By Carla Foote
"Happy Meal.” “Chicken McNuggets.” “Diet Coke.”
My husband was appalled at the new words our 2-year-old learned while my son and I spent a week with my grandmother in Florida. Andrew and I visited the local fast-food restaurant daily to take a break from helping Grandmother convalesce after surgery. We had been so careful as new parents not to eat fast food and not to watch TV advertising. We ate mostly wholesome food and read books to our son. In one short week I had turned Andrew into a walking advertisement for the Golden Arches! (Well, the Diet Coke was for me.)
There is no denying the fact that we live in a consumer culture. But as you decide what is important to your family and what values you are going to live out in your home, you need to seek a balance of raising children who are content rather than consumed.
Short of moving to a desert island, totally denying the influence of consumerism is not possible. However, intentionally restricting access to advertising messages does help reduce the pressure on your family. According to a recent study, children under the age of five spend as much time shopping and watching television as they do playing. Juliet Schor in her recent book, Born to Buy, notes that families who are most successful in keeping the corporate culture at bay are involved with alternative activities, specifically outdoor activities.
In recent years we have even been encouraged to shop as a sign of the strength of the American economy. The creative forces of economy have produced wonderful products that are essential and helpful for our families, so why worry about consumerism?
Strengthening Your Family’s Foundation
The problem with an overemphasis on consumerism is that it is easy to confuse our identity and value with our stuff. In the pursuit of identity through acquisition, there is never enough. We always need a little more to be satisfied.
Denying consumerism probably isn’t possible for most of us. The advertising messages in our culture are strong. Rather, we need to know how to strengthen our own foundation and that of our children, so that our lives reflect our choices, not those of the advertisers.
Here are a few practical tips that have been helpful in my own attempts to balance these issues:
- You cannot tell your kids to deny our consumer culture if you are consumed by wanting more. Consider your own identity and consumption issues.
- Advertisers are experts at molding the wants of your family into needs. Minimize commercial television to make it easier to say “no.”
- Discuss consumption decisions openly, so that your children can see a process for planning purchases. Talk about things that you are buying and not buying and the reasons for your decisions.
- Spread out special treats and events. Our culture craves experiences – the more elaborate the better! If your child’s first birthday party involves lots of people, a catered dinner, elaborate gifts and favor bags, entertainment, and more, it is hard to “top” that experience for the next birthday, and the next. Save some special treats and trips for when your kids are old enough to enjoy them!
- “Must-Have” toys rarely satisfy for very long. Buy toys that have creative play value with multiple uses, rather than unimaginative, single focus toys.
- After birthdays and holidays, put away some of the new toys and games to pull out on a day when your children might need something new.
- If possible, talk with grandparents and other relatives as limiting gifts. One friend of mine asked relatives to get pieces of a high-quality train set on each occasion, rather than lots of junky toys.
- Don’t take your children shopping with you, if possible. The array of choices and stimulation is overwhelming for young children.
- Shop at thrift and consignment stores to economize and minimize advertising pressure. Don’t focus on brand-name clothing with young children. There will be plenty of push for that as they get older.
- If your children are getting input from lots of commercial advertising on TV, take the time to discuss the ads with your children. Help them to learn to discern what is true about products, and what is a marketing push.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “NO.” You are the parent and your kids will keep testing your resolve, but saying, “YES” to everything will not make either of you happier!