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In the Whirled: Teaching kids to be smart consumers

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Before teaching children to be smart consumers, examine your own habits.

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P.T. Barnum was reported to have said, “A sucker is born every minute.”

It doesn't take long from the time those suckers are born to start consuming. From the minute a toddler can utter the words “Thomas” or “Lightning McQueen,” another consumer is ushered into the world of advertising trends.

Just one example of this sad reality happened in my home recently. My kids went crazy for Hero Factory figurines. We had a few castoffs lying around in the toy bin that hadn’t been touched in months. Suddenly it was Hero Factory all day, every day. My boys begged me to drive them to Target so they could look at Hero Factory. They combed through Amazon’s offerings. They pleaded for an advance on their allowance. (Denied.)

Watching all this from the periphery, I thought the sudden Hero Factory fever seemed unusual. Like any good mother-sleuth, I decided to investigate. It turns out those marketing geniuses at Lego had sent my boys a “free” DVD in their Lego Club magazine. The DVD was an animated movie about, you guessed it, Hero Factory. Now my kids were willing to shell out 20 bucks for a figurine that meant nothing to them a week ago.

Another sucker born.

Now, Hero Factory is pretty innocuous, but this incident is the tip of the commercial iceberg. With each passing year, as my kids enter the teen years and move on into adulthood, they will be assaulted by smart advertising for food, gadgets, clothing, cars and homes.

One of our many jobs as parents is to teach our kids not to fall prey to every commercial whim. We need to teach them to be smart consumers and set the patterns of wise spending while they’re young. Here are a few suggestions on how to do this:

1. As much as possible, keep kids away from TV. Saturday morning cartoons only feed them into an advertising machine. You may not be able to avoid TV altogether, but stick to commercial-free videos or PBS, where commercials are kept to a minimum.

2. Avoid the toy aisle at the store. Kids don’t know what they’re missing until they see it, right? My kids are perfectly content with their toys until they see the new lineup of Thomas trains at Wal-Mart.

3. Keep an open dialogue with your kids after they visit friends. Inevitably their friends will have cooler toys: the hottest new Legos or the latest snazzy Barbie. Talk about why your family doesn’t buy every new toy. Help your kids see what they do have.

4. Teach kids about advertising, branding and packaging. Show them that when they buy a plastic Nerf gun, they’re paying for the cardboard box that holds it, the fancy design and the Nerf name. My kids have had this lecture so many times they’ll hold up a toy in the store and say, “You’re paying for packaging on this one!”

5. If you give allowance, teach kids how to use it. Require them to save some, pay a tithe to their church and talk about purchases before they buy. If my kids see something they want at the store, I usually make them go home and wait a few days before buying it. This discourages impulse purchases and teaches them to think through how they spend their money.

6. Set the example. Do a litmus test on your own consumer habits. Do the blogs you read make you want the latest pair of sandals or sunglasses? Do you avoid the stores that suck you into buying? (Ahem, Target.) Do you come home from visiting friends and grumble about their new hardwood floors and stainless steel fridge? Do you assess the branding and packaging that go into the things you buy? Have you set up good spending habits that your kids can model?

Why does any of this matter? Because little consumers become big consumers. Americans spend a crazy amount of money on extraneous items. We also spend a great deal of time maintaining, organizing and rearranging the things we purchase. Just walk through a thrift store in your area and assess the stacks of toys, clothes and household items we eliminate every year.

Of course, smart consumers aren’t made in a day. As I wrote this column, my oldest son sat by my side, reading over my shoulder.

“I’ve got a great idea for a photo to accompany your column,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?" I asked. "What?”

“A picture of me and my brother sitting at the table playing Hero Factory,” he said. He gave me a sly smile. “But first, of course, you’ll have to buy me a new Hero Factory figure.”

Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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