What Is a Parent to Do About Children and Consumerism?

Teach me to shop, MommyHave the wish lists started pouring in? Count the brand names and advertising-driven items. When I asked about something on my daughter’s list, “Where did you hear about that?” she told me she heard it from friends. Heard from friends translated easily into Want It. Advertising to children looks like the marketing gift that keeps on giving.

Who is training our children to be good little consumers? We are. We give them money and encourage independent habits. This sounds great until you realize that this gives them the power that makes children so attractive to marketers. There they go.

Even as you build low-impact, natural family traditions for your children, you need to be aware of everything else they are facing. Be aware of how you may even be undermining your own efforts. You can’t ignore the commercialization of your children’s lives if you want them to resist a consumer lifestyle.


Children as Well-trained Consumers

Children are trained consumers at a very young age. Even if families participate in Buy Nothing Day and other anti-consumerism activities—or not quite consumerist activities like conscious consumption, various forms of ethical consumerism, and even Enoughism—most children have enough exposure to targeted marketing that they know exactly what to do. Children are integrated into their demographic, and they begin to ask for products by brand almost as soon as they can talk.

Why is so much marketing directed at children when there is such an outcry against commercialization of childhood? Because children spend or influence spending for more than half a trillion dollars a year. That’s more than $500 billion. Try that again and count the zeros: $500,000,000,000. Those zeros are the reason marketers target children.

As a market, children function in three ways:

  • As direct consumers spending their own money.
  • As influencers of adults who spend money.
  • As a future market, all brand loyal and ready to buy once they have their own income.

So, what’s the problem with that? Aren’t we just preparing children for the reality of the consumer lifestyle? Not exactly. A British study found that children are depressed and anxious because of the pressures of consumerism. Consumerism is not a benign influence on our children. Commercialization hurts our children.

What were we thinking (besides all of those zeros)? Why did we let this commercial environment envelop our children in the past 20 or 30 or how many years? How long do you think it is, really? I certainly was raised smack in the middle of an advertising culture, and that was a lot of years ago. We might think of marketing to children as something new, but the roots go back more than a hundred years, according to Lisa Jacobson, author of Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: A Historical Handbook and Guide.

OK, already! We get it. Our children are bombarded. That much is absolutely clear.


What is a parent to do?

Your best defense is very simple: educate your children. They will be exposed to commercial messages in some form no matter how much you think you are limiting their exposure, so give them what they need to be their own best advocates.

Help children develop skills of media literacy. Help them understand the intent of advertising so they won’t be as likely to embrace advertisement as reality. Once they begin to understand the strategies used to market directly to them, they may find it fun to break down and discuss the meanings of advertising, product placement, commercial tie-ins, and so on. Let them begin to find the marketing themselves. The more you put the game of marketing in their hands, the more they will find (beyond what you probably even imagined), and the smarter they will get about their own consumption.

Critical thinking skills won’t be as helpful with the youngest children, though, because they just don’t have the capacity yet. Particularly in children under about age eight, the age at which they can begin to discern layers of meaning and less than admirable intentions, you just need to protect very young children from commercial abuses. Limit their exposure.

Need more ideas? Here are 50 ways to challenge commercialism.


Resources & Reading

If you want to know more about helping children avoid or deal with commercialization, marketing, and consumerism, here are a few resources that dive into the issues. A lot of individuals and organizations recognize the problem and are working to improve, combat, or just get around the problem.

About Kids’ Health. About Kids’ Health is a site sponsored by the Hospital for Sick Children or Sick Kids in Toronto. Their article, “Target Market: Children as Consumers,” seems most concerned about food marketing, but it also includes a great list of actions parents can take to protect children.

Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood. The Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood publishes guides, holds summits, and generally tries to put tools in the hands of those who can help children before they know they need help.

Center for Media Literacy. The Center for Media Literacy takes a proactive approach of teaching children media literacy from kindergarten to college. They have a big collection of articles and resources to guide you if you are ready to jump in.

Future of Children. The journal The Future of Children published an issue on Children and Electronic Media last year. Great place to go if you are looking for academic works on the subject.

Global Issues. Global Issues is a personal website with information gathered over years. The section on “Children As Consumers” has several informative sub-sections.

Media Education Foundation. The Media Education Foundation has created a series of documentary films on commercialization of childhood, including Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. I’ve used some of their films in the classroom before, and I particularly like that they provide extensive resources to give their films context. This is the best list of resources I have seen on commercialization of childhood.

Media Lens. Media Lens offers an excerpt from the book This Little Kiddy Went To Market: The Corporate Capture Of Childhood by Sharon Beder. In their intro, they “invite you to imagine a world in which Beder’s work was “on every school curriculum”, as John Pilger recommends. Imagine if children were provided with tools of intellectual self-defence to counter the relentless campaigns of corporate manipulation. It is simultaneously depressing and heartening to consider how much happier, healthier, more compassionate our society would be as a result.” I especially like her section on exploiting the lack of cynicism in very young children, as if cynicism were an armor all of us need (which it probably is, sadly).

New American Dream. For a whole family, whole community approach to moving beyond consumption, see New American Dream.

Who Minds the Child? Who Minds the Child is a Canadian nonprofit raising awareness of the negative effects of consumerism and media on children and society. They advocate flat-out resistance to “the pathological pursuit of profit and power by the few and help create a healthy, sustainable world for the many.” The organization is influenced by research by Jenny Hill, which you can read in full on the site.

This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Greener Traditions hosted in December by Green Phone Booth.

Image © Igor De | Dreamstime.com

11 thoughts on “What Is a Parent to Do About Children and Consumerism?

  1. My husband, who is British, points out that he didn’t necessarily get the same training in commercialism. He remembers when he first saw Sesame Street, not long after it started and well under 8 years old, and he was confused by “brought to you by the letter E,” since the BBC didn’t have that kind of sponsorship. He figures this was probably intended as making gentle fun of sponsorships, but he doesn’t think a very young child can tell the difference between “brought to you by the letter E” and “brought to you by mega McFast-Food.” There is so much of this training to get our children into the consumer groove that we probably just don’t see it.

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  4. Last weekend I was at a mall in Parkersburg, WV. There is a play area there that is sponsored by Coca Cola. The over-sized toys that the kids can climb into and over include a cupcake, a giant hot dog, and a spilled Coke! Talk about propaganda directed to young kids! What crap.

  5. Marketing to kids certainly does go back pretty far. I actually have a really hard time resisting McDonald’s because it has become synonymous with comfort and family and childhood. No other fast food restaurant does that to me.

    Nowadays it’s even worse with brands advertising in schools and branding everything they possibly can. It’s a bit overwhelming and depressing.

    One things my parents did, however, was to make us work for every penny we earned. That’s what happens in the real world. It helps kids to understand the value of money and perhaps be less likely to waste it when they actually have to work for it.

    • Beth, it’s so interesting that you say that about McDonald’s. I was looking at company visions yesterday and came across theirs: “To be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat.” I found this quite surprisingly customer centered. Whatever they did, I guess it worked.

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  7. We were able to control consumerism when the kids were little in one simple way: we didn’t let them watch tv. We had so much else to do, there wouldn’t have been time anyway. If they needed to zone out for a little while, we’d put on a movie. But we just didn’t get up on Saturday morning and turn on cartoons (and commercials). If they’re not being bombarded by ads for whatz-itz and doo-dads, they don’t know to ask for them.

  8. I think my parents did a good job with my brother and I but it would be even harder now. My parents had an unsaid rule of no toys with batteries. We got toys that made us use our imagination. I had lots of dolls but they were just dolls. None of them cried or peed. My brother had army men and Ninja Turtles (which he didn’t like me using with my barbies).

    Also my parents would almost always buy us books. Toys were pretty much only on Christmas and birthdays and we didn’t complain cause that’s how it had always been. We could however ask for books and almost always got them.

    We had a Nintendo and tvs but time was limited as was what we watched. I think limited tv time can be key in all of this!

  9. I absolutely love this post. I had strong feelings about this while raising my own kids but didn’t have what it took to battle the relatives, or the ones who did most of the buying. I did encourage educational or useful gifting or college bonds. Which I have to say now that they are both in college was a very useful suggestion!! I can thank my parents for not allowing too much television when I was growing up. I had so little and still had little tolerance for it even now. Commercial abuse – nicely stated.

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