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Author Biography: Betsy Taylor is the Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream, whose mandate is to shift Americans away from rampant consumerism. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.
THIS BOOK is for any parent who has been asked-okay, begged-for the latest toy, item of clothing, electronic gadget, or junk food. It's for any moms or dads who have spent money they didn't really have to meet their kids' demands, or bought something they didn't really approve of in response to those demands. If you've ever been mind-boggled by the sheer amount of stuff in your kids' rooms, or wondered if it is possible to escape the excessive materialism of our times, this book is for you.
Raising kids in today's noisy, fast-paced culture is difficult. Each day, kids are exposed to a barrage of commercial images and messages clamoring to sell them something. The result is a new generation of hyperconsumers growing up right in front of our eyes. For many kids and adults alike, the drumbeat of our times is about never stopping in the race to get ahead-no matter the cost.
Yes, we live in a time of extraordinary opportunities and choices. Yet there are costs to our frenzied focus on acquisition, not all of them monetary. Kids and adults are speeding through life trying to do and get as much aspossible. As a result, many young people complain of sleep deprivation, stress, and depression. Commercial pressures also encourage spending rather than saving. In 2001, for the sixth year in a row, more Americans declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. University administrators cite financial mismanagement as a crisis among college students, and the average personal savings rate in the United States has plummeted.
Parents worry that their children define their self-worth through possessions and have little or no ability to delay gratification. One national poll found that 85 percent of parents are worried that their kids are becoming too materialistic. And though we don't think about it too often, creating a whole new generation of superconsumers threatens the environment as well. Americans consume more paper, energy, and aluminum per capita than any other group on earth, and our kids have grown accustomed to our throwaway culture.
When a society is so preoccupied with material things, children and adults lose touch with noncommercial sources of happiness. As noted author and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, who wrote the introduction to this book, put it, "This generation is the 'I want' generation. They have been educated to entitlement and programmed for discontent. Ads have encouraged this generation to have material expectations they can't fulfill." Many parents want to provide a little shelter from the "more is better" culture and help their kids reconnect to slower rhythms and nonmaterial simple pleasures.
* * *
I've struggled with these issues myself, both as a mother of two preteens, and as director of the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization that challenges commercialism and helps individuals and institutions consume responsibly. As one of our initiatives, the Center surveyed American parents on their attitudes about kids and commercialism-and found, to no one's surprise, that they are very troubled. Our nationwide poll showed that the vast majority of parents feel their kids are overly materialistic, and many feel they are losing ground in the struggle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of their children. Almost four out of five parents think that marketing puts pressure on kids to buy things that are too expensive, or bad for them.
We all want our kids to be successful and happy, yet it often seems that more stuff is all our kids do want. So we decided to ask the kids themselves what they want that money can't buy, by sponsoring an art and essay contest posing that question. The answers we received were moving, powerful, and simple. Our kids do want more than material things. Much more. They want time to enjoy life, and more old-fashioned fun. They want more meaning and purpose and less stress and homework. Kids want respect and friends who will like them for who they really are. Most of all, they are asking for love.
By highlighting what kids really want that money can't buy, this book suggests how to meet your children's deeper wants and needs. To parents from all walks of life, it offers practical tips for raising healthy kids in a commercial world. Most of all, it will help you slow down and rediscover life's simple pleasures with your children.
I must confess right up front that I bought my son a pair of overpriced basketball shoes. Yes, I spent $129 on one pair of shoes-shoes that are at least twice the price of similar quality shoes thanks to the famous name attached. Shoes I knew my son would outgrow in a matter of months!
Still, I bought them. I bought them because my son pushed for them. He wheedled. He asked nicely. He mounted arguments worthy of the best trial lawyers and philosophers. He wore me down.
Does any of this sound familiar? Commissioned by my organization in May 2002, a poll of teenagers showed that the average American twelve- to seventeen-year-old will nag nine times to get a product his or her parent refuses to purchase, and about half the parents give in at the end of all that pestering. Maybe it isn't shoes that capture your kids' attention, but I'm willing to bet that you've had a similar household debate, probably more than once! Your son or daughter may want a cell phone "like everyone else," or "need" expensive low-cut jeans and designer flip-flops. Perhaps you're being lobbied for yet another video game with a parental advisory label for violence. You may be one of those parents who can't make it down the grocery store aisle without hearing cries of "buy this!" every few feet. (Why doesn't this ever happen in the produce aisle?)
Or the symptoms in your house may be subtler. Are you contemplating an elaborate birthday party for your four-year-old, laying down gobs of money for a fancy outing for twenty kids, and then even more money on thematic goody bags? Is your middle-schooler unable to put together one complete outfit without a corporate logo on it? Have you ever worried if you are spending enough on a gift for your child to bring to someone else's party? Do you often spend your "family time" at the mall, even if there's nothing in particular you need?
It's almost unavoidable. Ours is a consumer culture. There's tremendous pressure to get, buy, have, and spend, and children are by no means immune to that; in fact, they are the most vulnerable to it. Marketing to children has reached new heights. According to recent marketing industry studies, advertisers are working to get brand loyalty from kids as early as age two.
Back to those basketball shoes. My son loved them. He wore them every day, took meticulous care of them, played excellent basketball. So I guess there's a happy ending to the anecdote.
But I'm still conflicted. I want my son to be happy. I want his needs to be met. I want him to find common ground with his peers. I want him to pursue what he loves doing. But I also want him to think critically and at least consider my value system, to know the value of money, and what it can and can't do. I don't want him to need overpriced shoes. None of the things I wish most fervently for him require any specific brand name.
Those shoes weren't going to make or break our family budget. But they also weren't going to make or break my son's life, or his basketball game either. The problem was, he genuinely felt they would. We could afford them. My son doesn't ask for much, really. We indulged him.
If you've ever done anything like that, you probably identify with the parents interviewed for the Center's poll who were worried about how our commercial culture is affecting their kids. We talked to hundreds of parents nationwide about their struggles with materialism. Almost two thirds said their own children define their self-worth in terms of possessions. More than half reported buying their children a product that they disapproved of because their children wanted it in order to fit in with their friends. Nearly a third admitted they are working longer hours to pay for not-strictly-necessary things their kids nonetheless feel they need. This is an issue that cuts across all geographic areas and all income levels.
Parents place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the advertising and marketing aimed specifically at children. Eighty-seven percent said advertising makes kids too materialistic. Seventy percent feel that marketing hurts children's self-esteem and has a negative effect on their values and worldview.
Parents are right to be worried. Virtually from birth, children are bombarded with TV commercials, banner ads, billboards, product placements, radio ads, corporate logos, and more. Kids have more of their own money to spend than ever before-and advertisers want it. American kids ages four to twelve spent $31.3 billion of their own money in 1999. In 2001 teenagers spent $172 billion. Children also influence an estimated $300 billion that parents spend annually, making them even more attractive to marketers. So companies spend their ad budgets-to the tune of billions a year-to try to get kids to buy, buy, buy and to influence how much and precisely what their parents buy. Chapter 11, Shelter from the Storm, discusses in detail the impact of corporate marketing to children, but for now, it's worth remembering that no child is immune to commercialism. Nearly half of all parents we surveyed reported that their children began asking for brand-name products by age five. Over one in five parents said it started by age three. The children may not know their letters or numbers yet, but they can spot a corporate logo from a mile away.
What do kids make of all this? They've never been shy about telling us what they want to have or buy. We are more than familiar with their desire for money and material goods. But is there something more we are not hearing? What else do they want?
As I mentioned earlier, the Center for a New American Dream sponsored a national art and essay contest posing this question to kids under eighteen. What we officially asked is: What do you really want that money can't buy? Besides being greatly impressed by the sheer volume of responses we received (over two thousand), and being touched by how many children were clearly ready to be heard on this subject, I also was deeply moved by the depth and power of their answers. Their pictures and essays made me laugh, cry, and ultimately feel renewed hope for our common future. Perhaps we don't give our children enough credit for their innate wisdom. This book offers you a chance to listen to their voices and, in the process, to get reacquainted with your own heartfelt longings.
The following chapters delve more deeply into what kids want on the themes kids kept coming back to time and again: parents, extended family, free time, friends, the natural world, spirituality, acceptance, health, and making the world a better place. Frequently, the kids shared their pain or anxieties as well. They wrote of feeling trapped by narrow definitions of success-perfect bodies, clothes, performances, games, and test scores. They expressed a desire to transcend the pressure to do whatever it takes to get ahead. In their quest for deeper relationships, they complained of being too busy, managing overloaded schedules, going through the correct motions, and rarely having time to stop the rush of life. Some said this had resulted in depression, escapism, and uncertainty about their self-worth. Yet in the midst of all their worries and hopes, we heard the unifying message that kids want to give and receive love.
Nine-year-old Mary touched on nearly every aspect of what kids said they want in life with this lovely poem:
What do I want that money can't buy? A raindrop, a dewdrop, the fourth of July. The pride that comes with a job well done, My name on the honor roll or a medal I've won. My mom's bedtime stories-whether funny or scary, A nighttime visit from the generous Tooth Fairy. Snow days that keep me home from school, The sand between my toes and the public pool. Fireflies illuminating a dark summer night, The prefect autumn day to fly a kite. Wrestling with my brothers or hugging my dad, Helping my little sister read makes me feel so glad. What I really want more than anything, are the Things that money can't buy, Like love, laughter, happiness- and the beauty of a sunset that makes me just sigh.
The story of my son's shoes crystallizes the challenge of parenting in a commercial culture. We want our kids to be happy and well adjusted, but at the same time we don't want to give in to corrupting commercial influences. What I hope to provide in this book is deeper insight into what kids themselves say they really want from life, along with constructive tips, resources, and ideas for meeting our children's true wants and needs.
The book is divided into two sections. In chapters 1 through 10 I've focused on what kids say they really want that money can't buy. You will read excerpts from many of their essays in these chapters, on the themes they kept coming back to time and again.
The second section, chapters 11 through 13, begins with an analysis of commercial influences on kids and then focuses on more specific strategies for protecting children from advertising. I make many suggestions for helping kids find fun and fulfillment. Each chapter offers tips and resources for further consideration. The book concludes with an invitation to ask yourself the same question: What do I really want that money can't buy? As you hear from our nation's young people about what really matters to them, consider what most matters to you. This book doesn't have all the answers, but I hope it helps you find your way in our increasingly commercial world.
Excerpted from What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy by Betsy Taylor Copyright © 2003 by The Center for the New American Dream
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.