Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
Did you know that your child is greatly sought out by big-name companies? It’s true. And you thought they needed to learn to make their bed before anyone would give them serious consideration. Well, don’t give up on a tidy room just yet. The reason they are sought after is not because of their talent, skill, or personality. They are relentlessly pursued by corporate America because they are affluent consumers. Children and teens spend billions of dollars a year on everything from movies, cosmetics and CD’s to clothing, televisions, computers and cars. And what they can’t buy themselves they can greatly influence with their opinion. And advertisers know that well.
Stuff, stuff, stuff
One parent put it this way, “…my kid thinks that all this stuff he sees advertised is going to make him handsome, popular, rich, and happy. How do I tell him it’s all fake?” To some degree our kids are going to have to find out the difference between advertising fantasy and real life through their own mistakes. But what can you as a parent do now to help minimize some of the confusion and help your child become a smart consumer?
Natural opportunities to teach your child consumer-savvy principles are plentiful. All it takes is some forethought and deliberate effort on your part. Here are some starting points:
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Think critically about advertising
The goal is not to shelter your child from consumer messages but to help them see more clearly the marketing intent behind the glitzy promises and images. For instance, when watching television try turning the sound down and only watch the image. While watching, ask your child questions such as, “Can you guess what they’re selling here? What do you see that you like? Who do you think this commercial is meant for and why? Do you think it will sell more of this product? If so, why?”
These and similar questions when discussed with the sound off break the sensory impact many commercials are designed to deliver. At the same time it forces your child to think about what you are asking them. Make it a game. As you watch television together, periodically turn the sound off and see who in the family can guess the product and intended audience first. The one who gets the most correct answers gets to choose which game you will play later in the evening, or something of your choice.
Of course this same type of critical thinking exercise can be done with any type of ads seen on billboards, Internet sites, magazines, etc. As they catch on to how advertising works to associate products with desires, you can easily make the transition to how it affects them and their desires for certain products. For instance, you can ask, “Does your desire for those $150 sneakers have more to do with how good the sneakers actually are or because they are advertised by a popular sports figure? On that type of question don’t expect an immediately mature answer. Emotions and peer pressure run very deep especially with older kids. But don’t give up asking these types of questions. Over time, the message will seep in.
Handling money responsibly
It would be easy to think that the way to keep your child from consuming all he or she sees is to keep money out of their hands. But actually it is the opposite. They need to be able to handle, spend and purchase if they are going to learn to be responsible consumers. But don’t just hand them money and hope for the best. They need to be taught. The best way to begin is to establish clear expectations for how you want them to manage the money you give.
Establish with your child how this money can be used. Ideally some portion of the weekly allowance (maybe 10 percent) should be set aside for savings. This could eventually be used for that bigger ticket item like a skateboard, roller blades, or that bicycle they have their eye on. Forced savings teaches them to delay gratification and work toward accumulating the amount needed for that special item.
Talk with your child about other ways their money could be spent. Help them envision how their weekly allowance or the money they earn for individual chores you establish could be broken up for things they need and also want. This could even include investments. Sketch out a very basic budget and show them how their allowance can be divided between these categories. But don’t forget to allow them some fun money to be spent any way they want.
Inevitably they will make poor purchases or run out of money before allowance day arrives. Use this as a natural opportunity to teach them about limitations. And don’t bail them out by giving them extra money or an advance on next week’s allowance. This undermines the lesson of living within your means. And at all costs, avoid lecturing them when they make childish mistakes with money. Gently guide them back to the initial plan and continue to give them the freedom to experiment and fail.
Model the behavior you want in them
As you help steer your child through the maze of being a smart consumer, it will be up to you to model the attitudes and behaviors toward advertising, money and purchasing you want your children to imitate. Your child learns far more from what they see you do than what you say. Make routine trips to the grocery or department store a classroom learning experience. Show your child how to read nutritional labels on food products so they can make healthier food choices. Explain the process of comparison-shopping as you research that new computer system for your home. Demonstrate how one brand of clothing is better or equal in quality than a competing popular brand, and less expensive. Show them the categories of your budget and how you go about dividing the money between those areas.
These are just some of the ways that you can model the consumer behavior that will put your child on solid ground as they eventually make all of their own purchasing decisions. Remember, you’re doing more than just teaching good shopping etiquette; you’re helping your child to build life skills. Far too many children will grow up mindlessly consuming stuff they see advertised and throwing money at products that are inferior or too pricey. Being a consumer requires no skill, only an appetite. Being a smart consumer takes discipline, planning and a good teacher to show the way. Filling that role with your child could be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
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