When Marsha Richins started researching teens and materialism in the early 1990s, it was a subject that had mostly been left to philosophers and religious thinkers. In the intervening decades, Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, and others, have contributed a good deal of academic research that backs up some of the wariness people have for millennials and their pursuit of worldly things.
As parent of a middle school child and a former middle schooler myself, I can confidently state that for both the parent and the child, middle school is less than a pleasant experience. Angst, anger, and raging hormones create a cocktail of emotional insecurity that is challenging for everyone involved. I think Ms. Richins sums it up best when she says,
"I think of seventh grade as being the worst age of a person’s life. It’s fraught with all this insecurity that kids have about, “Who am I? Do people like me? What kind of person am I?”
How do we navigate that?
"Well, our appearance and the things we own are some of the ways we do that. And so a kid who’s not very self-confident is going to maybe feel a little more self-confident if they’re wearing the right kind of clothes or have the right things. Here we’re learning, right off the bat, that having things can help us define who we are.”
So how do we wean kids off of “things” and help them feel more confident about who they are? It turns out Ms. Richins thinks that music might be part of the answer.
"I have this hypothesis, which I’ve not really been able to test. It seems to me that if a child has certain intangible resources—maybe they play a musical instrument and they’re in the band—they would maybe develop some friendships based around that shared experience. Maybe their parents are saying, “Wow, I’m so proud of you for sticking with band and you’re practicing your trumpet.” This can give a child a sense of who they are beyond just possessions, but that’s an intangible thing. So if kids have more things like athletic skills or activities that they can talk about or form connections with friends over those things, they can feel good about themselves through many different kinds of things. And if you’re lacking other kinds of things—if you’re lacking intangible resources—you might want to fall back on tangible resources.”
I think few, if any, of us would need for Marsha to prove her hypothesis for us to believe it.
She is intuitively and instinctually coming to understand what we have know for years, which is that music education is about more than music, it’s about how we teach it. It’s about providing a safe environment for young people to thrive. It’s about being able to make mistakes in a pressure free environment. It’s about understanding that it’s not what you wear or the things you have but who you are on the inside. It’s about emotional expression and personal development. It’s about the person holding the horn and not the horn being held by the person.
In my blogs I don’t do enough to celebrate middle school music educators, but Ms. Richins reminds me that my son’s middle school experience would be a whole lot worse without his band director, Mrs. Fisk.
Now, if she could just teach him to clean up after himself.