Teaching Children to Be Savvy Consumers
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Are you deliriously excited about the release of the new ipad3? Do you lament that the phone you bought three months ago is already past its prime? Do you feel like the things you buy define you as a person in some way? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, (And I have a hunch you did.) you are not alone. And the advertisers and people who sell those goods couldn’t be happier. But can you say the same?
I’m certainly not the first person to address the fact that our consumer culture leaves many of us short on change and long on desire to have more and more. I have become increasingly aware of the way advertising and conspicuous consumption of goods makes me feel, and I try to limit my exposure to advertising and media that makes me feel like I need to consume those goods to be cool, happy, or complete. I can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, claim to be a Luddite, or pretend that I never get the urge to splurge, but I try hard to not let myself get caught up in the insanity of the never ending quest to have the latest and greatest tech gadgets or other “stuff”.
My awakening came a few years back, when I quit my very lucrative career as a teacher (ha!) and tried my hand at the real-estate game. In addition to not being a good salesperson, I tore through the money I had in savings, spending like I was the next Donald Trump. It wasn’t long before I was quite literally almost on the street. I’m sure friends or family would have stepped in and helped, but I was too ashamed to admit that I had so foolishly spent when I should have been tightening my belt. I ended up selling many of my prized and pricey possessions in order to eat and pay the rent. It was a really rough time for me. I remember sitting in my apartment, looking around at the holes where those objects had once been, and crying. I felt like the person I had tried so hard to create with all those possessions had disappeared with them. Who the hell was I if I wasn’t the girl with the awesome wardrobe and cool gadgets? It took me some time, but I eventually came to see this trying time as a blessing in disguise. It probably sounds like a cliche, but I realized that I was a much happier person once I was able to let go of the idea that my things defined me.
I wonder and worry about the effect of our sped up consumer culture on my daughter, not to mention its effects on the planet. Our family isn’t planning on moving to a desert island anytime soon (though I suspect we’d still be able to get a cell phone signal if we did), so how do we raise a child who cares more about people, the planet, and developing her character than owning the best phone or this season’s coolest clothes-especially when I struggle with this myself?
I don’t know the answer to this, though I suspect limiting the amount of advertising she sees is a good start. Most of us are aware of the startling statistic that the average child views 20,000 30-second commercials in just one year. Factor in all the billboards, ads viewed through computer use, print media, ads (increasingly) found in schools, etc—and the number is staggering. According to the the Media Awareness Network, “Children’s identities shouldn’t be defined by their consumer habits; yet that is the main way they see themselves reflected in the media—as consumers, and advertisers are targeting younger and younger children with this message.” It’s an uphill battle.
Consider the following:
- Research has shown that young children—younger than 8 years—are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising. They do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value.
- Commercials also often use psychological research to make their messages more powerful. For example, they draw from developmental psychology principles to build campaigns that persuade children they need a product and to nag their parents to buy it.
So how do we counteract the barrage of ads aimed at children? Excluding or limiting television is an obvious solution—and a wise one for the very young. It’s a start, but it won’t insulate your child from all advertising. The Media Action Network recommends the following tips (and more) to help your child develop “savvy consumer habits”:
- “Help kids understand that the main goal of advertising is to make them buy things—often things they don’t need, and didn’t even know they wanted until they’ve seen the ad.”
- “Explain that shopping should not be viewed as a hobby or pastime. It’s something we do when we need to buy something and then we come home.”
- Celebrate Buy Nothing Day in your home. Use it as a catalyst to talk about why we often buy things we don’t need, and how we can become smarter consumers and better savers.
I believe it is possible to raise a responsible, healthy consumer in this culture. It just takes a willingness to go against the grain and put in a little extra effort.
Do you have an experience you’d like to share?
What’s your approach to teaching your children to be savvy consumers?