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'90S FAMILY

When Kids Say Buy-Buy

Parents always want what's best for their kids, but that doesn't mean giving them everything. In this age of hyper-materialism and brand-name braggadocio, children end up suffering in the long run.

June 08, 1997|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's hand-wringing and an uneasiness among today's parents when they open their children's closets and see department stores staring back.

As America's children become madcap shoppers--led on by a maelstrom of commercials, peer pressure, increased disposable income and parental consumerism--the debate is on about just what is driving youngsters to become little Donald Trumps and how to curb them.

"I always tell people consumer Frankensteins are made not born, and that the blame lies squarely on parents' shoulders," says Renee Burns, a psychologist in private practice in Boston. "It's not always a popular thing to say, and parents don't like to hear it, but there's no getting around the fact that parents are responsible for this hyper-consumerism in America's children."

Curing kids who want it all is no easy matter. But if your youngster's yen for possessions is out of control, you can break the buy-buy cycle. It will take self-discipline a new view of your own spending habits and persistence. It also helps immensely to have a strategy instead of lurching from confrontation to confrontation.

Here are some major areas to focus on:

* Turn off the tube. "A parent who is intent upon providing an environment where materialism is not an ascendant value will have to go cold turkey with the TV," says Rick Stinchfield a psychology professor at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. He says even modest exposure to today's fast-paced and exciting commercials can seduce children into a lifetime of shopping.

"Television injects values into children whether we wish it or not," says Henry Labalme, director of TV-Free America, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "It's far easier to raise kids who don't care about television from the start than it is to suddenly switch it off when they're 10, but it can be done," he adds.

* Make your kids media, marketing and commercial savvy. Skippies--School Kids With Purchasing Power, as one magazine dubbed them--loom large on marketers' radar screens. James McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A & M University has studied family spending habits for more than 30 years and estimates that children played a direct role in the purchase of $157 billion in goods and services in 1993. He believes the amount will double by 2001.

"Parents must realize there are people out there making a lot more money then we are who have targeted our children as the next consumer slot," says Robert Butterworth, a child psychologist in Beverly Hills. "Parents must teach their children to be savvy resisters instead of robotic consumers."

Ask kids thoughtful questions about hype, such as, "How did the commercial make you feel?" "Does this have anything to do with the product that was being promoted?" "Could the commercial happen in real life?" "Are they telling the truth?"

"I'm very concerned that my child understand how popular culture is fun but fake," says Studio City parent Rob Meurer. "I want her to understand that the buy-buy-buy / want-want-want message in American consumer culture is a fraud that wants to control her mind. I know it's my job as a parent to do that."

* Teach your children what materialism does to people. "It used to be that war was not healthy for children and other living things, but it turns out it's true of materialism, too," says Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois. A 12-year study he conducted points to more depression, more narcissism, worse relationships, more divorce, more alcohol consumption, more smoking, more severe health problems attributable in part to highly materialistic lifestyles.

"Most parents think that all my work and giving will mean my kid can have a better life," Kasser says. "My data says kids aren't going to have a better life if materialism is high in their value system."

* Remember that children will model your behavior. If you want your kids to lower their brand-name consciousness, you'll need to lower yours, usually first. "Modeling is everything," says Lawrence Shapiro, a Pennsylvania psychologist and author. He says the general rule of thumb is that 90% of child behavior is parent-modeled with the rest of the world's influence registering approximately 10%.

Thus, criticizing children for wanting Reeboks when you own four pairs is counterproductive as well as unfair. "When a kid insists on the latest Nintendo game and thinks, 'Aren't I a great person? I have the new Nintendo,' he's usually imitating a parent who gives off the message, 'I own a Mercedes. Aren't I a great person,' " Kasser says.

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