I know this column is about making healthy choices about money and sometimes about what money can buy. But once a year, especially during the holiday season, I think it makes sense to stop and focus on what money cannot buy.
The folks at the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit consumer group based in Maryland dedicated to helping Americans understand the underlying costs of excessive consumption, asked kids 17 years and under to create an essay or a piece of art titled: "What I Really Want That Money Can’t Buy."
They wanted to get a sense of perspective about today’s young people. They wanted to know, "In an age of relentless materialism and commercialism, what is it that kids REALLY want?"
Betsy Taylor, president of the center, says they asked kids this question because what they heard from polling parents was that parents felt their kids were too materialistic. They wanted to know whether that was true.
Turns out it’s not. The kids did not say they wanted more things and you may be truly surprised to find out what they wanted most: "Kids wanted time with parents, downtime, time to play and time for friends," Taylor says. "Kids said they felt like they were in a pressure cooker and wanted more time to just be kids."
The art submissions were particularly revealing, Taylor says. Hundreds of the entries were pictures of clocks.
The winning essay was written by 14-year-old Erika Conant of Johnson City, Tenn. Erika’s essay, which reminds us that kids need their parents’ time more than anything that money can buy, is especially important during the holiday season.
Here is Erika’s sage advice in its entirety:
"What I really want that money can’t buy is unconditional love. As a kid, I need to know that no matter what happens, no matter what grades I get, I will be loved.
"So many of my friends have parents that work all the time. They are not sure their parents love them, I guess because they are not there. I want to know that I am loved, because my parents are there. Just by their presence, I feel that I am loved.
"My dog, Casanova, loves me. Sometimes I yell at him, and sometimes I hug him. But no matter what I do, he always wags his tail and comes running up to me. He has unconditional love.
"My parents love me and buy me many things. But what tells me they love me the most is when they listen to me. Things are great, but what I really want is their time.
"What my friends really want is their parents’ time. Maybe go for a walk, and talk. Maybe a bike ride and a lecture talk about money.
"If you just do stuff together and smile, I will know you love me. I do things with my mom a lot, but my dad works and sleeps. I know we need the money, but I wish he would do more things with me.
"What I really want is for all parents to just spend time with their kids. America would be a happier country."
From the pens of babes. You can read more of the essays and see the breathtaking artwork of the other entrants by logging onto www.newdream.org and clicking on "Kids and Commercialism." Don’t miss the wonderful poem by Mary Siobhan Glowacz, 9, of Chicago.
Adults crave time, too
Taylor and the center also recently polled 1,200 Americans to ask them what their priorities are. A whopping 93 percent said they were too focused on working and spending money and not enough on spending time with family and friends.
"Americans polled said they felt their values were out of whack," Taylor says. "They felt that they were missing out on things that could give them genuine contentment—time for real human relationships."
So both parents and kids agree—they want more time with each other.
How simple is that? OK, not as simple as it sounds, but during the holidays we can make it a priority.
My favorite time on Christmas Day is after all the company has left and it’s just my girls, my husband and me. We turn off all the lights but the tree lights and the fireplace and sit on the floor close to the warmth and just talk. Or not talk. Sometimes it is silent. But we are so happy. Just us together. It costs nothing but time. And it is truly my favorite gift.
So, consider spending some of your currency a different way this season; spend it on downtime with your children. It’s what they want and what we need.
Susan Beacham is the founder and CEO of Money Savvy Generation, a financial education company that provides innovative products and services to help parents and educators teach children the skills of basic personal finance, www.MoneySavvyGeneration.com. E-mail her at Susan@MSGen.com.