Whether we like it or not, our children are consumers. Parents may be slow to recognize this truth, but marketers certainly are not. The hotbed of spending potential created by suburban affluence places your child in the crosshairs. Without the maturity to filter marketing messages, children take their claims as fact.
Marketers want to accomplish two things with your children:
- Awaken and amplify their desire to consume
- Blur the line between wants and needs
A child who succumbs to these advances will begin applying pressure to mom and dad to purchase, and dismaying behavior soon follows. What parent doesn’t dread the trip to Walmart with a small child perched in the cart yelling, “I want that!” at every aisle? If those pleas find traction in our sense of guilt, our fear of tantrums or our desire to please, then voilà, another “must-have” item makes its way from the shelf to the cart to the toy bin to the trash.
As our children grow, the pleas become more sophisticated and the scenarios less public, but the problem remains the same: enhanced desire and insatiability of wants. How can we help our children to filter marketing messages and pursue godly contentment instead?
Limit Desire-Enhancing Sources
The Bible draws a clear connection between seeing, desiring and taking. Point out this connection to your child and keep temptation out of their line of sight. Teach them to reject the idea that “it won’t hurt to look.” If a child consistently hounds you for a particular item, give some thought to where that desire is being fed.
- Avoid TV programming whose ads target children. Be aware of product placement in the shows your children watch. Make a game out of identifying marketing messages hidden in TV shows and movies. Ask your kids why their Happy Meal toy might be a character from a new movie.
- Watch out for direct mail. Browsing catalogs and ad sections of the newspaper can take children from content to consumer in short order. Rather than asking children to circle their favorite catalog items, ditch the catalogs in the recycle bin before they can be seen.
- Make online shopping or browsing off-limits unless it is for a designated purchase with a parent involved.
- Avoid wandering the mall or window-shopping altogether.
- When you do shop together (i.e. the dreaded Walmart outing), set a clear expectation before you enter the store that no treats or toys will be purchased, but a small reward will be given at checkout to a child who does not ask for anything.
Distinguish Clearly Between Needs and Wants
To a young child, everything feels like a need. Marketers know and love this fact. As parents we must teach our children to discern between needs and wants, which initially requires saying “no” a lot. If we consistently give in to our children’s wants, we reinforce their sense of need for something external to provide satisfaction. Denying their wants mercifully allows them the chance to realize that the world didn’t end just because they didn’t get their request.
Start talking to your children about the difference between needs and wants early on. Help them make a list or a collage of things people need to live: food, water, shelter, clothing. Talk about how our wants play off of our needs: we want delicious food, filtered water, luxurious shelter, designer clothing. Help them appreciate the blessing of having their basic needs met by exposing them to people who are in need (more on this tomorrow).
Once children reach an age where they have spending power of their own, enlist their earning potential in the purchasing of wants. The approach may look like this:
- Mom and dad fund the child’s physical needs for food/water/shelter/clothing.
- The child funds “wants.”
- Both fund “gray area” items: If the child wants something nicer than they need (i.e. Nike sneakers instead of store brand), then mom and dad will pay the portion for the “need,” and the child pays the difference for the "want."
Make your children aware of how your own spending reflects needs and wants. On shopping trips, let your children see you consider items and replace them on the shelf. Explain why you have chosen not to buy or to defer a purchase until later.
Finally, every now and then bless your child by getting them something they want – just for the sheer joy of it. This models the goodness of God, who takes great delight in the giving of good things to His children.