“But Mum, I need it! I NEED IT! Everyone else has one.”
This familiar call of the young human to its parent is heard universally in Westernised culture. It’s a distress call.
We are programmed to want social acceptance. It’s not that we simply want to be accepted but that we feel we need to be accepted. In ancient times, if you were rejected by your tribe, you starved or died. No wonder this is a powerful driver for us. In our current consumerist society, and especially as young people, social acceptance and material things have become intimately linked.
Advertisers use this knowledge to create trends and fads, but now more than ever they are targeting the young. Companies have wised up to how much they can make by turning our children into consumers. When I was a baby, companies spent just £100 million on advertising to kids globally, now it’s £17 billion. Furthermore, brands will give out free goods to pregnant mothers so that their brand gets in front of newborn eyes first. But is materialism, essentially focusing on what stuff we have, so bad?
In short, yes, really bad.
Materialistic people have been shown to be less generous, less agreeable, less healthy, less likely to help others, less satisfied with their lives, less satisfied with their jobs, less caring about the environment, more likely to gamble, more likely to be in debt, lonelier, worse at keeping friends and less close to the friends they do have. Materialistic kids also do less well at school.
We know that when we think of ourselves as consumers, we become more selfish and disconnected from others and damage our positive relationships. In 1978, researchers Goldberg and Gorn studied two groups of kids. One group watched a TV show that included toy commercials and the other watched it without. Later, the kids who had watched the adverts chose to play alone with the advertised toys instead of with their friends.
Unfortunately, the 5000 marketing messages our kids are receiving every day are “you are a consumer”, “buy this”, “eat this”, “watch this”.
So, what can we do as parents?
How to Cure Not Feeling Cool
If your child is worried about not being cool, ask them gently why they think it’s important to be cool. Often it boils down to “the cool people have more friends”. Ask your child why they like their friends. Are they kind, funny, do they like to play with them, do they share or cheer them up? Get them to write down the answers. Tell them that these are the same reasons why people will like them. Tell them also that it doesn’t matter how many friends they have, it’s how close their friendships are that matter. If only a couple of close pals want to come to their birthday, make them imagine how many people those close pals are worth. Dozens! A whole class at least.
How to Protect Kids from Messaging
Very young children can’t tell the difference between ads and shows – they absorb it all. It’s also easy for our kids to see the children in the ads who look so happy, excited and popular and assume they need those things to be happy too. When they are old enough to understand, sit down with your kids and watch some adverts together. Talk about them and what they are trying to do:
- The people on TV have been paid to look like they’re having fun
- Ads want us to buy more things
- Ads might not always tell the exact truth
- Ads can make things seem better than they are
- Ads try to make us feel like the toys and things we have aren’t good enough.
To counteract this, make some fun, silly ads for the toys your child has already, and try to encourage gratitude both by voicing gratitude for the things you have and asking your child what they’re grateful for before bedtime.
Gender stereotypes are rife on TV too, which has the effect of making girls feel like they can’t do certain things and boys feel they can’t express their emotions constructively. Explain all of this to your kids in simple terms, and let your son know that if he wants a doll or if your daughter wants pirate Lego, that’s completely fine.
Block Those Ads
As much as possible, try to protect your children from ads. Reducing TV time has huge benefits, especially with young kids. They fall asleep easier, sleep longer and have less aggressive behaviour. It can feel hard to transition away from TV watching when the family is used to watching it a lot. The trick is to be ready with something to do and have the equipment ready. Some ideas could be:
- Board games or quizzes
- Playing instruments
- Making up stories or writing
- Building dens
- Inventing things
- Cooking or baking
- Science “experiments”
- Martial arts
- Meditation or yoga
- Imaginary games or dress-up
- Talking about your day
If they watch TV where ads can’t be skipped, teach them where the mute button is and make a game of trying to hit it quickly when ads come on. Then teach them that this is the time to go to the loo or see how much of a puzzle they can do.
But it’s not just TV: 87 percent of the most popular kids websites contain advertising. If you have young children, make a list of sites you’re happy for them to visit and bookmark them. Be aware of what older kids are looking at and where messaging might be getting to them. Try to find ad-free alternatives to their news and media sources and install a good ad blocker, but also be prepared to pay for quality ad-free content.
The Smartphone Solution
Smartphones are the perfect device to spread consumerism and discontent. Instagram, in particular, is causing depression because it parades covetable lifestyles in front of your children making them feel inferior, anxious and unhappy with their own “real” lives.
In America, there is now a pledge to hold off buying kids a smartphone until the 8th grade (around 13 years old), which is working well in some communities. Try to get a consensus of parents to hold off together; the pressure will be much less for the kids to get them.
But banning tech altogether may not be the answer. It’s important to teach your kids to be responsible with tech in the same way as we teach them to be responsible with alcohol. Both are addictive after all. Teach them by example. Don’t spend hours on your phone and make family time sacred. Don’t let your child go to bed with their phone – put all phones in a basket or drawer to be used again in the morning.
Talk to your children about phone addiction, about how social media can make you feel, cyberbullying and sexting. Try your best to keep up to date with what technology kids are using to communicate and the issues it can cause.
Fixing the Fashion Issue
Once kids start to notice fashion and associate some items with being “in” and some with being “out”, it’s time to talk to them.
Get them to critically question why people think some things are fashionable and others not. Who’s making up these rules? Why should we listen to them? Empower them to find their own style early on. Encourage them to experiment with different coloured fabrics, shapes of clothes and textures of fabric to decide what they really like. Remind them that there is no right or wrong when it comes to fashion, just like there’s no right or wrong over what is the best flavour of ice cream, it’s all a matter of taste. Most children wouldn’t change their favourite ice-cream flavour because someone else told them to, neither should they change their taste in clothing. This should give them the confidence to reject trends and fads that they don’t personally like and build a wardrobe that is uniquely them.
Celebrities (and I include Winnie the Pooh and Postman Pat in this) can influence kids to want certain items. Get them to question why they like the celebrities they do. Looking up to talented performers and artists is natural and inspiring, but let’s encourage kids to use their enthusiasm to work hard on their own talents and passions, rather than consuming the work of others.
Emphasise what these celebs do rather than what they have or what they’re endorsing. Try to move your child’s thinking away from:
“She has lovely hair – I wish I had her hair” to
“She works hard on her dancing – I should work hard at my piano.”
“He has this brand of clothes – I should wear that brand” to
“He’s discovered his own style. I should discover my style too.”
“She’s on that cereal box, so I want that cereal” to
“She was brave in that movie. I can be brave too.”
When it comes to celebrity endorsements, try this fun trick to let your kids see if they really like the product the celeb is advertising or if it’s just the celebrity they like:
Take the face of a person or celebrity they don’t like and put it over the celeb’s face in the advert. Do they still like the product? What you want is for kids to learn to buy things mindfully on their own terms and not because they are being manipulated by outside forces.
Set Shopping Expectations
Decide as a family how many clothes and toys you’re comfortable with having in the house and then implement a one-in/one-out system.
You need to be very clear about when things will be bought. If any shopping trip to the supermarket can result in a new toy, you are setting yourself up to be nagged. You might choose birthdays, Christmas and the beginning of the summer holidays for new things. It might be once a term or once a month. Choose when you think is right for your family. Then before a new item is bought, encourage your child to pick something to donate. If they decide they don’t want anything new and want to keep their old things, that’s fine too.
Avoiding Toy Overload
One nursery in Germany took away all their toys, and after a few minutes of bemusement, the kids came up with fun games they could play with each other. Kids need very little to be entertained, but by bringing so many toys into their lives, they are denied the opportunity to come up with their own ideas.
It’s been shown that if kids are overloaded with toys, they can’t concentrate and it causes stress. Get in the habit of keeping toys out of sight and bringing out just a couple of things at a time. Of course, there are exceptions. If your child is creating an imaginary scene a-la Toy Story, let them run with it.
Think About Your Own Consumption
Finally, and this may pinch a little, ask yourself with honesty:
- Do I compare what I have with others and feel insecure?
- Do I buy things for my kids impulsively, or out of guilt, or ‘“just because”?
- Do I focus on possessions over experiences or use shopping as therapy?
Children will pick up on your habits, so one of the foremost things you can do is learn to control the consumerist tendencies in yourself. This is easier said than done with the whole world screaming “buy buy buy” at you. Give yourself the same kindness as you plan to give your own kids.
Shield yourself from damaging messages, empower yourself to stand by your own taste and practice gratitude for everything you have right now.
Tara Button is on a mission to change the way the world shops forever. In 2016 her little idea went viral and BuyMeOnce was born. After working ten years in advertising, she's now using her powers for good rather than evil. Tara lives in Hertfordshire with a murderous cat and a husband she gets to laugh at every day. Her first book A Life Less Throwaway is published with Harper Collins in the UK and Penguin Random House in the USA.