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Fad Alert

From Pokemon to Furbies, how do you know which trends are okay for your kids?

Awhile ago my youngest son received a pack of Pokemon cards as a birthday party favor. During the ride home he proceeded to enlighten me as to their form, purpose and importance.

"These are Pokemon cards," he said. "You can read them. You can trade them. You can buy and sell them. Some kids have thousands. Maybe even zillions. In a few years, if someone has a card in mint condition, they could sell it for hundreds of dollars and be rich forever. This one here is Pikachu." He pointed to a creature that looked like a cross between a Furby and a small terrier.

I said, "Um, wow. Cool. I suppose the kids were pretty excited about getting those cards."

"Not Jack," he said. "He's not allowed to have Pokemon cards because they're of the devil. Why are they of the devil, Mom?"

I hate questions like that.

Being a Pokemon simpleton, I did what any good parent would do in the given situation: I delivered a confident sounding answer that, at the very least, had the potential to be right. "Some people might think Pokemon is of the devil because maybe it's hard to look at Pokemon cards and think about God at the same time," I replied, surprising myself with this theologically creative answer.

My child made a vocalized statement about the depth of my wisdom, which is to say he snorted. He then looked at the top card on his pile and said, "I'm looking at the card. I'm thinking about God." He flipped to the next card. "I'm looking at another card. I'm still thinking about God." He went through the whole pile, reassuring me that it was possible to look at Pokemon cards and think about God at the same time.

Like I said, I hate questions like that.

Just when we think we know what dangers face our children, new traps peek out from around the corner. In no area does that change happen faster than with the trends that attract our kids. I know that by the time I finally figure out what the deal is with Pokemon, another toy/television show/pop star/kid's meal collectible/underwear design will come along to replace it. Combine ever-changing fads with ever-changing kids and we parents can feel like we're constantly at square one, trying to figure out which trends are okay for our kids to follow and which ones they should avoid.

But rather than spend our time examining each individual trend as it arrives on the commercialized horizon, it makes more sense for parents to look at trends in general and come up with a basic game plan that can be implemented as needed.

"I Neeeeeed It"

The focus and purpose of trends have significantly shifted over the past 50 years. Robert Schnedler a veteran clinical child and adolescent psychologist, who is now on staff at Capella University, gives an example. "In the fifties, jeans (and other items) were marketed with a focus on durability. Value was emphasized. Today, fashion is marketed with a clearly narcissistic message that says, 'Because of who you are, you deserve these pants. You should have the best.' Advertisers are no longer selling value. They are selling an image." According to Schnedler, this leaves our children with a strong sense of entitlement, a belief that they should have what they want, just because. Most of today's commercial childhood trends involve selling "wants" that have been slyly disguised as "needs." This is the message we parents must fight.

Another recent change in trends is that many of them are franchised. As Schnedler says, "Our children are literally blasted with current trends." Take my son's Pokemon cards. Along with the trading card game itself, there's the movie, the television show, the collector cards, the t-shirts, the wristwatch, the backpack, the coloring book, the beach towel, the bedspread, the special edition breakfast cereal, the poster, the video game, the action figures ad nauseum.

This multifaceted blast isn't just targeted at kids. In a recent issue of Parents magazine, Pikachu, a favorite Pokemon character, was featured in no less than three ads for products ranging from reclosable plastic bags to vitamins to milk. Apparently, advertisers would like parents to feel entitled, too, as in, "I'm entitled to have a child who will take vitamins without whining, and if Pikachu and his Pokemon pals can accomplish it, then I deserve their help." As one mother of three young children from Atlanta put it recently, "Sometimes I wonder how many of those things the kids really want and ask for, and how many of them the parents themselves think their children should have."

Award-winning authors and psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend address the issue of entitlement in their book Boundaries with Kids (Zondervan). They warn parents about the dangers of giving our children whatever they want simply because they want it. Instead, the authors encourage the use of clear limits and boundaries. "Later on in childhood, [children] want toys that they cannot have. They want the newest and the best, when the one they have will do. When they hear no and you keep your stand, they are learning that the world is not going to just give them whatever they want."

To be honest, it isn't always the kids doing the asking. As that Atlanta mom says, there are times when our best intentions as parents are part of the problem. Take Christmas presents. It's more than a little tempting to get our kids the latest gadget or hot toy, just to make them feel really special. But giving in to our own urges to give our children the best can often feed their trend-fixation.

To Trend or Not to Trend

There are three basic questions parents should ask themselves when determining which kids' trends to allow and which to avoid. First, is there anything about the trend itself that is inherently antithetical to God's truth? In other words, does it promote harsh language, dishonesty, disrespect, selfishness, or any other behavior or attitude that goes against biblical truth? These problems are most evident in media trends, such as movies, television, music, books, and video games. Things like toys or fashion tend to be a little more ambiguous, although parents should watch out for toys that promote violence or fashions that are immodest.

Second, look at the reasons why your child is asking for this particular thing. Is it to fit in? Is it a natural extension of your child's interests? Is it to see if you'll give in and buy something you've said no to before? Sometimes children, just like adults, want something simply because they like it. Other kids love to collect things like baseball cards or Beanie Babies just for the fun of it. But often, children are trying to fill some need through the purchase of the latest whatever. If your child seems desperate to have a certain toy or game or CD, talk with him about his reasons for wanting it and help him understand that there are other ways to get his needs met than through material possessions.

Third, parents can evaluate trends by asking about the underlying message. If the message is something like, "Buy, watch, or consume such and such and you'll be happy; buy another one and you'll be even happier; buy lots and lots and you'll be so happy you won't believe it," you can be pretty certain that this trend is all about promoting that sense of entitlement.

This subtle message of me-centeredness and me-deservedness is much more dangerous?and certainly much more antigospel?than any supposed hidden evils in today's childhood trends. Believing that one more pack of Pokemon cards, one more Beanie Baby, or one more of anything will make a child happy and content is the ultimate deception.

In her book, Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children (Eerdmans), theologian Marva Dawn takes seriously this threat of false fulfillment. She writes, "We who are biblically formed know ? the vanity of trying to satisfy or repress one's yearning for God. We want to enable the children of the Christian community, and to remember ourselves, to resist the world's false methods of stilling the hunger." Our job as parents is not merely to say no to things that go against our deepest values and beliefs, but also to say no to the buying-viewing-consuming-accumulating of ridiculous amounts of stuff?stuff which may be fun and entertaining today, but have no real lasting value.

When to Say No

According to Dr. Schnedler, current trends provide an excellent opportunity for parents and children to have discussions about money, values, personal beliefs, hidden advertising messages, and decision making, which in turn fosters the development of critical thinking skills. After discussing these things, there are basically only two possible answers parents can give to children who are asking if they can have-view-participate in a current trend.

The first is to say no, accompanied by a clear explanation. If parent and child have spent time discussing the issue, the explanation is more likely to make sense. Still, this doesn't guarantee that the child will be happy about the decision. After all, he believes his happiness is at risk and he's worried about what his peers will say. According to Schnedler, "It's absolutely okay for the parent to be the bad guy. Younger children especially don't need to be given the burden of explaining to their peers why they are different. It's fine for them to say, 'My mom (or dad) won't let me.' It helps them save face with their peers."

The second response is yes accompanied by this disclaimer?the item will be earned. Drs. Cloud and Townsend write that when it comes to material possessions, "Sometimes children learn that goals and desire can be a good thing, but you still do not give them what they want. They have to earn it. Parents who merely give children whatever they want and do not teach them how to work for things they desire are reinforcing entitlement in a major way."

When all is said and done, the challenge of helping our children learn to live Christ-centered lives in a me-centered world is huge and ever changing. Today's trends, good or bad, will not be around for long, but new ones are guaranteed to pop up in their place. A parent's best strategy for dealing with the constant barrage of new products, gimmicks and "gotta haves" is to be personally grounded in God's truth, to be confident about their own values and beliefs, to use common sense, to follow their instincts and to pray earnestly for wisdom. That's the best formula for keeping our children genuinely happy and truly fulfilled, something that no trend can ever accomplish.

Crystal Kirgiss is a writer, youth worker and the mother of three. She and her family live in Minnesota

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