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Pester Power: Curbing Your Child's Inner Consumer

Melanie Barwick
CBC News
December 23, 2008

My eldest daughter had one item on her Christmas wish list this year: a pair of Ugg sheepskin boots that retail for about $200. While she is certainly not pestering me, there is an ongoing discussion bordering on a negotiation, complete with pleading eyes.

Early on, she made what I thought was a sensible and worthy offer to downgrade to Emus, which cost $100 less, but somehow that offer got taken off the table when she tried on a pair of Uggs for sizing information that Santa would need and named the colour and style of the Uggs worn by her five closest girlfriends. The negotiation moved to her saying she would be happy to have only this one gift under the tree.

There is some desperation in that offer I think, and it doesn't make me entirely comfortable. With marketing and branding power coupled with peer pressure and a clothes-friendly pre-teen, it feels like the cards are stacked against me. I should mention that her feet are still growing!

I am fairly confident that this type of conversation has been happening in many homes across the land for a number of highly coveted items, and there is perhaps greater hesitancy to acquiesce to high-cost desires during the tough economic times we now face.

Regardless of the economic landscape, kids are more consumer-driven than ever and are prime targets for marketers. And it may seem familiar when I tell you that they have a significant influence over family purchases. YTV's 2002 Tween Report estimated that Canadian children aged 9 to 14 spend $1.9 billion and influence $20 billion in family purchases per year.

According to Juliet Schor's Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, kids in the U.S. reportedly spend $30 billion per year, and that's just the four-to-12-year-olds! The older kids, 12 to 17, spent $112.5 billion in 2003, and 87 per cent of it comes out of your pocket, mom and dad.

Children are influenced by their parents' spending habits, peer pressure, and the power of advertising. Consider that the average Canadian kid watches about two hours of television a day and sees more than 20,000 commercials a year — some sources say as many as 40,000 — and you can see how easy it is for marketers to exploit their vulnerabilities. Georgetown University professor Sandra Calvert reports that while the kinds of products marketed to children have remained mostly the same over the years, their buying power has increased exponentially over time.

Today's children and adolescents are more affluent than ever. They shape family buying patterns for such goods as vacations, cars, and food items. Kids are heavy media users and typically early adopters of newer technologies so they have a natural inclination to be consumers. There are differences, however, in how kids of different ages engage with the media that are important for determining both their consumer behaviours and the ways parents can intervene.

Kids under the age of five don't understand the difference between entertainment and advertising, so they watch commercials and programs with equal attention. They are concrete and while they may be able to differentiate between brands, they believe all of the marketing hype thrown their way. Their decisions are based on what they want, and since marketers associate products for this age group with fun and happiness, many parents end up facing the "I want it, I want it, I want it" tantrum with children of this age range. Clearly, kids this age are unable to make informed decisions about purchases.

The beginnings of understanding

When kids get to be about six or seven years of age, they begin to develop a concept of other people's beliefs, desires, and motives. Along with this new cognitive skill comes the awareness that advertisers are trying to get them to buy things, and of course they turn this around on you to influence your decisions — with great effect, I might add. They begin to be somewhat selective in what claims they will believe, but this also comes with growing awareness of what's "cool."

Tweens, age eight to 12, are fully aware of the purpose of advertisements, but they remain vulnerable. By the time they are full-fledged teenagers, marketers will take full advantage of their need to differentiate themselves from their parents. Note to self — telling my tween that I think Uggs are ugly only makes them seem all the more attractive to her!

Several parenting factors seem to have an influence on the importance kids place on material possessions. Children whose parents are permissive or authoritarian — highly demanding and directive — tend to be more materialistic, while those parents who are authoritative — combining love and nurturing with boundaries — tend to be less so. Not surprisingly, parents who themselves are highly materialistic tend to engender this trait in their children. And children from families that are disrupted tend to have a higher degree of materialism.

So what can parents do to shape good consumer habits? Many experts believe that teaching children about the meaning of money and how to manage money needs to begin at an early age. I've written about this before (Kids and Money), and there are good web-based resources on this topic (Sharon Danes' Children and Money series is a good example). And while it is impossible to shield your kids from all marketing messages, you can encourage media awareness to help them cope and decipher the bombardment of messages we all encounter daily.

Encourage them to think critically about marketing messages and to understand the strategies typically used. For instance, explain about product placement: if characters or celebrities are using a particular brand of item, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there. Monitor your own media and consumer habits and change them if necessary. Kids pick up early on what their parents do and say. Try to encourage your child or teen to develop leisure options and interests other than surfing the internet or watching television.

With the tough economic times upon us, many families are no longer as financially comfortable as they once were. The jobless rate in Canada was 6.3 per cent in November, according to Statistics Canada. It's expected to deteriorate over the next couple of years. According to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1.3 million Canadians will be unemployed in 2009, increasing to 1.4 million in 2010.

Job loss and loss of savings can have a devastating impact on families. Parents may need to commute greater distances to secure work, some families will be forced to change their living situation, and many more will struggle to put food on the table. Parents are dealing with stress, anger, disappointment, and worry, and they are also are concerned about if, how, when and what to tell their kids.

According to Anita Gurian, PhD, most parents want to spare their children, and although sharing the news is tough, there's really little choice. Kids usually pick up signals when something's wrong, and if they don't know the facts, they'll fill in the blanks with their own imagination or with misinformation based on media reports.

The general rule is to communicate in a supportive and hopeful manner how the changes will affect the family lifestyle and to consider your child's age. Kids under five need parental reassurance that they will be safe and cared for. With kids aged six to nine, you can be freer in answering questions, but remember they are concrete thinkers and view the impact on them as unfair. Kids older than 10 can understand the situation more fully and they can be encouraged to help with budgeting ideas. Above all, pull together as a family, stress the temporary nature of the situation, and don't rely on your kids for emotional support — they need your reassurance.






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