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Battling the Cult of Consumerism

Stuart Laidlaw
December 1, 2008

With all the glittering decorations and tempting toy commercials, children are especially vulnerable at this time of the year to becoming selfish shopaholics if parents don't step in, the author of a new book says.

"We're just drowning in it at this time of year," Julie Kinkaid says. "And the values that are being encouraged are totally the opposite of what a parent or a healthy society would want."

Kinkaid, a former primary school teacher who now works for the United Church of Canada as a fundraiser, is the author of Overturning the Tables: Consumerism, Children, and the Church.

She warns that the culture of consumerism can lead to children growing up to be "selfish shopaholics" with little impulse control.

"There's no blame here for parents; it's just too overwhelming."

Kinkaid says companies marketing to children are "creative geniuses," using state-of-the-art techniques to sell their goods. They draw on the expertise of medical anthropologists, teachers and child psychologists to boost sales through advertising.

It can be tough for parents to compete, she says. That's why her book, on the shelves today, offers strategies for parents to counterbalance the effects of our consumer culture.

There are simple things that can be done, such as turning off the television from time to time to limit exposure to commercials, or pointing out the product placement in TV shows and movies to show children the subtle and not-so-subtle marketing messages used to manipulate their behaviour.

Parents can also encourage children to save or donate parts of their allowance as a way to cut consumption and encourage compassion, and the entire family can leave the credit and debit cards at home when they go shopping.

"Actually holding that cash in your hand, it makes a big difference," Kinkaid says.

After being constantly bombarded by messages to buy more and more things, children can find it difficult to show restraint in any part of their lives, Kinkaid says.

As a result, she says, many problems facing society today, and young people in particular, can be traced to the consumer culture, including obesity, stress, sexualization of children (especially girls encouraged to dress like their older sisters), and addictions.

"We can't stop this thing dead, but we can all chip away at it," she says.

Kinkaid is quick to point out that not all consumption is bad. Everyone needs to shop, after all, to get the things they need. She even says that accumulating a lot of material things is not necessarily an indication that a person is overly materialistic.

The key question, she says, is how much importance a person places on getting more things.

"It is the belief we get from marketing's messages that buying more and more stuff is necessary to fulfill all our longings and desires."





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