September 15, 2010

Teaching Children to Recognize and Appreciate Quality, Part 1

NOTE: Excerpted from Thriving in the 21st Century, now available in print and eBook.

The paint is coming off of the buttons of my cell phone, which I don’t use very often (it’s a prepaid). It’s only a year old.

The nonstick surface of the pans in my kitchen is flaking off; the pans are, at most, five years old.

Towels I bought only a few years ago fade and become stiff, while those received as wedding gifts over 30 years ago continue to hold up. The elastic stretches out in fitted sheets just a few years old, while sheets I bought for my now-young-adult children, much used over the years, are still in good shape.

These are more examples of the decreasing quality of goods we buy today. Our stores are overflowing with wonderful, exciting new products, but most aren’t made to last. The hope of those who make them is that they’ll have to be replaced before long, thus requiring yet another trip to the store, and so more profits in the manufacturers’ pockets. Increasing global competition is teaching manufacturers to produce goods with low costs and a low profit margin, which they can then sell in large quantities at modest prices, thus making up the profit in volume.

The combination of innovative new products, mass marketing and planned obsolescence (making a product with a limited lifespan so it will have to be replaced) has brought us this avalanche of goods that don’t last. As soon as they hit our stores, they’re aggressively marketed so that we’ll buy them. Those that don’t sell right away are deep-discounted so that we’ll buy them on sale because of their irresistible prices. Anything left over is then marked down for clearance so that there will be room for the coming season’s “must-have” items, and the cycle begins again.

This sequence has trained American consumers to expect low-price, low-quality goods, and develops in us an attitude of “it’s cheaper to replace it than to fix it.” Compare that to the mindset required of our grandparents and great-grandparents who raised families during the Great Depression. A common expression of the 1930s was “Use it up, make it do or do without.” Most people didn’t have the money to buy new goods or replace old items all the time. So they learned to take care of their belongings to make them last, and to fix those that could be fixed.

Cultivating such an attitude helped them stretch their money as far as possible, which was a necessity during tough financial times. We need to teach our children that same attitude; it will be very helpful to them during those times ahead when they’re between jobs, or when they need to tighten their belts in order to keep their business afloat.

That won’t always be easy in our disposable society. We parents have been trained to pitch what doesn’t work. One example of how we’ve come to think that way is the videocassette recorder (VCR). When VCRs first became available to the consumer market over 30 years ago, the cheapest models cost over $1,000. After investing that kind of money, almost anyone with a VCR took it in to be repaired when it broke down.

But over the years the price of VCRs declined, and so did their quality. When you can find them, you can buy a multi-featured VCR for $50. When it breaks down, and it will, it won’t be worth investing at least as much as you paid for it in repairing it, when you can go right out and buy another for $50. And that’s what Americans do. We just keep buying more products to replace those that break down or fall apart. By doing so, we kept the economy going for a long time.

But this process creates a mindset of increasing consumption. It’s the last thing we want to teach our children, but that’s what we’re doing by our examples. We parents need to get our heads straight about what and why we buy things before we try to teach our children.

It can be done. By learning to recognize and appreciate quality, we and our children can keep a lid on our expenses by not having to replace things all the time. The choices we make as consumers will have an effect on what’s being offered in the market place. Just think, if everyone were to refuse to buy inferior goods, manufacturers and marketers would have no choice but to offer better quality goods.

That’s a nice thought, but the reality of the present is that it takes some work to find high-quality goods, things that will hold up for a while. We have to take the time and make the effort to buy well-made items, and to teach our children how to do so. If they learn to appreciate quality now, they’ll grow up looking for it in the things they buy. It will be worth their effort to take care of those things, and to fix them when they need to be fixed. Such an attitude will be very helpful in the financially uncertain times ahead.

Learning to Recognize Quality

Not long ago, I was shopping in a local discount department store when I noticed a display of baby clothes. Thinking how adorable they were, and how creatively they had been designed, I went up for a closer look.

What I found was disappointing. The tiny shirts were made of very poorly made fabric that would certainly not hold up for more than a few washings. The matching corduroy overalls turned out not to be corduroy at all, but a cheap fabric with ridges stamped into it to make it look like corduroy.

As a mom who has had four babies, if there’s one thing I know it’s that baby clothes get washed a lot. They need to be sturdy to hold up to hours of spinning in the washer and being heated in the dryer. And hopefully, they’ll last so they can be handed down to the next baby. These clothes, as cute as they were, would not likely hold together for one baby, much less four.

I can recognize poor quality in clothes because I sew. I learned to sew at age 11, and as a teen, made many of my own clothes. Sewing teaches you proper clothing construction. Once you learn that, you come to expect it in the clothes you buy as well as the clothes you make.

Sewing also teaches you to recognize and appreciate high-quality fabric, because the last thing you want to do is put a lot of work into an item made out of cheap fabric. It will eventually fade, or the fabric will come apart, and all your hard work will be wasted.

I taught my girls to sew, and it has brought them great enjoyment as well as an appreciation for quality. When we’re out shopping and my younger daughter spots a piece of clothing she likes, I show her how it’s made. If it’s made of poor quality fabric (and increasingly, it is) I show her how thin the fabric is, and how loosely it’s woven. These are signs that it won’t last long with normal use. Each time I show her something like this, and each time she sews something, she learns to recognize quality. This will serve her well in adulthood.

Sewing, however, is just one way to teach about quality. There are many skills that we can teach our children (or learn alongside them, if we don’t already have the skill), so that they can recognize quality. Any skill that requires you to work with your hands and to select good materials to work with is worth learning in order to recognize quality. For example:

Woodworking helps children learn about furniture construction and types of wood. The child who can work with wood will someday be able to recognize and buy high-quality furniture, reject low-quality furniture, and even make his or her own furniture.

Cooking and baking helps children learn to enjoy healthy, high-quality food, and to reject inferior food. The child who is accustomed to home-baked cookies doesn’t find packaged cookies as appealing; a frozen pizza is no match for one made with fresh ingredients and love.

Knitting and other types of handwork (quilting, crocheting, and needlepoint are just a few examples) give children the opportunity to make things of beauty that will last and can be handed down to their own children someday. Compare a hand-knitted sweater to the sweaters you find in the store these days (ill-fitting, and made of inferior yarn that begins to pill on the first wearing); there’s a definite difference in quality that even an older child can see and feel.

The creation of art (painting, sculpture, metalwork) lets children experience how much work goes into translating something from a concept to a finished item. It gives them the opportunity to use paint, chalk, stone and metal to make something tangible while expressing themselves. The child who is an artist will be more likely to appreciate the work of others, including the great artists of history.

These creative activities are just some areas we can use to teach our children to recognize quality. All of them help our children to develop an appreciation for the work that has gone into something. Children who understand this will appreciate heirlooms and other family treasures for what they are as well as what they represent. They’ll also be able to recognize shoddy work and reject it, which is a good ability to have in a world where inferior goods are increasingly common.

Learning to recognize and appreciate quality through such activities as those listed has other benefits:

• Recognizing quality brings pleasure; the feel of fine fabric, the aroma of home-baked goods, the patina of exotic wood.

• Making something with one’s hands is satisfying, and gives a goal to work toward that, once reached, provides great satisfaction.

• Creating something teaches you not to waste materials, but to put them to good use.

• The creative person knows how and prefers to fix things instead of replacing them.

This last point is an integral part of being a good steward. Taking good care of what you’ve been blessed with is a Christian principle. The child who recognizes and appreciates quality will be a good steward of resources. In the financial ups-and-downs likely to characterize the new economy, that ability will be a great asset.


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