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Even as they see their wages go down and their buying power decrease, many parents are still putting their kids' material desires first. These parents struggle with how to handle children's consumer wants, which continue unabated despite the economic downturn. And, indeed, parents and other adults continue to spend billions of dollars on children every year. Why do children seem to desire so much, so often, so soon, and why do parents capitulate so readily? To determine what forces lie behind the onslaught of Nintendo Wiis and Bratz dolls, Allison J. Pugh spent three years observing and interviewing children and their families.
In Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, Pugh teases out the complex factors that contribute to how we buy, from lunchroom conversations about Game Boys to the stark inequalities facing American children. Pugh finds that children's desires stem less from striving for status or falling victim to advertising than from their yearning to join the conversation at school or in the neighborhood. Most parents respond to children's need to belong by buying the particular goods and experiences that act as passports in children's social worlds, because they sympathize with their children's fear of being different from their peers. Even under financial constraints, families prioritize children "feeling normal". Pugh masterfully illuminates the surprising similarities in the fears and hopes of parents and children from vastly different social contexts, showing that while corporate marketing and materialism play a part in the commodification of childhood, at the heart of the matter is the desire to belong.
Care and Belonging in the Market
It is a few days before Halloween at the Sojourner Truth after-school center in Oakland, California, and I am sitting with some children at a table where they are supposed to be doing their homework. Instead, the children, all of them from low-income families and who attend this center for free or almost no cost, are talking about the upcoming holiday. Aleta, an African-American third grader, is holding forth about her costume.
"I'm going to be a vampire," she announces, gleefully, almost cackling. Already she has the outfit: the teeth, the cape, the shoes. Her mom bought it at Target, she says offhandedly, tossing her head and making the beads in her hair rattle. Simon and Marco, two recent immigrant children about seven years old, are listening closely without smiling, eyeing her like dancers memorizing an audition routine, and occasionally filling in their homework sheets. Thinking to include them in Aleta's fantastic reverie, I ask them what they will be for Halloween, but they find the question difficult.
"I'm not going to be anything," Simon, a recent African immigrant, says flatly, his eyebrows arched high in a disdain he appears to be trying on for size. "I only care about the candy."
Marco, who arrived from Mexico last year, agrees, but then he pauses. "I'm just going to go as me," he says, with a studied casualness. "The humans were the scariest part of [the horror movie] Dawn of the Dead."
Neither Simon's nor Marco's parents had been in the country more than two years; later, Simon's proud mother tells me Halloween is as meaningless to them as the Tooth Fairy. To Simon's parents, refugees who have been working three jobs to save for a home, a Halloween costume is the height of frivolity, a potent symbol of the children's peer culture to which they, with the bemused confidence born of certainty, turn a deaf ear.
But later on that same day at Sojourner Truth, when another classmate comes up to the table and asks the same question, Simon is prepared, ready to manage the commercial demands of the peer culture in which he has found himself. "I am going as me," I overhear him saying, his high, clear voice piercing the din of children's voices as they get ready for snack. "The humans were the scary ones in Dawn of the Dead."
A few days later, on a quiet, leafy street whose elegant homes seem farther away than the short, seven-minute drive from Sojourner Truth, Judy Berger put her elbows on her teak dining table and sighed when I asked her whether she had ever regretted buying anything for her eight-year-old son Max. A quiet and reflective woman, Judy was nonetheless clearly pained when she described how the popular electronic handheld Game Boy had affected her family's life. They finally bought Max the gaming system for his birthday, after two years of his intense lobbying, in which he pointed out that all of his friends had them, and that "that is what they do for fun, [and] that is what they talk about over lunch and stuff like that," Judy said. The fight had gone on so long he had given up hope that they would buy him one, contenting himself with a magazine featuring Game Boy lore, which he pored over again and again, acquiring a certain Game Boy fluency if not possession. Judy laughed wryly about his absorption, saying, "At least he had something to do on the plane to Australia." When he actually unwrapped the Game Boy on his birthday, Judy recalled, "I have to say I don't think that I have ever seen him so happy before or after that."
But the good feeling didn't last. "It really strained our relationship," she said. "Max was doing it [playing games] every day, every single morning before school we were really fighting about turning it off, and how important—you know, what is more important, finishing this level or going to school on time?" She grimaced at the memory. "So now one of the rules we have is that when it is time to go to school or time to go to violin lesson or camp, when we really have to leave, he just has to turn it off no matter what." After too many arguments about whether or not he could stop in the middle of a game, Judy even called the manufacturer to see if her son was right, was there no way to save his progress, did he have to keep playing until he was past a certain level, could he not just put it down when she wanted him to? When Judy talked about the Game Boy, it was as if she was talking about a teenager's alarming girlfriend, one who distracted her son from making wise choices, one who was outside her control, but also one who, because of her son's intense attachment, could not simply be turned away.
She instituted other rules to control Max's playing. He could play it in the morning only when he had his backpack on, his breakfast eaten, his teeth brushed. He could play for only a half hour a day, and they set a kitchen timer to keep track. He could not play it in the car, even though she knew other families found that convenient. "I am not buying this as a babysitter, you know," she said. "I am buying it for—because I gave in."
Thus when I asked Judy if she regretted a particular purchase, it would not have been surprising if she had named the Game Boy. But she demurred. It is not that she rued buying the Game Boy for Max, she insisted. "I guess I felt almost like it wasn't really, like I couldn't have not bought it, because now we are there in our life," she said, her normally smooth syntax turning convoluted to express her certain ambivalence, the contradictions she was straddling between her distaste for what she considered the Game Boy's addictive, violent, and sedentary properties, and her desire to make Max happy. Most important, the gaming system had so saturated the social lives of eight-year-old boys they knew that she did not think she could relegate Max to that kind of invisibility, that kind of social pathos. "It is kind of sad that it feels like it is a given that you will have one," she conceded. "It is too bad that that is where we are." Judy did not regret buying the Game Boy, she regretted having to buy it.
THE HIDDEN CRISES OF CHILDHOOD CONSUMPTION
Commodity consumption for children has exploded, with fully $670 billion annually spent on or by children in the United States by 2004. Many moments of childhood now involve the act of buying, from daily experiences to symbolic rituals, from transportation to lunches to birthdays. As market researcher James McNeal has crowed, "precisely all those activities that we call consumer behavior are performed by millions of ... children ... every day in virtually every aspect of life." The U.S. government calculated that the cost of raising a child to age seventeen, adjusted for inflation, climbed by 12.8 percent from 1960 to 2000, but many experts believe even these measures are far too low: a recalculation in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "The Million-Dollar Kid" tripled the most recent government estimates for the richest families. The "commodity frontier" is advancing in child rearing, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild warns, as "companies ... expand the number of market niches for goods and services covering activities that, in yesteryear, formed part of unpaid 'family life.' "
Many social commentators blame consumer culture for a burgeoning crisis of childhood. Television advertising and overindulgent parents have led to epidemics of children's materialism, depression, hyperactivity, obesity, and other problems, these analysts contend. Books and editorials with titles such as "Parenting, Inc.," Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, and "Reclaiming Childhood" lament the commodification of children's lives, arguing that childhood in the United States and other advanced economies is in danger of being overrun by the market, with children's lives tethered to the corporate bottom line.
These stories reflect real concerns about children's lives, and how parents and children are responding to new pressures and tensions embedded in the task of growing up. They usefully draw our attention to the billion-dollar industry bent on using whatever works to capture children's attention and allegiance. Yet underlying their critique of corporate capitalism is an acute discomfort with children's desire generally. Is it that children should not be consuming at all (surely next to impossible in this world), or is it rather that children want the wrong things (too adult, too tacky, or just too much), or they want them in the wrong way (too intensely)? Perhaps widespread uneasiness with the often unsubtle, uninhibited nature of children's consumer desire is distracting us from other, more fundamental, concerns: the hidden crises of consumption.
I argue the question we should be asking is this: How is the commercialization of childhood shaping what it means to care, and what it means to belong? An analogy to divorce helps clarify the issue: some family scholars have argued that high divorce rates affect not just the families that break apart, but even those that stay together, through the spread of a "divorce culture" and its weakened assumptions about mutual trust and obligation. In the same way, perhaps rising consumption, by its sheer domination of childhood today, establishes a new cultural environment, with new expectations about what parents should provide, what children should have, and what having, or not having, signifies. The market suffuses childhood today, but it does not do so in the aggregate, like so much liquid poison pouring into one individual child after another, as some critics would have it. Instead, it permeates the relationships in which children are embedded. What role does the market play in these relationships? What meanings do children and parents impart to particular commodities? How does commercial culture thread its way through children's emotional connections, with peers and with parents?
I investigated these questions through an ethnography of childhood consumer culture, involving observations of children at school and with their families, and interviews with parents and other caregivers. I spent three years with the children of Sojourner Truth, and six months with children in more affluent settings, a private school I call Arrowhead, and an elite public school I call Oceanview. I sat at "circle time" with the children, read to them, tied their shoes, knitted with them, threw footballs, jumped rope, and went to birthday parties and on field trips. I listened to their jokes and stories, eavesdropped on their conversations, taped their songs and games, took them shopping, to the car wash, to the library. I also listened to parents from fifty-four families, in interviews generally lasting two to four hours, sometimes over several visits. I talked to teachers and other school staff and attended neighborhood meetings, award ceremonies, fundraisers, and festivals. (Chapter 2 offers more details about the methods of this research.) Through these efforts, I immersed myself in the childhoods and parenthoods of people grappling every day with the exigencies of consuming for children, its practices and meanings. I found that the hidden crises of consumption for children lurk in the convergence of inequality, care, and the market, which enables consumer culture to saturate children's emotional connections to others.
THE ECONOMY OF DIGNITY
I argue that the key to children's consumer culture, to the explosion of parent buying and the question of what things mean to children, lies in social experiences much like the incidents described at the beginning of this chapter, the exchange about costumes and movies among Simon, Marco, and Aleta at the Sojourner Truth center, and Max's lunch-table discussions about Game Boys as recounted by his mother, Judy. I observed similar conversations among affluent and poor children alike, in private schools and public, on playgrounds, at birthday parties—wherever children gathered. Everywhere children claim, contest, and exchange among themselves the terms of their social belonging, or just what it would take to be able to participate among their peers. I came to call this system of social meanings the "economy of dignity."
The "economy of dignity" echoes a phrase coined by Arlie Hochschild, who dubbed the exchange of recognition between spouses—for gifts of time, work, or feeling—the "economy of gratitude." Couples negotiating who would do the laundry or make dinner owed or banked gratitude, depending on how their behavior measured up against their sometimes unstable bargain about who should be responsible for what. Similarly, I argue, children collect or confer dignity among themselves, according to their (shifting) consensus about what sort of objects or experiences are supposed to count for it.
The dictionary defines dignity as "the quality or state of being worthy," but we might reasonably ask, worthy of what? I suggest that for children a vital answer is "worthy of belonging." I use "dignity" to mean the most basic sense of children's participation in their social world, what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen called an "absolute capability ... to take part in the life of the community." With dignity, children are visible to their peers, and granted the aural space, the very right to speak in their own community's conversation.
By focusing on dignity, I am not talking about a particularly common view of why people buy: competitive status-seeking behavior. Buyers buy, according to this tradition, in order to establish themselves as better than those to whom they compare themselves, to "gain the esteem and envy of one's fellow-men," as Veblen put it more than a hundred years ago. While inducing jealousy is certainly part of the emotional landscape of consumption, my use of "dignity" refers less to "envy" than to the "esteem" of others, the goal of joining the circle rather than one of bettering it. Through claiming that their own bodies were part of the costume, Simon and Marco were not so much seeking honor, demanding respect, or even striving for status, I argue, but rather they sought, with a measure of bravado masking their momentary desperation, to join in.
Children together shape their own economies of dignity, which in turn transform particular goods and experiences into a form of scrip, tokens of value suddenly fraught with meaning. Children's lives can traverse several different economies of dignity—at school, at their after-school program, and in the neighborhood, for example—where different tokens can become salient in the peer culture resident there. And when children—even affluent ones—find themselves without what they need to join the conversation, they perform what I termed "facework" to make up for the omission.
Simon and Marco, for example, knew that Halloween was the official children's holiday in American culture (and as a safely secular holiday it was one that was fully celebrated by their public school, which—not unusually—arranged for costume display, candy distribution, and parades during school time). These boys' facework was to interpret their total nonparticipation—at their young age still problematic—not as their families' choice to opt out but as a different sort of costume, an innovation on the cultural imperative of being scary that had even greater cachet by referring to a popular movie. With this discursive move, they demonstrated their cultural bilingualism, translating their own lives into what would make sense—even more, make dignity—in the social world of the after-school program.
Excerpted from Longing and Belonging by Allison J. Pugh. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Chapter 1. Care and Belonging in the Market
Chapter 2. Differences in Common: Studying
Chapter 3. Making Do: Children and the Economy of Dignity
Chapter 4. Ambivalence and Allowances: Affluent Parents Respond
Chapter 5. The Alchemy of Desire into Need: Dilemmas of Low-
Chapter 6. Saying No: Resisting Children's Consumer Desires
Chapter 7. Consuming Contexts, Buying Hope: Shaping the Pathways of Children
Chapter 8. Conclusion: Beyond the Tyranny of Sameness