Raising Smart Consumers

by Ann Douglas

"Parents need to recognize that they have a responsibility to teach their children to become wise consumers and to realize that their children are, in fact, being bombarded with advertising messages from a very early age."

Taking my nine year old daughter Julie shopping for a birthday present for either of her three brothers is an exercise in sheer torture. Rather than resorting to impulse buying, she's determined to weigh each option carefully and to compare the prices of different toys before making a purchasing decision. (Her Dad and I have learned to use the bathroom in the mall before we get started because once you hit the stores with Julie, you just know you're in for a marathon shopping experience.)

While shopping with her requires a tremendous amount of patience and stamina, Julie's well on her way to becoming a smart consumer. She understands the principles of comparison shopping, and she's grasped a hard truth that many adults still struggle with when your wallet's empty, it's time to go home!

Now let me tell you about our eight-year-old son Scott's approach to shopping. He's wowed by packaging, and often doesn't actually care what's inside. He's brand specific, he feels that anything with a Batman logo on it is worth buying, even if it's poorly put together or grossly overpriced. And he has not yet grasped the idea that if you spend your money today, there'll be nothing left for tomorrow.

We're confident that Scott's shopping skills will improve as he gets older -- with Julie as a trainer, how can he lose? - but we also realize that we have a significant role to play in ensuring that he leaves home knowing how to make wise purchasing decisions.

Kathy Lynn of Parenting Today (a Vancouver, B.C.-based consulting firm) agrees that raising kids who are aware of the impact of advertising is important in today's world "Parents need to recognize that they have a responsibility to teach their children to become wise consumers and to realize that their children are, in fact, being bombarded with advertising messages from a very early age."

They also need to be taught that when it comes to the glitzy world of advertising, what you see ain't necessarily what you get. "Children believe that what they see on television is true," notes Lynn. "Television is warm and fuzzy, and it's right in their livingroom." That's why it's so important to spend time watching TV with your kids, and to talk to them about what the advertising messages really mean.

"Make it a game," suggests Lynn. "Ask your kids if they can figure out how the advertisers made the breakfast cereal look so appealing, or why the toy on TV looks so big. Take the magic out of the advertising presentation."

Be sure to help your kids to identify any discrepancies between what certain products look like on TV and what they look like in real life, Lynn advises. (i.e. Point out the difference between the mouth-watering hamburgers that they see on television and the rather squished ones that they get at the takeout window of the local hamburger franchise).

The key, however, is to avoid turning a learning opportunity into a mini-lecture. The messages heard and the lessons learned will be far more powerful if you allow the kids to draw their own conclusions. After all, you only have to buy a superhero figurine once to discover that it doesn't come with all of the neat accessories (or make any of the nifty sound effects!) that were demonstrated on TV.

Another important aspect of becoming a smart consumer is learning to manage money. That's why parents need to encourage their kids to make their own purchasing decisions and to budget for special purchases. This isn't always easy in a society that thrives on instant credit and instant gratification.

"If our kids are into instant gratification, it's for good reason," insists Lynn. "It comes from not being asked to wait for anything. We need to teach them that if something's really worth having, it's worth waiting for."

And if your child decides to blow a month's worth of allowance on something really stupid, let him. You shouldn't prevent your child from making a bad purchasing decision and learning from his mistake (unless, of course, the item in question is something that you simply can't tolerate on moral grounds or for safety reasons.) After all, it's far less painful to learn from a mistake that cost you $20 when you were eight years old than it is to learn the same lesson when you purchase a $300 pair of roller blades ten years later.

If you see that your child is about to make a bad choice, you might want to offer your opinion -- i.e. "That toy looks like it might break quite easily" -- but that should be the extent of your involvement.

If your child decides to go ahead with the purchase anyway and the toy subsequently breaks, resist the temptation to say, "I told you so" or to run out and replace the toy. Instead, demonstrate that you empathize with him and encourage him to return the broken toy to the store where it was purchased or to write a letter of complaint to the manufacturer or the local newspaper.

While teaching kids to become smart consumers doesn't happen overnight, there are certain moments when you get the satisfaction that comes from knowing that the message is starting to sink in. The last time we visited the toy store, Scott shook his head in disgust.

"Do you know why they made all the new Batmans bigger than the old ones?" he asked. I shrugged my shoulders and waited for his reply.

"It's because they want you to buy a whole new set of Batmans and a new batmobile, too. Mom, they just want you to spend all your money."

He stomped down the aisle, outraged that someone in the Batman factory would do such a thing.

I stood there and smiled.

Ann Douglas is the author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare, Baby Science How Babies Really Work , and The Unofficial Guide to Having A Baby. She writes the monthly "Mom's the Word" column for Canadian Parents Online and is a regular contributor to a number of print and online publications. She and her husband have 4 children. Ann is frequently quoted in the media on a range of parenting-related topics, and has appeared as a guest on a number of television and radio shows. She can be contacted via her management firm, Page One Productions Inc.

Copyright © Ann Douglas. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org LLC.