Updated on 04.04.08

Born to Buy: Playing Less and Shopping More

Trent Hamm

This is the third discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the second half of the second chapter starting at the subheading ”Playing Less and Shopping More,” including pages 29 through 38.

born to buyThis section of the book really got me thinking about my own family and the behaviors we choose over the course of an average week. I tend to think that in many way we’re the typical American family except lighter on the television and heavier on the reading.

But is that good enough? This section really made me reconsider that a bit, pointing me in the direction of some fascinating studies. Let’s dig in.

Quality Time Versus Shopping

From page 31 (with my own emphasis added):

In 1997, the average child aged six to twelve spent more than two and a half hours a week shopping, a full hour more than in 1981. […] They spend as much time shopping as visiting, twice as much time shopping as reading or going to church, and five times as much as playing outdoors. […] More children go shopping each week (52 percent) than read (42 percent), go to church (26 percent), participate in youth groups (25 percent), play outdoors (17 percent), or spend time in household conversation (32 percent).

This paragraph actually made me think pretty carefully about the time I spend with my own children. We often turn our weekend grocery trip into a family event, with all four of us leaving the house, going to the grocery store and perhaps to a department store, and loading up on a week’s worth of groceries. During that trip, our primary focus is on our shopping selections – getting the task out of the way. Meanwhile, our children often spend time looking around and observing stuff to buy while we’re making our item selections. The inevitable end result is this:

He wants goldfish

He sees ol’ dad tossing lots of stuff in the cart, so he looks around for stuff he might want as well. The colorful packaging looks interesting and the item looks tasty, so let’s grab it!

This is obviously an opportunity for some basic consumer education, but wouldn’t he get more out of life if the kids stayed at home with one of the parents, played, read some books, and took a nap while the other parent went to the store?

Shopping is a mentally engaging activity and it’s often hard to distinguish why people are putting stuff into the carts – frankly, I often can’t comprehend the stuff my wife puts in the cart. Given the complexity of a large grocery store, what lesson will a two year old take home other than “grab some things, put them in the cart, and take them home”?

It might be better to shop with him a little less and read with him a little more.

Taken as a Whole…

After several pages of quoting a giant pile of studies on changing time habits of kids and the increases in child obesity, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders over the same timeframe, Schor states on page 36:

Taken together, these findings are not comforting. They how that American children are worse off today than they were ten or twenty years ago. This conclusion is especially notable when we consider that during the past fifteen years, child poverty fell substantially, from a high of 22% in the late 1980s to its current rate of 16%. The decline in child poverty should have led to improvements in measures of distress, because child poverty is correlated with adverse physical and psychological health outcomes. The deterioration of the well-being indicators suggests that some powerful negative factors are undermining children’s well-being.

In other words, there’s statistical evidence of some significant negative shift in the physical and mental health of children over the last thirty years or so, but at the same time child poverty (the usual cause of poor child health) has gone down.

My belief is that this is a more universal phenomenon than just a children’s phenomenon. Obesity rates have gone up like a rocket over the last thirty years among adults – just look at this obesity trend map. Not only that, depression rates are steadily increasing as well.

Along those same lines, child mental health issues often follow into adulthood, meaning children with psychological problems such as depression often grow into adults with those same problems. With more children suffering psychological ailments than ever, it follows that there will be more adults with psychological ailments.

This really reinforces that there’s a significant problem at work here, and I’m looking forward to digging into that problem through the remainder of the book.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the first half of the third chapter of Born to Buy (“From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live“), covering pages 39 through 51 and ending at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias.”

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  1. RedMolly says:

    Trent, I’m really enjoying this book discussion–thanks! We homeschool our two sons, and one of the reasons for our decision was our desire to keep them out of the consumerist, possession- and label-obsessed culture prevalent in classroom schools. So as you can imagine, this series of book segments has been especially interesting for me.

    We also tend to do our grocery shopping en masse, and I think our children are learning some valuable lessons from it. They both enjoy helping us pick out and weigh produce, looking for sales on staple items and–this just recently–figuring out per-unit costs. They have learned not to ask for goodies in the store (other than fruit… I can’t say no to a few extra pieces of whatever’s ripe and on sale), and I think being part of our regular shopping trips helps them develop a sense of what things cost and how to be frugal shoppers. They both enjoy helping me brainstorm things to make with the surprise goodies we find on sale, and they’re great at remembering which pantry items we need to restock if we find an especially good deal.

    Our younger son wants to be a chef when he grows up, so shopping is especially interesting to him. His older brother gets a little twitchy around the fourth or fifth aisle, but he is old enough now to be sent on “missions” to grab something we’ve bypassed, and this seems to cut down on the squirreliness a bit.

    I realize that since my sons are older (six and eight), it’s a different situation from yours with your two-year-old. But I think two was just about the age that I had the boys start “helping” to pick things off the shelf, which they enjoyed immensely. Just wanted to put out there that, in some cases at least, family grocery shopping is a positive and enjoyable bonding time.

  2. nuveena says:

    When I was a little kid (back in the 1970’s), my mother rarely ever took us shopping with her. She went on her own and my dad stayed home to watch us or she did it on her day off when we were in school. I should mention that both my mom and dad worked outside the home when I was growing up.

    When I was younger, I did my time working in retail, and I cannot tell you how many kids I saw (and still see today) who were dragged to the store/mall with Mom and Dad while the adults shopped or browsed. Most of these kids looked like they’d rather be outside playing than walking around the mall. I have a feeling that these family shopping trips are what some people categorize as “quality time” because of work/school/week day activities people are involved in, but I think families can find better ways to spend time together than spending every Saturday at the mall.

    I do agree, with RedMolly about involving your children in the process while grocery shopping. I did that with my son starting when he was 2, mainly to keep him occupied and keep him from getting bored, and eventually acting up in the store (I firmly believe that a majority of the kids you see acting up in public places do so because they are bored and the adult in charge is so absorbed in what *they* are doing, the kids misbehave to get the adult’s attention). I still involve my son in the process of shopping when he comes with me. He is now 16. I want him to learn to be a smart consumer and get the best value for his money. I want him to learn that needs are more important than wants and that most things that are marketed as needs are actually wants.

  3. imelda says:

    Omg, is that your son? From the back, at least–adorable! Great shot, too.

  4. Sharon says:

    Did you hear that? It was at least 12000 readers going “Awwwwwwwwww”

  5. Mary says:

    I don’t understand the point of the whole family going to the grocery store together. Isn’t it more difficult to save money when trying to keep up with 2 kids. Can’t one person just stay home with the kids while the other person shops with a list? This is why the stores are so crowded … the family sends 4 people to the store when one would suffice.

  6. Kris says:

    It’s rediculous when I see parents dragging their kids to the grocery store even at 10 or 11pm when they should be in bed. I often see parents yelling and screaming at their kids in the store… why not have one of the parents stay home with the kids instead… the whole family would be happier, not to mention those of us who have to listen to the parents yelling in the store, we would be happier not to hear it.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “I don’t understand the point of the whole family going to the grocery store together. Isn’t it more difficult to save money when trying to keep up with 2 kids. Can’t one person just stay home with the kids while the other person shops with a list? This is why the stores are so crowded … the family sends 4 people to the store when one would suffice.”

    In my case, I deeply enjoy spending time with my kids. I like taking them with me on errands, like going to the grocery store. My only real concern is whether it’s a good thing for them as a whole.

  8. Kate says:

    This must be a great book if you are reflecting on how you could do things differently. I think that you are right that it isn’t such a great thing to take your son shopping if you can avoid it. Kids are naturally drawn to the brightly colored packaging and the “junk”–why tempt them if you don’t have to?
    I used to hate shopping with my mom and would avoid it at all costs. Why? She would never buy the “junk” so shopping was boring. Funny, though, listening to my now-grown kids I think I turned out much the same way. Junky processed foods is not only not good for kids–it is way more expensive. I can’t think the last time that I bought a box of processed cereal–oatmeal bought in bulk is infinitely cheaper and nutritionally a better deal.

  9. Mary says:

    Well, I doubt it’s bad for them to go to the grocery store. I’d rather just go by myself and get the errand done faster so I could get home. I HATE going to the store with anyone else … it just takes so much longer if you have to discuss every brand of product you buy.

  10. Vered says:

    I like to take my kids grocery shopping. They help me choose the best fruit and veggies; they each get to pick their favorite cereal. It makes them part of the family decision making. I feel it empowers them. They learn so much: they know that we always prefer local produce; they know that we like items on sale; and they know that we are trying to avoid trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

    I see it as a teaching opportunity.

  11. trb says:

    Trent, I’m really enjoying this series of posts, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way. This deeper introspection than you usually give to the book reviews is appreciated, and the posting frequency seems right to me. Hard questions you are asking, and meaningful.

  12. Todd says:

    Wow, there’s a child-threatening aspect I had not yet considered. Once I got past my initial “here’s another way I’m hurting my kids”-reaction, I realized that not ALL kid shopping trips are bad. While I’m not a fan of child-attended grocery trips, I do cherish some of the more errand/entertainment type runs I make with my kids. For example, lots of times I will evaluate non-essential purchases for weeks ahead of time (like project materials from Menards or Lowe’s). During those trips I get to 1) have some fun with my kids 2) explain numerous items of interest to my them (like what is a “heat duct”), and, 3)I get to show my kids that we make trips to stores that don’t result in ANY immediate purchase.

    I generally agree, dragging kids along to buy groceries is bad in many ways, but, having my kids with me as I approach the activities of life creates educational opportunities on my terms as well.

    Thank you for prompting me to consider this.

  13. NED says:

    Although I have not read the book yet, I find the premise very interesting. This book discussion is also honing my desire to get a copy to read, even when I am single and intend to stay that way for a long time.

    i do have a few caveats with this post.

    The statistics put forward are fairly interesting, but I fail to see the link between depression/obesity and consumerism. They are emerging problems, but are they caused by consumerism? So fat depressed people are ardent consumerists while thin “mentally normal” (I shudder to use that phrase) people are not?

    Another point to note is that the statistics could change due to changing perceptions rather than marketing. My personal belief is that a main reason why depression rates have increased is due to 2 factors. 1, performance anxiety in a more competitive academic environment and among peers. 2, an increasing willingness to tolerate and discuss previously taboo topics like mental illness has led to more people “coming out of the closet”, so to speak.

    My work schedule is hectic which makes regularly checking your blog a bit difficult. But I would like to continue this discussion through email if you are interested. (kaitoneo at hotmail)

  14. NED says:

    Just 2 additional notes.

    Note 1
    Probably the biggest reason to have your kids follow you out on the occasional shopping trip is so they can see you “in action”. It is fairly well known that children in toddler-preschool age (2-10~) learn through visual imprinting coupled with audio cues. It is better to have kids learn from a parent in a semi-supervised environment than it is to leave them to random chance to endow them with the necessary skills. Pardon me, but I do not have any links to studies for child learning, so you will have to take my word for it.

    As kids get older, they tend to get more restless because they have their activities they would rather be doing than following you around. The best answer imo is to get them involved in the process. Rather than passively accompanying you, give them assigned tasks to accomplish. Start out with simple things like getting a bottle from down the aisle, then build up the number of tasks and complexity over many trips as the child becomes more comfortable with the layout of the store and his own ability to work independently. Praising them accordingly after each task builds self-esteem because they have expended effort towards a constructive effort. There is no greater drug than responsibility and recognition to a young’un.

    Note 2
    Just to add to my previous comment (#12). I can’t check blogs at my workplace because the firewall blocks all non-work access. XD

  15. Shane says:

    You could have the child involved in making the shopping list (you can even do one with pictures of some of the foods). Then once you’ve made the list, anything not on the list is easy to disqualify in the store with the perfectly sensible explanation that, “it’s not on our list.” For sale items, you can make some things general enough to take advantage of the deals. My soon to be 3 year old understands “meat” or “fish” or “bread” but not cuts and species. What kind we get depends on the prices, but it’s still done by the list.

  16. !wanda says:

    I concur with NED that the other factors are influencing the depression rates. With depression, it’s hard to distinguish tell whether more people are being depressed or whether more people are simply being diagnosed as depressed, because we’re more open about mental illness now and because we have more effective therapies. When Western countries send psychologists to poor countries, they often find high rates of depression and anxiety disorders, but very few people are formally diagnosed because of lack of access and social stigma. More recently, people have been more willing to diagnose younger children with disorders, even though “depressed” youngsters rarely have the same symptoms as adult patients with depression.

  17. tightwadfan says:

    When I was a kid my mom would always take us shopping with her out of necessity as she couldn’t leave us home by ourselves. I hated going shopping, it was so boring. The only store we would voluntarily go to was Toys R Us. In other stores we would act up like crazy – fighting, going off on our own, scrounging under the gumball machines for loose candy (ugh). Looking back I thought my mom was crazy to bring us and I decided when I had kids that one of us would stay home with the kids while the other went shopping. Most stores have such long hours nowadays that this is entirely possible. I agree with Mary that there is no point in the entire family going to the store.

    I never thought about how much time kids spend shopping compared to other activities. That was very enlightening.

  18. Mom2boys says:

    I agree some shopping is bad for kids, like recreational shopping at the mall instead of doing something for exercise or education. BUT grocery shopping can teach some pretty valuable lessons to kids, like choosing healthy foods, trying new fruits or vegetables (kids are much more willing to try something new if they think it is their idea! let them choose!), money management, time management and learning to control ther impulse to grab some new and exciting looking junk food on every aisle! Take the time to explain why it is a bad choice, why it is not healthy or why some choices are better than others. These are lessons that will influence the food choices your kids will make as they get older and have to make these choices themselves at school or at a friend’s house. It works! My 10 year old consistently makes healthy choices and he has been shopping with me since he was a baby!

  19. Miranda says:

    Definitely going to pick this book up. I like taking my son with me to the store. We look at things, and talk about prices. And when he sees something he likes, we talk about what he can do to earn/save money to buy it himself.

  20. J. says:

    i’m more interested in teaching my kids lessons than protecting them in a bubble. i agree with all the posters who’ve talked about the value of showing them you-in-action and responsible decision-making. i think this should cause more reflection on how to maximize teachable moments than a head-in-the-sand mentality.

    and then all these cranky people who are moaning about crowded grocery stores — get a life! or go when it’s not crowded (i know i do)

  21. I was a single mother from the time my daughter was 1 until she was 4. During those years, I did as many shopping and business errands as possible during lunch, or right after I got off work (but before I picked her up from the sitter.)

    I found could get in and out of the grocery store faster, and pay closer attention to prices, when I did not have keep a toddler entertained during the process.

    I did take her along on many other everyday experiences – we were at church every Sunday morning for example. But grocery shopping? No. Not when I had to watch my expenses so closely.

  22. Monevator says:

    Interesting discussion. Much as I like to think back to my rather innocent childhood days, I wonder if kids *need* to learn about shopping now, and at as an early an age as possible. We live in a world where so much consumption is non-optional, however ascetic we try and be, that getting comfortable with juggling choice is probably as important to today’s kids as eating greens was in the ’50s?

  23. KoryO says:

    Okay….so I’m a bad mom now because I take my kid grocery shopping with me? Sorry, but leaving him at home with Daddy isn’t really an option when Daddy is working 70+ hour weeks.

    Maybe I’ll change my tune when he gets older, but for right now (he’s 18 months), he seems to enjoy it. I’m that geek picking up bananas, pointing out that they are yellow, and trying to get him to say “banana” or “yellow”. Beats the hell out of parking his butt in front of the TV and making him watch “Baby Einstein” videos….which seem more like extended toy commercials with classical music in the background, IMHO.

  24. LollieMouse says:

    Have to say Trent, when I brought my oldest (who is now 20) to the grocery store, it was a very amusing experience (he is a really funny guy!). However, in talking to others about how to save $$, time and time again, places like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s have come up — and I realize, alone OR with kids, I spend WAAAAAY too much money on grocery shopping!

    Would love to hear your opinion on maximizing spending at “club” stores…I have started doing that and find my weekly grocery bill plummeting (and that may just be me). What’s your take on that?


  25. janewilk says:

    Yes, I’m wondering if the reason that children age 6-12 spent more time shopping in 1997 than in 1981 (the statistic quoted in the first green box in your post) is simply that more children are being raised in households with two working parents, or in single-parent households with a working parent. Once a child is 12, he/she is old enough to stay home alone! I read some of the above comments, which talked about doing grocery shopping on lunch breaks, and that definitely wouldn’t be feasible for me (what about frozen or refrigerated food?), or many other readers, I imagine. I do think that grocery shopping can be an educational experience if the parent uses the time to talk with the child about financial or nutritional choices, chats amicably, etc. – not seeing grocery shopping as an onerous chore and trying to insist on the kid(s) sitting down and shutting up (not likely). But I think that the statistic must arise from a more practical situation: if both parents work full-time, then grocery shopping is going to have to be done on evenings and weekends, when the kids aren’t in school or daycare…

  26. John says:

    I’ve just picked it up now and am going through the book club posts as I go. Something that bothered me about this section is she does not once mention that television watching has gone down on all age groups (Table 1 pages 30). Granted she mentions that these come from diary studies that typically don’t include “background noise TV”, but this would be a problem in the earlier study as well.

    As for the obesity rates a part of that increasing trend is the way obesity itself is defined as it has changed over the years to include more of the population as discussed at Junkfood Science.

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