The Gap. Walt Disney World. Sony PlayStations. A Dodge Grand Caravan.
Everywhere we turn, the consumer culture invites us to spend more money?on ourselves and on our kids. And, according to Harvard sociologist Juliet Schor, author of a widely acclaimed study, The Overspent American, many of us are succumbing to the temptation.
Americans spend more and save less than anyone else in the world, she says; yet "half the population of the richest country in the world say they cannot afford everything they really need. And it's not just the poorer half."
How can parents curb the "gimmes" in their children? How can families learn to keep materialism in perspective, even in the face of relentless cultural pressures? Schor, herself the mother of two, ages 3 and 7, shared some thoughts with Christian Parenting Today.
It seems that kids are more aware of what they wear and buy these days, and at an ever-younger age. How did that come about?
Anecdotal evidence has kids ages 3 and 4 being more aware of brand names. The main reason is because advertisers are targeting younger and younger kids.
Well, Teletubbies are aimed at 1-year-olds, and they're on "educational" TV, which parents generally think of as safe. But there's a lot of selling that goes on there.
Your research shows that people no longer compare themselves to the family next door, but to some affluent TV family or the guy at work who's making six figures. How does that mentality affect a parent's spending on her kids?
There are two dynamics at work, one adult-driven, the other child-responsive. Adults who are driven by this upscaling of desires want the right designer clothes, lessons, even strollers, so they extend these desires to their kids, whether the children have expressed these wants or not. Then there's the other dynamic of kids who come to their parents and say, "I want this, I want that."
Let's say a family lives in an affluent community, but they're at the low end of the economic scale. Their kids' friends all have more and do more. How can those parents cope?
The family will likely spend more to keep up with the community's standards. Sometimes people with high levels of education but moderate means?academics, for instance?will move into an area because it has good schools. But they're less affluent, so they face a crunch. The same thing can happen if they send their kids to a private school: everyone else there is better off than they are. It's very difficult.
Interestingly, some research has found that a wealthy person who lives among those who are less well-off will actually spend less.
Should parents set spending limits on birthday or Christmas gifts?
Parents should avoid saying things like "give me your Christmas list." That feeds into the overconsumption mentality. It's important to try to get at your child's real desires. Also, young kids are overwhelmed by too many things. Gifts become meaningless.
What are the long-term benefits of saying yes or no to kids' wants?
Whether parents do or don't buy an item is less important than helping our children think through all these issues. For instance, take those bags of junk kids get at birthday parties. They cost money, they fall apart and they don't last. Point that out to your kids. We have to steer children away from the pervasive emphasis on disposability and novelty in our consumer culture. Help them distinguish between junk and something that is well-made, something that will keep them interested over a period of time. One way to approach this is to stress the ecological impact of throwing away so much junk. Even young kids understand environmental concerns.
Of course, spending money on kids goes beyond material objects. It's also possible to spend a bundle on enriching experiences?lessons, camp, sports. How should a parent handle this?
Certainly there's a lot to be said for these enrichment experiences, particularly with all the cutbacks in arts-related programs in schools. But parents with more time can find ways to expose their kids to these experiences without spending a lot of money. For example, take your children to a free concert, make music at home, or organize a co-op of parents to share in providing these opportunities.
Now if your child has demonstrated interest and ability in some area, it's money well spent to nurture this talent, particularly if the child can also learn responsibility, such as practicing music.
What about the feeling a lot of parents have of "I can sacrifice for myself, but I don't want to deprive my child"?
First, make sure the feelings about not depriving your child aren't really coming from your own desires. If you feel that your kid wants to spend in ways that are excessive, look to yourself and get your own house in order.
At the same time, it doesn't work to impose rigidly anti-consumption values on your kids. When they get older, they'll probably become much more consumerist. A more effective approach is to get them to examine their desires. Have detailed discussions with your children; teach them to analyze commercials, help them reflect on our consumer society.
If, in the end, the child knows that he can have the thing that's really important to him, he's a lot more likely to be receptive to such discussions.
Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse is a writer, editor and mom living in the Chicago area. She is the author of several books, including God, I Know You're Here Somewhere (Bethany).
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