Challenging Consumerism

I remember Black Friday well. My three sons, still bloated from Thanksgiving, would somehow manage to tear themselves from their post-prandial stupor and get up at an hour generally characterized as “are you kidding?” in order to hit the stores and the sales. Black Friday was a morning of great camaraderie as a group of 7 or 8 gangly teenage boys congregated in my kitchen, engaging in their familiar rituals of affection: bumping, hitting, teasing and mocking each other.

I’d wake briefly, just to witness the spectacle of the boys, generally indifferent to the lure of material goods, stoked at the prospect of getting to the stores before other equally euphoric teenagers. When I’d ask what they hoped to buy, they’d always qualify prospects like video games or DVD’s with the adjective “bargain.” “I’ll buy Tony Hawk, but only if it’s a bargain.” They were being inducted into the culture of consumerism in an atmosphere that can only be described as exuberant and fun. They looked forward to it all year long. They learned the vocabulary of the market: retail, wholesale, bargain, bait and switch. But here’s the thing. They never actually bought much of anything. Maybe a video here and there for $5.99, but nothing substantial. Even when their pockets were ripe with months of hoarded allowance, they came back empty-handed. For them, buying “stuff” really wasn’t the point. The point was to engage in a ritual, that was fun, out of the ordinary, and above all, communal. No child does Black Friday alone.

I’ve thought about Black Friday often. My 24–year-old youngest still goes out early on the Friday after Thanksgiving. He likes being with his friends and the novelty of it all still seems to intrigue him. All he’s bought in recent memory is a single CD that he thought I might like. But I’ve often wondered about why, when so much changes in the life of a teenager, does this particular ritual stay the same? The early morning rising, the fellowship of friends, the sense of adventure and anticipation of the unexpected. It seems to fit some of what we now know is the basic neurobiology of the adolescent brain: the need to be excited, to take some risk, particularly in the company of peers.

Most cultures have recognized the adolescent need for ritual. Historically, teenagers are confirmed, bar and bat mitzvahed; or they have gone on vision quests and participated in a wide variety of initiations designed to mark their transition from childhood to adulthood. Coming of age movies and books dealing with this transition are remarkably constant and popular. Most of us remember The Catcher in the Rye long after we’ve forgotten everything else from our ninth grade reading list. Equally popular with both teens and adults, its pitch perfect telling of adolescent angst has resonated with audiences for over 50 years. Without the benefit of ritual, of injected meaning, Holden Caulfield stumbles through adolescence in a state of perpetual confusion and alienation. Whether Holden would have benefited from Black Friday is, of course, an unanswerable and slightly absurd question. Would he have benefitted from wise adults and meaningful rituals as he lurched through adolescence merits consideration?

Talk about lurching. I seem to have gone from my sons, my kitchen and Black Friday to one of the most popular and most challenged books ever written in this country. But stick with me. There is a connection here. As I was writing this blog, I wanted to mention The Catcher in the Rye in passing. A good example of the adolescent’s need for meaning. But I couldn’t remember if the title was Catcher in the Rye or The Catcher in the Rye. So I went to Amazon to check. Opening Amazon was a revelation. Like an attentive friend it featured everything on its home page that has interested me in the last year or two. The books I like, the books I might like. The wearable tech I’d been researching, a variety of printers to replace my failing one, and a host of home products I’ve been running short on. “Countdown to Black Friday” it proclaimed in red, not black. The only copy on the page.

The page fascinated me. Both for its accuracy in pinpointing what interests me as well as its tone of familiarity. It said “New for You,” or “Top Picks for You” or “You Might Also Consider.” For me. Just for me. I know it’s marketing, but it was reassuring in a funny kind of way. The way a teenager might feel understood, might appreciate the direction given. It also made me think about why the day after Thanksgiving has been turned into a spectacle of “me” in a buying stuff kind of way. Is consumerism the natural sequel to gratitude? Were there alternatives to that reliable gathering of teenagers, high on anticipation, that convened in my kitchen year after year?

In 2012, a group of thought leaders, philanthropists, social media and grassroots organizations joined with the 92nd St Y and the United Nations Foundation to propose an alternative answer to these questions. The sequel to gratitude was actually giving something they proposed. And so, #GivingTuesday was launched. Why not kick off the holiday season with giving instead of consuming? #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back, to celebrating generosity, instead of celebrating consumerism. It has the potential to be just as appealing to youngsters and to us parents as Black Friday. Get a group of kids together. Make it at some odd hour like 2:00 AM to mark it as special, provide lots of teen friendly food like pizza or chicken wings, information on philanthropic organizations of interest to kids and leave the room. It may take some urging but the point is to make it fun, slightly subversive and interesting. As I said in the beginning, kids like communal activities, they like feeling grown-up and they like new experiences. Alternately, this can become a ritualized family event with all members, young and old, contributing to a discussion about how to allocate resources. The point is the media is used to teach our children to become takers. We can teach them to become givers. The media is used to teach our kids to be self- involved, to use material goods to soothe themselves. We can teach them to look beyond themselves, to soothe themselves by finding purpose and meaning in helping others. Start a new tradition in your house. Make it a yearly event. Ritualize it. Start when your kids are young if possible. If your kids are older, start anyway. It’s never too late.

December 2nd is #GivingTuesday this year. We here at Challenge Success depend entirely on donations. Consider us when you think about organizations to support. If you’re reading this, you already know our website. You can donate there or go to But whatever you decide, decide to give. Our kids rise to expectations. Expect them to give something as well. Few of us, or our children, need more “stuff.” All of us need to feel that we can make a difference.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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