Learning to separate from the consumer machine isn’t much different than learning other languages in that the earlier you begin the more fluent you’ll be in the language of postconsumerism. That’s why this month, back-to-school month, we’re talking about ways to begin teaching lessons about consumerism to your children at various points in their development and their lives. Today, we’re setting the focus on one of the earliest points of intervention – grade school children.
How Grade School Children Are Exposed to Consumerism
You may be surprised how many different ways grade school children are exposed to consumer media messages. By grade school, children are already receiving pounding about consumerism and stuff both through media messages – primarily in advertising, cartoons and animated movies – and through social interaction with other children. To counteract those bombardments, here are ten ways to intervene in the programming of the social consumer machine.
1. Don’t Watch Cartoons on Real-Time Television
This one is simple! While it does mean that you, the parent, will be paying for “stuff” either in the form of dvds or streamed online content, you can do your child a great favor by not watching cartoons or children’s programming on real-time television. When you watch during real-time television hours, your child will inevitably be exposed to commercials for toys, food and more (PBS stations might have it under control in your area). Opt for versions of your favorite children’s programming that may cost you money but will save your child from consumer exposure.
2. Limit Unsupervised Screen Time
Similarly, limit your child’s ability to have unsupervised screen hours. We’re not advising this because of the studies regarding the impact of screen time on children’s brains (though we think that’s worth your looking into). The more screen hours your child has (and yes this includes both television and online time) the more consumer messaging they’re exposed to. When you limit your child’s screen involvement, you do them lots of favors. But of course our favorite favor is that you start them out de-programmed from an entire segment of the consumer media machine.
3. Be Discerning About Online Games
There are a great deal of online games that actually benefit children’s knowledge and brain development. But there are also plenty of online games that have either direct commercials within them or embedded messages about how “cool” it is to acquire things. Be sure to have played through any internet games you’re planning to make available to your child so that you can eliminate games that will deliver consumer dictates to your child.
4. Explain What Commercials Are
One of the reasons that commercials during cartoon hours on television are so effective is that many younger grade school children are still working through the process of understanding what’s real and what’s not and may not understand that a commercial is designed to sell them things and isn’t actually programming. Have an upfront conversation with your child about what advertisements are and how, exactly, they are designed to take advantage of people.
5. Have Your Child Save For His Or Her “Must Have” Items
At any age, having your children earn and save for their own purchases when possible will give them a better sense of the value of those items. Of course, the younger you start, the more the message will resonate for years to come. Our observation has been that grade school children actually find the greatest level of satisfaction when they’re able to earn and pay for their own toys and purchases. It says something about the sense of earning and achieving that somehow disappears later.
6. Control Grandparents!
You may be working to teach your kids important lessons about consumerism and “stuff” while their grandparents (or aunts, uncles, godparents and others) are showering them with enough “stuff” for ten kids. Remember though, no matter how much you love the people who love your kids, you’re still the parent. Draw lines with anybody who’s teaching your child to over-value things or view them as rewards.
7. Enroll Your Child in Activities
The more that your child is stimulated by things other than “stuff,” the less that he or she will begin to focus on “stuff.” We do want to give a word of warning that you may go too far in the other direction, however. There are plenty of studies that suggest that today’s kids are overscheduled and over-stressed. Find a healthy balance of activities and rest for your children, but keep them involved so that they learn about the satisfaction of “doing” early on.
8. Have Open Discussions About “Stuff” and “School”
Chances are it won’t be very long before your child comes home from school and says some variation of “But all the other kids have one.” You’re not going to be able to overcome peer pressure entirely. After all, you’re only the parents! You’re not as cool or in-the-know as the other kids. There are times when you’ll likely want to (or even need to) concede that toy or clothing item that everybody else has to your child. But have an open discussion about peer pressure and stuff when the phrase comes up. Explain to your child the realities of social pressure, marketing and things that are more important than “stuff” … like self-confidence or personality. Chances are the message won’t resonate with a grade schooler, but it will stick with them in the years to come.
9. Talk to Your Child About Endorsements
Grade school children are particularly susceptible to wanting to buy something just because they saw a celebrity or athlete endorse it, because they lack the understanding of nuance and marketing to realize that their favorite celebrity (or even cartoon character) doesn’t really use the product he or she (or it) is endorsing. They may (and likely do) really believe that using the product will make them as fast, athletic, beautiful or smart as the celebrity selling it. Explain to your grade schooler that the person was only paid to endorse the product. Just remember to do it gently – you don’t want to turn their entire world view jaded so early.
10. Don’t Reward Successes with “Stuff.”
The most important thing that you can do with a child of any age is to be a great example and to not reward successes with stuff … even if it’s what they ask for. The entire paradigm of “things” being a stimulus or having a higher value than experiences or the satisfaction of enough starts at home. There are plenty of ways to reward your child for his or her successes without a trip down the toy aisle, and the earlier we begin that process the easier and smoother it will be later on.
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Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr