bad even though you got the Thing then you really learn that Things don’t solve problems (or just give you different problems, like the realization that your friends only like you if you have the right Things.)

    What I’m thinking is that a lot of people look back and say, ‘well I didn’t get the Thing and I survived and that taught me not to be superficial,” but I think it’s not accurate that a coat would have fundamentally altered who they were and made them superficial. Whereas other people say their parents wouldn’t give them something for fear of spoiling them and it made their life harder and they have painful memories around it. It might actually increase the psychological power of the Thing if they always wonder if life would have been so much better and all their problems solved if they’d gotten it.

  5. As with many difficult questions, the answer might just be “It depends”. My parents were probably able to be more strict simply because they had less money and things were really tight at times. I understood that fact and accepted it without future angst.

    I will probably be less strict than my parents, but definitely not to the point where they don’t even value the things that they get. I can see getting them a $100 “brand” object, and then if they really take care of it, I’ll be fine with that. If they just abuse it and feel entitled to another one, then that’s a different story.

  6. Hi Jonathan. Fun post! Around the time I was in seventh grade BMX bicycles and skateboards were must haves. I successfully cajoled my parents into buying me a Powell Peralta skateboard (with Swiss bearings!) and later, a PK Ripper bicycle. These were very expensive purchases, but the magazine advertisements had me convinced that nothing else would be sufficient if I was to be taken “seriously.” The strange thing is like many coveted toys, these items have only increased in value over time. The bike and skateboard are long gone, but still bring many happy memories.

  7. We’re working with our 3 year old on zir materialism because ze wants to buy everything and we often say no because we don’t intend to waste all our disposable income on everything a three year old wants! My hope is that we will lay a firm enough foundation for zir that by the time the middle school years start, ze is able to see that identity isn’t rooted in the things you own. That hope may be futile but we’re trying!

    Honestly, I can’t even remember if I wanted anything other than a library full of books in 7th grade, and that doesn’t seem to count because I have always wanted a library full of books 🙂

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