Can We Help Our Kids Overcome the Desire for Things?

It was early afternoon when I returned home after dropping off six bags of our old clothes with the Salvation Army. There was a small package waiting for my daughter from Depop, the fashion marketplace. More clothes?!

The sun dropped behind a cloud.

Was the allowance we were giving her a waste? Were twelve years of money smarts going down the drain? I thought back to one of the first lessons that experience taught us.

Having Is Not as Good as Wanting

My daughter had to have an American Girl doll. The massive store beckoned each time we went to The Grove, a local shopping destination. Some of her friends owned the entire catalog of characters. She saved for six months — a long time for an eight-year-old. 

Desire is intoxicating. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes the massive imbalance in our brains between the centers of desire and those of liking:

“Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them.” 

The dopamine hit we get is in anticipation of the reward. The reward itself is anticlimactic. 

So it was not surprising that after a few months, the thrill my daughter felt when she walked out of the store with the doll had worn off. The only way to repeat that feeling would be to save up for another one. 

Easy to Game

What my daughter didn’t understand was that the consumer goods business model — often driven by children’s media — leverages the outsized influence desire plays in our lives. The momentary pleasures only come with more purchases — more clothes, more accessories. More dolls.

Industry has the upper hand because we humans are so easy to game. Not just our kids. All of us. Companies often know us better than we know ourselves. Food corporations pour money into developing the ideal orosensation, or “mouth feel,” to drive our desire for more chips, cookies and frozen nuggets.

Even when we are aware of these tactics — like how social media companies systematically provide dopamine hits to keep us scrolling — we are like hungry rats at a pellet dispenser. 

We have limited reserves of willpower. Prevailing over desire is an unwinnable battle. 

And as any teen parent discovers, our kids are more likely to be overwhelmed by desire as the need to belong to a tribe shifts from family to friends. 

It’s a Process

Reminiscing brought perspective.

I thought again about my daughter’s recent purchase — that clothing item that taunted me at the beginning of this post. 

What seemed superfluous to me wasn’t to her. I realized that in her mind, she’d cleared out older, non-fitting or non-interesting clothes to make room. The item she’d purchased was a simple white top — practical and useful. Another way of looking at it — she’d traded in thirty items for one.

She wore it the next day. 

I realized that my irritation was situational — had the package arrived the next day rather than immediately before I came back from my trip to the Salvation Army, I would hardly have noticed.

We are all driven by desire. It is only through experience that we begin to better understand how to make that desire work for us.

My daughter was using money in a way that suited her. This purchase was just another experience on the path towards money empowerment.

I took a deep breath and told myself to “enjoy the journey.” Actually, I made a snarky comment about buying more clothes. 

I’m only human.


Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash. Thanks to Erin Prim, Bardia Sahali and Alberto Sadde for your insight and edits.