What Kids Really Want
Advertisers are giving kids a bad rap. They are portrayed in the media as disrespectful, barely tolerant of their parents, too smart for any living adult, greedy and cunning. That portrayal, which used to be reserved mainly for teens, is now referring to younger and younger children.
Don't believe me? How about the commercial for a minivan featuring a group of adorable – and demanding – youngsters of about 6 to 8 years old, sternly directing the work of a team of car designers? No "please" or "thank you" in this blurb – rather what is implied is that the adults have to pander to the children to make them happy.
If they really wanted to make them happy, they'd take them home, drop them off with their parents and tell them to take a hike – a family hike, that is.
What a Kid Wants
Contrary to the generational divisions being portrayed by the media, a recent poll indicated that 90 percent of children ages 9 to 14 said that family and friends were more important than anything money could buy. In addition, six out of 10 children said they would rather spend time having fun with their parents than going shopping.
The poll was commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit organization focused on helping Americans become more responsible consumers. Betsy Taylor is founder and president of the center, the author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy (Warner Books, March 2003) and, most importantly, the mother of two teens.
Taylor says that this depiction of younger and younger children and their parents as being on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gap is a growing trend in advertising and one that is not going unnoticed by concerned parents' groups and media watchdogs.
"The advertising community is playing into the adolescent desire for independence and trying to make rudeness cool," says Taylor. "Some analyses suggest that the advertisers are trying to associate themselves with the kids by portraying kids as rebels and indicating that by breaking the rules they're being cool and hip. There's a real edginess to some of these ads that is making parents very uncomfortable."
What a Kid Needs
A big problem with our children being bombarded by the media, says Taylor, is that they become unable to tell the difference between wanting something and needing something. In a phase of life that is already filled with differences of opinion between parents and kids, this can complicate matters a great deal.
"Advertisers are now aiming at children as young as 6 months old to try to instill brand loyalty," says Taylor. "And it's not just television. Ads are imbedded in everything children see: video games, food, clothing and virtually everything else they are in contact with."
Knowing that, it's probably no surprise that the same poll that showed kids want more time with family also showed that 80 percent of parents think their children are too materialistic. So what can a parent do to raise healthy, happy kids who are critical and understand the difference between wants and needs?
The best first step, says Taylor, is to turn off the TV for a while. She doesn't promote eliminating TV, because she thinks that's not realistic, but switching to only videos for a few days gives them – and you – a bit of shelter from the storm. However, she agrees with the many respected parenting experts who recommend that no child under age 6 should watch commercial television.
"At that stage of development children are truly unable to distinguish between marketing concepts and reality," says Taylor. "That won't completely protect them from our commercial society, but it can definitely make an easier and more critical transition to commercial television."
Shawna Franklin* of Erie, Pa., saw firsthand how commercial television affected her 4-year-old son. "With an older child in the house, I became very lax about our television viewing habits," she says. "I was given a rude awakening when my youngest stopped signing nursery rhymes and started singing commercial jingles!"
The next step is to become a savvy media consumer. While a growing theme of ads is alienation from parents or superiority over adults, the prevailing theme is acceptance. In other words, if you have that product, you'll be "cool," and people will like you. Taylor says it's important to sit down with your child and take a critical look at ads to examine what they're selling and how they're selling it.
In fact, Taylor recommends doing this fairly intensively for a few weeks or even a month, at least once a day. You can even turn it into a game to have children spot some of the advertisers' gimmicks that are trying to get a kid to want something. Then, discuss the difference between needing and wanting and the reality of popularity as a result of having the right "stuff."
"If you do this for a couple of weeks fairly intensely, it's very empowering to a child," says Taylor. "It gives the kids a little distance from the ads and helps them understand the difference between wanting and needing."
Striking a Balance
However, cautions Taylor, you have to learn to say both "yes" and "no" and to find substitutes for what you don't want your kids to do. In other words, if you say "no" to commercial TV, say yes to going outside and playing or riding bikes. If you say "no" to the mall, say yes to making a birdhouse together. Create conditions to go outside or play with friends or make a mess. There have to be alternative activities that are fun and worthwhile, or they might as well plop down in front of the television.
Taylor suggests such activities as stargazing, organizing a co-ed neighborhood softball team or having a cookout. Her book and the New American Dream Web site have literally hundreds of little suggestions from the mundane to a weekend camping trip. And don't take no for an answer from your child, either.
"If [you have] childhood memories that were special for you and something was really fun for you, it will probably be fun for them as well," says Taylor. "They may not be used to that type of simple activity because they've been habitually plugged in, but chances are that they'll have a great time, and it will be a very rewarding experience.
Taylor also says that sometimes you have to say "yes" to the mall. "Don't cut them or yourself off completely from the commercial world, because it's not realistic," says Taylor. "It's all about making sure you have balance and that you continue to be the main force in your children's lives – not advertisers."