Friday, April 21, 2006

Kids and Materialism

This posting dovetails with the previous one...and here's a link to a somewhat unsettling yet interesting article on marketing to children.

I was given this article back in 2001 by a sister of mine (StuntMom, to be exact). Its ideas still stick with me, years later. I looked for a copy of it online, to no avail. So I've retyped my printed version for you to read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Reading this again, after so many years, I embrace a lot of her ideas, just not all of them to the extreme that she takes them. It's a long one, so persevere! And if you like some of the ideas, here's another article, with a few more interesting suggestions on how to avoid the trapping of consumerism.

Kids and Materialism, by Terri Tvrdy

Children today have more gadgets and toys at their disposal than ever before. According to the advertising firm McCann-Erickson, advertisers spent more than $230 billion in 2001, or $2,190 per household, much of which effectively targeted kids. It's a strategy that seems to be working; kids aged 9-12 spent a record $155 billion of their own money in 2001, up from $63 billion just four years earlier.

The Center for a New American Dream (CNAD) reports that a majority of American youth buy things in an attempt to improve their self-esteem. "As a result of unprecedented marketing aimed at kids," says Betsy Taylor, executive director of CNAD, "our children feel intense pressure to bolster their sense of self-worth at the mall." Being bombarded with so many of the latest gadgets, designer trends, and in-your-face advertising, it's no wonder that kids follow suit with the "nag factor," wearing their parents down until the coveted item is purchased for them. Many parents, weary from working long hours and raising children, give in. The problem is particularly difficult for parents of adolescents. The result of a new national survey of youth commissioned by CNAD reveals, "The average American child aged 12-17 who asks their parents for products they've seen advertised will ask nine times until their parents finally give in."

That's a lot to take for parents who must constantly tell their child "no." Parents who want to raise their children to appreciate a simpler, non-materialistic lifestyle, or even parents who just want to minimize the nag factor, would be wise to analyze the situation and control the problem while their kids are still young. Where are children learning to crave things they don't even want for very long? A penchant toward materialism comes from three main sources: parents, advertising and peers.

With this knowledge in mind, there are several things you can do for your children to minimize their potential craving for material goods. The basics - including telling your children "no," minimizing television time, and encouraging your kids to befriend others with values similar to yours - are a good start, but they may not be enough to keep your children from participating in excessive consumer culture. What more can you do to teach your kids the value of a dollar while not letting them feel deprived?

Indoctrinate Early
Children absorb ideas much faster during their formative years than they will during adolescence. That's why it's so important to teach kids about the dangers of a consumer culture while they are little. Once they have reached the "tween" ages of 12 and 13, kids will be more resistant to change. It's like learning a new language when they are in their teens as opposed to hearing it spoken as a toddler.

Guiding your children at a young age to believe that self-esteem comes from places other than material fulfillment will help them become brighter, more creative individuals. Of course the phrase "Better late than never" definitely applies here. If you decide to indoctrinate simple living skills into kids when they are older, the challenge is definitely greater, but well worth it.

Be an Example
If your kids see you coming home with the latest designer clothes and baubles for yourself, you can't expect them not to ask for the latest and greatest toys for themselves. "Materialism starts at home," says Sue Avery, a mother of three in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Peer pressure is just as prevalent for adults as it is for kids."

So the next time you hear a mom say that she wouldn't shop at a thrift store, say something like, "I wouldn't shop in expensive department stores. I care more about my money than to spend 80 percent on markup." Your kids will hear more of what you say by your actions and statements to others than they will if you speak directly to them. Even if they profess to disagree with you profoundly, your opinions and messages are in fact influencing them over the long term. Parents who resist consumerism for themselves are the ones who teach their kids to resist it.

Avoid Over Stimulation
I remember how overwhelmed I felt receiving presents as a kid at Christmas. I wasn't able to comprehend or appreciate all those gifts at one time. This is how kids often feel walking into a toy store or receiving a lot of things at once. "We live in the country," says a mom of a 5-year-old from rural Nebraska. "But when we go into town and visit a store, my daughter falls into this almost trance-like state. I think she's over stimulated by the number of items available and the fancy displays, colors, sounds, and artificial lights."

Kids will not feel deprived unless they know something is out there they cannot have. Unless exposed to media and others telling them they "have to have it," children do not know that they are "supposed" to want expensive sneakers, trendy clothing, or highlighted hair done in a salon.

Certainly one way to avoid too many commercials, toys, or activities is not to expose kids to them. Going into toy stores with your children is like begging them to employ the nag factor. Avoiding Saturday morning cartoons and their commercials geared toward kids will also help keep them from finding out about every new toy under the sun.

Sue Avery uses another technique to avoid overstimulation for her kids. "My kids have very limited after-school activities," she says. "I only allow them one activity per child per year. I don't drive myself crazy trying to 'enrich' them with every possible activity available to kids. Limiting their activities allows them to make choices about their true interests."

Practice Delayed Gratification
If kids see it, they will want it. If you were to buy your child every item he wanted, you would be inundated with endless clutter and a mountain of debt. On the other hand, you don't want to deny them everything. The trick is finding out what your children truly want versus what they say they want.

"When my kids say they want something, I tell them to put it on 'the list,'" says Avery. "Then when Christmas or the holiday gets closer, I'll check with them to see what they still want. Usually by then, they have forgotten about most of their desired items."

"Most passing fancies are just that - they pass," writes Joe Dominguez in Your Money or Your Life, a book geared toward curbing consumerism. "If the child doesn't have an allowance and asks for something, suggest that you talk about it in a few days." Another strategy is to emphasize the importance of saving for bigger wants down the road, such as summer camp, a family vacation or college, rather than focusing on the denial of the current want.

Show Rather Than Tell
Kids learn more by doing than by being told. Letting them learn to curb consumerism may mean letting them make a few mistakes on their own. Getting kids involved in decision making is necessary for teaching them to decide for themselves whether the work performed for their earnings is worth the gotta-have item.

Start by giving your kids a weekly allowance. Let them buy the Pokemon cards or latest junk item. Soon they will realize that they could have saved their allowance to purchase something more valuable, and they will likely regret the purchase of junk items. Once a child experiences a disappointment on his own dime he will learn a valuable lesson about making choices.

Courtney Smith, a mother of two, took her kids to a county fair. "Our 5-year-old wanted to ride the merry-go-round, which cost $3.50 for a two minute ride," she says. "I took her aside and explained that the cost was almost a whole month of allowance. Did she think the two minute ride was worth a month of allowance when we had a park with a similar merry-go-round across the street from our house that she could ride for free? She got it and opted not to do the ride."

Get your kids involved in other decisions, too. Bring them along when you shop for birthday presents for other children and ask them to think about whether a particular gift will have more than one purpose, if it will be interesting over a long period of time, and if it will break easily. By making choices, kids learn critical consumer skills.

Give Them Positive Alternatives
In teaching kids about critical consumerism, you should always send the message that buying less is based on principle, not poverty. Phrases such as, "we can't afford that," "It's too expensive," "You can't have," or "We're too poor," tell kids that the item is worthy of being purchased, but they are not worthy of owning it. Children who hear such negativity usually want material items more, not less.

Kids (and all people) respond to positive alternatives. Offer positive substitutes rather than negative statements, as illustrated in the example of the county fair. In that scenario, the child chose the positive alternative of a free merry-go-round ride near her home and getting to keep her allowance to spend on something else.

If you want your kids to watch less T.V., you'll need to keep the house well stocked with arts and crafts supplies, go with them on nature hikes, and encourage their interests in music, science, books, or theater. Expose them to other kinds of media, such as film, art exhibits, or local plays.

If you want your kids to spend less time at the mall, have them join a fun group like the school band (if they have an interest in music), Girl Scouts, a church youth organization, or sports team. Malls duplicate for them a big, fun family gathering; substitute this with a real group in which they play an active role.

There may be times when you take the easy road by saying "yes" to your kids when it comes to a frivolous purchase. The important thing is that they understand it is the exception, not the rule.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE this article. Thank you for taking the time to type and post. I am going to give a copy to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. I have been struggling to find a way to ask them not to buy our kids so many gifts. Currently, an occasion to get-together = and occasion to give gifts to our kids. I've struggled with whether it is my place to discourage them from buying, since after all, it is their choice to do what they do, and we can always choose to do what we want with the gift once we get it home (90% has been going to goodwill and second hand stores). I think if I share an article on a philosophy about material goods, my request to minimize gift-giving might be softened. It is, after all, just an effort to exercise a parenting choice. If others have suggestions on how to stop the flow of materialism from being pushed on you by relatives, I would greatly appreciate the advice!

StuntBec said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this posting. I really liked the "Give them positive alternatives" part. I can't tell you how many times, as a child, I heard "it's too expensive, we can't afford it." I believe this really does send the wrong message - that the product is worth buying, but that we are not lucky enough, or worthy enough, to buy it. I disagree with the "Avoid Overstimulation" part a bit. You can't shelter your kids from everything. Having lived an overly sheltered childhood, I try very hard to not overly shelter my kids.

How do we stop the flow of materialism from relatives? On my husband's side of the family, this was relatively easy. They are very direct and to the point. They communicate with each other. He simply asked his mother to hold off on buying all kinds of crap for our kids. He suggested that instead of buying unnecessary toys, that a contribution to their college funds would be much more beneficial. This sort of direct talk worked really well.

But for my family, if I was that direct, the ones that love to shop and buy the dollar store crap would be FURIOUS, and write me and my family off for good. I do not exaggerate. I love the idea of passing this article out to my family members, but a handful are so far to the opposite extreme, I fear feelings would be damaged beyond repair. So, like you, we donate a lot of the surplus stuff to Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

If you send your relatives this article by Terri Tvrdy, let me know how it is received! I would love to hear what they think.