The Recession, Kids and Consumer Culture

How does the recession affect kids, particularly with regard to family spending? I’ve been talking to a fair number of journalists lately, because my new book (Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture) just came out, and that is their number one question.   The breadth of the recession means that families are looking to save money anywhere they can. Families want to know how to cut back on spending for their children, but they want to do so carefully – without pulling the rug out from under the kids.  Here are nine facts that we know from research:

Cutting back on spending on kids requires more than a “Just Say No” campaign. It is too easy to lambast parents for their inability to say no. Parents who buy are not just “giving in” to kids because they are spineless, and kids are not just nagging parents because they are materialistic. These are core misunderstandings that lead to bumper-sticker type prescriptions. Parents won’t change until the meaning of things in children’s social worlds change.

Families prioritize spending on children. Even under financial duress, families look to cut back on other kinds of spending first, saving children’s needs for the last resort. (But research suggests that this behavior varies by race and class).

There is some evidence suggesting parents are still spending on children, despite the financial meltdown. Lego is up 38% in 2008 sales, Nintendo up 8.8 % in sales over the year before. The toy industry is down as a whole, but only by 3 percent over the previous year (this based on total sales of more than $22 billion).

The engine here, behind children’s consumer desires, is children’s conversations with their peers, the talk at school or in the neighborhood. Parents (and children) are afraid that without particular purchases or experiences, their children will be different, won’t fit in, will feel excluded.   The picture below is from Spain, further evidence of Gameboy the international language. gameboy-the-international-language

These conversations are more important now not just because of the explosion of advertising ($17 billion a year) but because kids spend more time in groups than before (expansion of schooling, daycare, after school programs etc)). Also because of the centrality of children in today’s home, the recognition of children as individuals, the elevation of children’s presence and voice in the home.

BUT Children who don’t own something or haven’t done something that everyone around them is talking about, often manage to join in anyway. Most often, they work hard to be able to fake it. They acquire the knowledge and skills related to a particular fad so they can speak intelligently about it, They learn the plots of movies their parents won’t let them see, They learn to play with Yugioh! cards even if they don’t own any, They learn details about the latest Wii game they’ve never tried. They survive the experience of difference.

Thus parents who find themselves having to say no more now can comfort themselves in knowing that most children manage those situations of lacking the important items creatively. Children might not like it, but they can handle it. Parents often overestimate the urgency of having things based on their own memories of shame or exclusion or yearning. Those memories carry a lot of emotional heft, but they don’t mean children will be scarred.

Parents tend not to talk to children about financial issues, but the idea that children are somehow sheltered from the larger world, that they can be kept innocent or ignorant of what is going on around them, is mostly an adult fantasy. Children, even very young children, pick up on the emotions around them, so if parents or other people around are worried, chances are the children can feel it already. An open, caring conversation with parents about prospects might make them less worried, rather than more.

Beyond “just say no,” parents who want to do something about spending on kids have three options: 1) shut down/limit the TV and other exposure to advertising. (50% of kids say their families have TV rules but don’t enforce them); 2) talk to neighbors and schools about new practices limiting the experience of being different (a neighborhood pact against party bags?; school uniforms?; classroom conversations about what-I-did-on-my-vacation?); and 3) make difference safer for kids (help kids find their own inner unique characteristics/skills/qualities that they can draw upon for strength; model good practices as adults in friendships and work).

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One Comment on “The Recession, Kids and Consumer Culture”

  1. Kim Says:

    My sister recently had a party for her 5 year old daughter with an explicit request that parents NOT bring gifts. She had already had a family party where my niece did receive toys. My sister felt any more was just too much. My niece didn’t even notice. It was the parents who found it hard to comply. My sister reported several asking, more than once, if she was “really sure” it was okay to come “empty-handed”.


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