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Consumer Culture

Confronting materialism while raising children.

I first became acquainted with the term "the gimmies" in grade school. My mother accused me of suffering from this affliction because of my propensity to relentlessly beg for the latest must-have plaything or school essential. I remember some key gimmies, such as toe socks, a mood ring, a John Denver album and a stuffed koala bear. I truly believed these things were critical to my social and emotional survival.

While my must-have items are dated, the notion of a list of gimmies remains pertinent today. Parents continue to complain about their youngsters' desire to own what their friends have, what they see on television and what their favorite celebrity is sporting.

However, contemporary parents face different challenges in controlling children's pleas than did previous generations, due in large part to rise of the Internet, the omnipresence of advertising and media, the greater affluence of more families in the nation and the sheer amount of products and brands on the market. Today's youngsters live in a culture saturated with a cacophony of voices exhorting them to consume more and more and more. It's no wonder that adults worry about the impact of an extravagant consumer culture on their children.

What’s the Big Deal?

A 2006 survey conducted by UCLA found that, when asked about their most important life goals, teenagers identify wealth and fame as their top priorities; helping the needy and community leadership come in third and fourth, respectively.

Younger children also lust for the glittery high life. Given a choice of becoming the CEO of a major corporation, the president of Yale or Harvard, a Navy SEAL, a U.S. senator or the personal assistant to a famous singer or movie star, 43.4 percent of about 700 middle schoolers surveyed by author Jake Halpern chose the personal assistant position, according to Halpern's book Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction (Houghton Mifflin). Studies such as these suggest that many of today’s youth are allured by the seductive purr of wealth and fame.

But, is the pursuit of the superficial necessarily harmful for children? Certainly raising a child dedicated to shopping and attaining social status can be expensive and stressful. Parents of such kids must cope with the constant finagling for new products that comes with this avocation. Beyond these challenges, however, what makes materialism so bad? Evidence suggests that children who score high on materialism measures exhibit a tendency for greater depression, loneliness, social problems, insecurity and general discontentment. These kids are more likely to believe that you are what you own. They're also apt to embrace the materialistic belief that possessions bring happiness, that success is defined by one's possessions and that one's primary goal in life is to accumulate goods and the admiration of others.

I spoke with one mother whose concern about her son's preoccupations reflects the materialistic attitude prevalent in kids today: "Jeffrey gets lost in all of the superficial stuff that you could think of. If he sees an ad for a piece of jewelry that he thinks is really beautiful, he'll say 'Gosh, isn't that incredible? Can you believe it has this many carats? It's the wow and then some.' He is adamant that he will be able to afford the things he wants in life."

Despite the fact that children are pressured to consume from multiple sources, from television shows and commercials, Internet sites and magazine ads, to interactions with friends and in stores, parents can limit their child from developing a materialistic attitude by fostering media and financial literacy.

Bolstering Media Literacy

Young children are particularly vulnerable to merchandising tactics due to their lack of media savvy and immature cognitive capacities. One study found that when kindergartners and 1st graders viewed a television program and a commercial, only half were able to correctly identify the commercial, about the same rate as chance. These young children see commercials as just another form of entertainment. Until youngsters are about 7 or 8 years of age, they do not comprehend the true purpose of commercials, which is to persuade. Likewise, advertising can be devastatingly effective.

One parent I spoke with explained: "Shows are packed full of commercials that say "you've got to have it right now." My younger son gets totally consumed. He'll come up to me and say, "You know what I want for my next birthday? I want the Bionicles because it does this and it flies like that!"

Research tells us that many parents eventually give in to their youngsters' unrelenting requests for something new. However, bolstering children's media literacy, their ability to think more critically about what they're listening to and watching, goes far in helping children to develop impulse control and bypass the attitude that buying something new leads to lasting gratification. (See the sidebar for help with this.)

Learning How to Spend

Impulsive spending and ignorance about money basics can contribute to a materialistic perspective. Every two years, the Jump$tart Coalition for Financial Literacy surveys high school students across the country to assess their financial smarts. In 2006, respondents scored an average of 52.4 percent on the survey, which means that they answered only a little more than half of the questions correctly. And teens who don't understand how credit cards work, how to save and budget their money or how to invest are both poorly prepared for independent living and more at risk for irresponsible spending. Teenagers and college students are thus finding themselves in debt because of the promise of instant gratification as well as an inadequate understanding of credit.

It is critical to start a youngster's financial education early. Even very young children can learn fundamentals like coin identification (does a dime or a quarter have more value?) and how to count money. As children mature, they can learn more sophisticated concepts, including how to balance a checking account, pay bills and fill out tax forms.

There are many age-appropriate ways to foster your child's financial literacy. Consider opening a savings account for your child so he can learn about income and interest rates. Or, once a youngster has some source of income, think about instituting a "jar system." Your personalized system might include a jar for long-term saving, one devoted to saving for a desired item, one for community donations and a ready-money jar for small purchases, a sweet treat or an inexpensive toy that just can't wait. Most importantly, talk with your child about money. For some of us, money is an uncomfortable, even taboo subject. However, a well-informed child is less likely to use money to soothe emotions or to spend without thinking.

Questions and tips to initiate discussions about media with your child

  • Does the toy being advertised look like this in real life? Would you need any extras that don't come with the toy?
  • Have you seen a commercial like this before? Who do you think it's designed to target? Would you want this product if you hadn't seen it advertised? What makes it seem appealing?
  • Consider a "buying journal" that the whole family contributes to. Keep track of everything you buy for a week. How many items in the journal were discovered through advertisements?
  • Talk about how each family member uses the home computer. Is the use educational, social or consumer-oriented? Is anyone "addicted" to the computer?
  • Consider taking a collective TV diet for a week or a few days. What do you learn about yourself? What do you learn about your family?

Books on Materialism

  • I Want It Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World (Palgrave MacMillan), by Donna Bee-Gates
  • Money Doesn't Grow on Trees: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children (Simon & Schuster), by Neale S. Godfrey and Carolina Edwards

Web sites on Consumer Culture

Donna Bee-Gates, Ph.D., teaches in the Child and Adolescent Development Department at San Jose State University. She is the author of I Want It Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World (Palgrave Macmillan). Learn more at www.donnabeegates.com.

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