The end of innocence?

The end of innocence?

As adults, we have created a monstrous desire for materialism in our attempt to assuage our guilt as well as to feel that we are better parents if we spend on our children

Srinath SridharanUpdated: Tuesday, December 27, 2022, 11:38 PM IST
Representative Image | Pixabay

If you are older than the millennials, you might be familiar with the similarly-titled 1989 hit song by Don Henley. This song was about the end of the innocence of the baby boomer generation.

The concept of child-like innocence that most of us allude to usually refers to childrens’ simplicity, lack of any bias, and their decisioning not spoiled by worldly happenings and pressures. Every time adults have a peer discussion about their life, there is invariably a memory rewind back to childhood.

Why is it so? Simply because it was the innocence of those growing-up years. Life did not seem complicated, however difficult the growing-up years would have been. Hence the memories of those younger days are still retained as a refresher. For we have all moved ahead to live a life of complications, bitter truths and harsh realities. Childhood was the time when troubles were limited from “Homework not completed” to “Can you convince father to sign my report card please?”

Children and money

The Indian economy and market has come a long way in the past three decades. If you walk down the aisle of a supermarket in India, you see a dazzling range and large number of varieties of SKUs for almost every product — from cornflakes to ready-to-cook idli, to cooking oils, etc. A walk down the soft drinks and chocolates section is worrisome on the wallet, with its wider range of choices. The more choices we see, the greater is our consumption. This is exactly what a generation of Indian children from middle class and upwards have been exposed to. Are choices, then, automatically assumed to be a birthright?

The root of the problem is the mentality we bring to our purchasing behaviour. As the adult obsession over wealth and its accumulation grows, so does the fixation with showing it off to the world. No doubt, kids pick these up as acceptable normal behaviour. Owning things, as well as a number of them, seems to be the definition of success.

As adults, we accumulate possessions because we feel entitled to them for our hard work. We justify our ‘need’ to buy yet another thing. We give in to our childrens’ demands for stuff that gives them instant gratification — simply because we also feel guilty for not giving them our time. As these children grow up, they intuitively think that materialism is justified. Just look at most of our wardrobes, shelves and drawers at home, and any storage spaces — we are bound to have things that we have used for just a few days.

Peer pressure, cohort-focused marketing campaigns and parenting styles have all been blamed for increasing materialism in children. We have built a social structure where money is centre-stage. Materialism has been recognised as an important variable in postmodern societies; and creates a frivolous view of money and its assumed availability.

Net worth is (not) self worth

Materialism, or the presence of material values, has been defined as the belief that success and happiness depend on material goods, ie, the importance and value that individuals assign to possessions (Belk 1985; Chan & Prendergast 2007; Clark et al. 2001; Ravhuhali, 2020; Richins 1994). Thus, although the accumulation of material possessions may be an end in itself, it is also seen as a means of achieving goals related with self-definition and self-realisation, in which the value attached to possessions is related with the expression, maintenance and consolidation of a person’s self-concept (Belk 1985; Czikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Hausen, 2019; Kasser & Kanner 2004).

We have taught this generation of youngsters that a normal individual ‘needs’ regular holidays, toys and return gifts, club memberships, cars or bikes, video games, branded merchandise, movie outings, and so many more. None of these ownerships or experiences is bad per se. But we have created rituals around these. For example, a birthday is not complete without an event manager, party setting, gifts and return gifts, pictures — and Instagrammable ones at that. A child learns this as society reiterates this as normal and desirable behaviour.

As adults, we have created a monstrous desire for materialism in our attempt to assuage our guilt as well as to feel that we are better parents if we spend on our children. The negative fallouts of materialistic youngsters can be financial strain on parents, distraction from studies and, more importantly, developmental and social effects in kids; besides setting up unrealistic expectations for adulthood. But do we think about this?

Stress on youngsters

How have rapid social changes of recent years affected diverse Indian children and young people? And how do Indian children themselves understand, resist or shape emerging and contradictory social contexts?

To add to the other pressures, there is social media. Even if their children are under-age, many parents actively encourage them to set up their social media accounts. For those children whose parents are strict, their social media activities go under the radar with fake accounts without parental knowledge — simply because the children feel it’s cool and they ‘need to fit in’ their circle of friends. No wonder, we find increasing social media addiction in children and its negative impact on their emotional wellbeing.

In addition to this stressful peer pressure, too much pampering combined with expectations can create rage issues in children as well as self-esteem challenges. Did we even have these issues in the earlier generations, in the volumes that we are seeing now? Something somewhere has gone majorly wrong. And we, adults, have to introspect hard, as we are part of the trouble.

Coping mechanisms

Children by nature have delightfully innocent and naive traits. Their innocence is what makes living with children so special. We love to retell their funny stories, even if they are not funny from the adult point of view. But the world, and society as we have shaped it to be, has a way of beating and pushing that innocence out of us. It has taught us to be selfish and greedy — “what is mine is mine”. It’s constantly showing us that there is no time to just ‘be’ and enjoy the moment.

Children have this amazing ability to just see the good, to say hello to everyone and everything, to sing randomly or to hear a song and start dancing spontaneously. They are not conscious of people around them. Where does that unashamed, unafraid behaviour go as they grow up? Where does the belief that our parents are our world and our superheroes go? Why does growing up mean losing the joys of innocence and shrinking from trusting our loved ones?

The role of the adult

We are responsible for maintaining the sanctity of the generation to come. We are accountable for respecting their space to experiment, within the safe boundaries of existential curiosity. A happy and normal generation of citizens can be a big economic boost to the nation.

As we begin to welcome yet another new calendar year, 2023, we should work for the world we want to build for the next generation. A world with natural innocence, without pretend plays and human-made pressures. A world where ‘money, materialism and more’ don’t overtake the curiosity and creativity of children. A saner world, where children can still hold on to their innocence.

That leaves me with a prime goal. It’s a goal for you too. I’m ready to guard their innocence like it’s my only life goal. And to welcome the year 2023 with hope and motivation. Will you, too?

Dr Srinath Sridharan is a corporate adviser and author of Time for Bharat. He tweets @ssmumbai

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