Updated on 02.21.10

Keeping Kids from Being Crass Consumers

Trent Hamm

I’m a goal-oriented person. With almost everything I do in life, I set a clear goal for what I want to accomplish, then I do the research needed to figure out how to get there, then I work at it tenaciously.

The same is true for parenting. I know quite well it is impossible for me to raise my children to have every possible positive character trait, so I decided long ago to focus on a small handful of them and push my parenting in a direction that encourages those behaviors.

Really, there are three such goals.

I want my children to be self-reliant and feel like they can handle almost anything life throws at them. I want my children to value learning (and talking about things they’ve learned) and make it a normal part of their life.

And perhaps most relevant of all (to The Simple Dollar, anyway), I want my children to not derive their self-worth from the stuff that they own or don’t own, but instead from who they are and what they’ve accomplished.

I have several prongs in my approach to this.

We’re very picky when it comes to the media they consume. We have a DVR and use it to record specific programs, usually nature documentaries or PBS shows. That, along with some films on DVD, is all they’re allowed to watch on television, and we cap that pretty tightly, too. The big reason is that we don’t want them to watch commercials where children seem very happy due to owning a particular toy on a repetitive basis.

We steer our own conversations away from “who owns what.” This actually has a dual benefit. Not only does it keep us from creating the appearance that stuff defines people for the kids, it helps to break that connection in our own minds, too.

Instead, we try to focus on the qualities of various people. I usually make it a point to identify – and usually try to point out – a good quality about a person when that person comes up in a family conversation. “Your friend is really energetic! I bet he’s really good at playing soccer!” and so on.

We focus our praise mostly on hard work. What does this have to do with keeping them from being a consumer? It builds their self-worth around their positive character traits instead of leaving them empty and searching for something to feel good about – which can often be their possessions. I don’t praise everything they do, but I strongly praise their effort in a positive direction, especially when that effort is producing a good result (like my son’s ongoing journey towards reading).

We actively work against defining other people by their stuff. This hasn’t been an issue yet for our children, but it has come up a time or two. “I don’t like person X because he has a Batman” is the prime example I can remember from the recent past. I take a lot of time to talk about things like this and tear away the material possession from the personal choice. Here, we brought it down to a sharing issue – it is nice to share, but you shouldn’t expect someone to always share what they have, and it’s a good idea to set a sharing example first.

Do you have any additional ideas on how to keep our kids from focusing their energies on consumerism?

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  1. Katrina says:

    To further support your avoidance of commercials for your kids:
    There is evidence now that watching TV does not cause children to be overweight, since little ones rarely sit still while watching unless it is almost bedtime. They play, run, wiggle, jump, because they can’t help but do those things. However, when children watch TV with commercials, they tend to become overweight, because the commercials are loaded with unhealthy junk food ads. They then are triggered to want to snack on something in general, and are primed to want the junk food they see on TV later.

    So continue on with the commercial-less programming! It seems to be good across the board.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Most of that hard work flies out the window when your kids sucumb to peer pressure – imitating whatever their social groups are focused on rather than their family. Peer influence is relentless once they become attuned to what is important (cool) among their friends.

    Best of luck.

  3. Nice article! I think the one good thing to come out of this recession, is that we as a family have learned to live and really appreciate what we have.

    There is no “keeping up with the Joneses” around here!

  4. Maureen says:

    The best teaching tool is your example. They will mimic what they see you do.

  5. Candi says:

    I do have a question, at some point are you going to discuss advertising with them and how will you do so? They will be exposed to it eventually and I wonder what little to no exposure prior to is going to be like for them. I cant help but think of the kids whose parents I knew were REALLY strict and their kids went completely wild when they finally got away in college.

  6. kristine says:

    The TV aspect is key. We had only tapes form the library for our kids until they were 10. On rare occasion we would let them watch something special on the 13 black and white with rabbit ears in my office.

    I am a parent with joint custody. Back then, it was 3.5 days, 3.5 days (unorthodox,yes, but i worked for us). Their dad let them watch whatever they wanted on TV. They asked for toys and bad food ALL the time. They gave him huge lists of birthdays and Christmas. They the serious gimmies with him. (He did not indulge their desires much). They asked us for NOTHING. Just trips to the library to get more movies.

    TV, and advertisements were associated with their dad’s household, not ours. It was an inadvertent social experiment!

    But as your kids get older, be aware that most teens now spend 6hours a day in front of a screen, but only 1.5 is TV- the rest is online, socializing, or doing homework research online. Since they are intermingled, it is much harder to police. And social networking sites are infected with viral product videos that are amusing for the kids to pass around, not even aware they unpaid sales reps. Add in peer pressure, and it is a daily ongoing battle!

    I will one day live self-sustainably in the woods, and hype will no longer be in my universe.

  7. wendy says:

    I understand Candi’s concerns, as we too know of youngsters who have gone ‘wild’ after strict control at home. It is important to set the ground rules that reflect your family values, but equally importantly to discuss these values with the children at the level they can understand, so that hopefully, as they mature, they will be able to make the right decisions for themselves more often than not, and more importantly will be willing to continue communicating with us about why they have made certain choices! I am very aware as my children are now 16 and 17 that I can impose little control, but I can see that the effort that we have put into discussing these things as they have been growing up has been worth it, as more often than not they are making good decisions and we are still communicating! Example is crucial – as my daughter said just before she was old enough to drive – mum, drive like you want your daughter to drive! Enough said.

  8. Leah says:

    I think these are great steps! But, like others said, do be aware that things might change when your kids leave your house. Have the grace and flexibility to let your kids find their own way in this world — if they want stuff they can’t afford, encourage them to develop their own plans. If they choose a different path, acknowledge that it sometimes happens. I do like your plan, but I worry that it is overly ambitious — it’s hard to monitor all the time.

  9. Jenzer says:

    The best parenting tip I heard in this regard recently: at the end of the December holidays, ask a child what was their favorite gift to GIVE that season.

    I *love* this advice. I can’t even count how many times folks have asked our kids what Santa brought them for Christmas. It’s a gentle approach to reframing the holidays for little people. Come to think of it, maybe we adults would benefit from asking each other this question!

  10. Ashley says:

    This post reminds me of my sister when she was raising my young nephews. She would not “mute” the commercials, but instead had the boys evaluate just what was trying to be sold to them. I thought it was a brilliant approach, because they learned at a tender young age that advertising was an attempt to manipulate their minds and hearts.

    I think it is very difficult to shield children from advertising. But my sister made a clever game of it, and her approach served my nephews well as they became adults.

  11. Marinda says:

    Peer pressure and clothing, may I offer a solution. When my daughter wanted designer jeans, I told her she would have to help pay for them. I knew exactly what regular jeans cost and I would cover that and tax gladly, she had to make up the difference. She did and loved that pair, took excellent care of them and enjoyed wearing them on “free dress day” at her school. Same thing went with tennis shoes and t-shirts. She saved her babysitting money and her birthday checks and used those to get the things she wanted. She made one or two pair last and took care of what she did have even if it wasn’t exclusive.

    Now that she is an adult, it’s fit and styling, does it flatter and will it carry over to another season.

  12. Kerry D says:

    I echo #10 and #11–waiting til children are a little older, one can watch commercials with them, and discuss the motivations of the advertisers. My kids also point out that often the toys don’t work as well as they do on the commercials, or that the art products created were probably made by adults, not the children.

    Also, when our children saw things they liked, we taught them to “wish” for their favorite, for their birthday or Christmas. So, they learned it was not realistic to get everything; they kept a mental list of their wants, learned to wait, and adjusted their priorities over time. They also learned to save up for something they wanted, and occasionally made a choice they later thought better of. The “wish for” conversation we were able to do from the time they were toddlers, with satisfied feelings all around–they felt good expressing that they liked something, without ever feeling the need to purchase it.

    While we have plenty of parenting challenges, this is an area I feel the kids really “got.”

  13. Maureen says:

    I think nothing teaches children prudent spending like having to spend THEIR OWN money. Suddenly they become much more careful with their choices.

  14. This is an area that I’m constantly struggling with.

    And as I try to develop my kids that best that I can, I come to realize I have a lot of flaws that I need to correct in myself before I’m able to be the Dad that I want to be.

    It’s amazing what you learn about yourself watching your kids play sports or even think…

  15. Julie says:

    I don’t know. I guess I’m a really (REALLY) bad mommy, but my four-year-old watches way too much TV. Lots of it. An insane amount. I’m not even particularly careful about what he watches. Because, you know, when he goes to school the other kids are going to think he’s stupid because he doesn’t know which current popular TV character they’re talking about. However, he does not have the consumeritis that commercials seem to produce. That may very well be coming, but he doesn’t ask for a lot of stuff. When he does, we remind him of birthdays/holidays, ways to earn money in order to buy it (we don’t do allowance), and how much work Daddy and I do (it costs two hours of Daddy’s work eat all week, etc.) He’s also not overweight, doesn’t eat much junk food, is very active and plays with his toys and loves to be read to. I think maybe sometimes we shelter them too much. It’s much harder (IMHO, since I have a 24 year old as well) to raise a sheltered child and have to deal with the aftermath later than to be a little looser up front. You end up with kids who can make choices because they learn to think about the choices they make, instead of always being told what to think, or having the choice made for them, or not having a choice at all. Yes, I’m a liberal bad mommy and I’m proud of it.

  16. RU says:

    Could you please suggest some books that i can read to my daughter, (she is one year old now), i want to get her into reading books slowly. Thanks.

  17. Mel says:

    I second the dangers of avoiding advertising entirely (or as entirely as possible). It reminds me of a story a friend told me of his parents: they’re both university professors, but grew up (except a few years each in ‘The West’, late ’60s) under communism with *no* exposure to advertising. Then they moved to West Germany, and came across it: a Readers Digest letter in the mail sparked a family conference about what to do with it. Grocery shopping took hours because of the new sensory overload.

    I know this example is a little extreme, but it’s maybe good to be aware of.

  18. Denise says:

    This is a good post. My daughter was raised pretty much the same way. When they do get exposed to consumerism in school, that is the time to stress volunteer work, sports and clubs. Consumerism will still rear its ugly head but they have other activites to balance it out with.

  19. Sam says:

    Thankyou Trent,
    my son’s father is very materialistic (to the point I called off the wedding & didn’t marry him). And I worry about that mind set “infecting” my son.
    We do many thigns the same – at 9 years old though I’ve had to twist thigns a little bit.

    Once in a while we watch network TV however, we discuss bad choices characters make (during the commericals) and while we do laugh at some commercials he now knows they are designed to “get our money”. He understands now that those short blurbs are not sharing an idea for a nifty new thing but it’s a marketing thing to make us want to buy it. He’s helped look up consumer reviews to stuff (like the infomercial stick vacuums that he thinks are so nifty)and at 9, soon to be 10, I think he’s in the loop.
    One of his friends was talking about how my son needs to get the XYZ game system and my son looked the kid weird and said “my Cube isn’t broken, I can gets hundreds of games for it and the games are cheap. I can by 3 games off of one lawn mowing job.” So for right now, he’s getting it. The other kid was speechless.
    I always worry there’s something I’m missing in my lessons, thanks for the article.

  20. getagrip says:

    Good ideas. I’d also add that having them around when you make big purchases (like appliances or furniture) and smaller purchases (shopping for their school supplies) and asking the questions “what is really needed versus what we may want and why do we want it.” They see your decision process, your values, in what you do. Actions always translate better than words, especially when repeated and reinforced.

  21. Bill says:

    @ Julie – Did I read that correctly? You talked about people sheltering their children too much but said you let your 4 year old watch excessive TV “Because, you know, when he goes to school the other kids are going to think he’s stupid because he doesn’t know which current popular TV character they’re talking about.” That’s the very definition of sheltering your child – making a decision based on the off chance the child’s feeling might get hurt if he or she doesn’t know what happened on TV.

    Television is poison to a young mind. You’ve seemed to rationalize your decision very well but experiment a little. Take the TV away for a while and #1 – see how your child reacts. If a temper tantrum ensues – you know you’ve got a problem. But if you follow through with no TV, and carefully observe your child, you will find he or she will be more attentive, sleep better, be less hyper, communicate better with you…and many other positive behaviors – too numerous too mention.

  22. littlepitcher says:

    Throwing some politics in the mix–the maltreatment of employees in certain companies, slave labor in China, environmental hazards–allows the child to tie consumerism to “current events” as they are taught in school, and increases the child’s ongoing awareness of the interconnection of all economic activities. Just have an alternative to those bananas before Dole and Chiquita are discussed.

  23. Great advice and comments. One suggestion I have is to discriminate between “praise” and “acknowledgement.” To get praised you have to do what someone else wants and meet their expectations. It’s a great way to reinforce kids. On the other hand, acknowledgement is letting kids know that you love them and notice what is special about their personalities. They don’t have to meet any standard, it lets them know that whether or not they win the science fair or make the team they are still special in your eyes.

  24. Great advice and comments. One suggestion I have is to discriminate between “praise” and “acknowledgement.” To get praised you have to do what someone else wants and meet their expectations. It’s a great way to reinforce kids. On the other hand, acknowledgement is letting kids know that you love them and notice what is special about their personalities. They don’t have to meet any standard, it lets them know that whether or not they win the science fair or make the team they are still special in your eyes.

  25. Georgia says:

    RU – There are many great books for young children. Check out the Scholastic website and check Walmart, etc. However, I read to my children from the day they were born. When my daughter was brought home, I started reading aloud whatever I was reading – a book, a newspaper, advertisements, etc. My father was shocked at how quickly she learned to speak.

    I also read to my children until they left home, to college and the Army. We started with true adventure books such as Kon Tiki and Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl and most of Richard Halliburton’s true adventures. I read from romances, science fiction, comedy, mysteries, etc. They learned to love many kinds of literature. My husband even started listening. We usually did one hour per evening.

    One on my son’s favorites was a British romance – a woman racing at high speeds all over Europe, running from the bad guys. My daughter still doesn’t like sci fi, but she had never forgotten the baby Martian, Willis and she is 46 this year.

    Read kid’s stories, but keep the reading going on most every type. Give them a plethora of types to learn to like.

  26. kirstie says:

    I think this is so valuable. Its not just stuff – buying into the advertising message that owning the latest toy/phone etc. etc. would finally satisfy you also feeds into the idea that if only you had another biscuit/drink/plastic surgery/a different relationship/any thing outside yourself your life would be perfect.

    As an aside, 4 year olds really don’t need to watch constant TV to learn about popular characters. My son has never seen batman on TV or in a comic, but knows he is a super hero. As far as playing games with other children is concerned that is enough. Really, its far more fun to invent your own super hero character anyway.

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