Updated on 05.11.08

Born to Buy: The Invention of Modern Childhood

Trent Hamm

This is the eighteenth and penultimate 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 latter half of the final chapter, “Decommercializing Childhood”, starting on page 200 at the subheading “The INvention of Modern Childhood” and finishing out the book.

born to buyThe book closes with a very strong section that discusses the role that parents and local communities play in shaping the growing commercial identities of children. There’s also an interesting bit about how the definition of childhood has changed over time. Both are intriguing and worth discussing.

The Changing Meaning of Childhood
Schor offers a very good description of the development of the modern idea of childhood over time. In the far past, children once past the infant and toddler stage were largely treated as miniature adults, particularly when puberty arrived. A post-puberty child was considered to be a full adult – dressed like one, acted like one, and interacted with others like one. The separation of childhood into its own separate state, particularly one stretching past puberty, is a relatively modern human invention.

What does that mean? It means that the idea of protecting children is only a good idea in the short term. In the modern era, that boundary between adult in child is porous and becoming more so all the time. The real question is what’s coming through those pores? Is it material that values and respects people or demeans people? We can protect children from the “bad” stuff all we want, but profound change won’t occur until we start addressing these questions as a greater society. We’ll get there, but it will take time – there are profound cultural changes going on right now and the best thing we can do as individuals is to make these changes better for everyone rather than fighting them tooth and nail every step of the way.

Ten Things You Can Do
Over the last ten pages or so, Schor sprinkles a ton of suggestions for what parents can do in the home to minimize consumer culture influence. Many of these boil down to “spending more time together,” but they’re still excellent food for thought. Here are several of my favorites:

Eat together. A family meal is a perfect time to discuss things and bond more as a family. Establish it as a tradition.

Eat healthy food. Instead of just making an “easy” prepackaged meal (the end result of a clever marketing campaign), focus on making healthy and natural meals from scratch.

Try gardening. Gardening is an activity the whole family can participate in together, plus it drives right into the idea of eating healthier, natural food.

Turn off the television. Yes, that’s a pretty obvious theme, but it’s a good one. Replace TV night with game night or reading night.

Spend time in the outdoors away from urban areas. There’s no media interaction there, plus it’s incredibly healthy mentally and physically to get away on occasion.

Be open with your finances and consumer choices. If you can’t open the books, what are you hiding? You should be able to explain every choice and every bill to your child – not only will this educate your child, but it’ll keep you on track financially, too.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will be the final discussion and will wrap up the book.

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  1. Great tips. The only thing we don’t do is gardening.. but we do sports together (mainly skiing, which we are all addicted to), which also creates strong family bonds.

  2. Greener Pastures: Responsible Personal Finance says:

    I agree. The family that hangs out together is better off. That’s what it’s all about.


  3. Cathy says:

    Just wanted to mention that I have really enjoyed your series on “Born to Buy”. Even though I don’t have any children, I still found your review of Schor’s book to be very informative and important for all of us. And as a result, I ordered the book last week from Amazon.com. (BTW, we don’t have cable TV. The money saved is spent on DVDs that we really want to watch.)

    As a fairly new subscriber, I find myself looking forward to reading your blog every single day.

    Thanks greatly.

    Cathy G.

  4. Mary says:

    I certainly agree with the TV issue. It’s sad to know that this interferes with communication. I remember going over to a friend’s house for thanksgiving and dinner was held at the TV. This really bothered me since I never grew up this way. Every family meal was held away from the TV. So sad. But one thing I’m not sure I agree with is how children should be treated like adults. They just dont have the maturity and life experience to make good decisions. Maybee if parents are super involved and teach them a lot but things like peer pressure/influence are too strong. I don’t even think the 18 y/o mark really qualifies children as adults in a lot of cases. I was there once and looking back…Besides, children’s rights are not what we think they really are. Among the rights, children have the right to be protected from dangers, etc. so it is the parents responsibility to make sure they are protected from the evils of things like media. Great series, thanks for doing it!!!

  5. Mark Krusen says:

    Great advice. We’ve had “open books” with our kids and spending money for years. Both of our kids know the value of a dollar and work hard for the dollars they make.

    I think the one thing I would like to see my wife and I do and that would be get rid of the T.V. and cable all together. It would save money and we’d have lots of time to do more things together.

    I like my high speed Internet though, are there better options than cable?

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