In a world of “gimme, gimme, gimme” and “buy this and buy that,” now is the time to equip our children with the arsenal they need to be cognizant consumers.
“Mom, are we poor?” my 8-year-old asked the other day. I thought for a moment before I answered. Certainly there is not an overabundance of money in our household. Is there anywhere? As one friend put it, my “ship hasn’t come in yet. It’s still in dry dock.”
After thoughtful consideration, I had to tell my daughter that indeed we are not poor. We have everything we need: warm clothes; food to eat; a warm, dry place to live; thousands of books; more toys than the children know what to do with; and a lot of love.
My daughter, like many other children, was confusing need and want. Does anyone ever have everything they want? Unfortunately, our materialistic society further blurs this fine line. Television commercials try to convince our children that they “need” this special brand of shoes, that pair of beat up jeans (similar to those available at thrift stores for $3), this toy and that. Indeed, we are bombarded with messages daily.
1. What’s a Parent to Do?
There are ways to educate your children about need versus want – and at the same time help them be better consumers.
2. Make a wish list.
Have your children list everything they “need.” Even preschoolers can participate in this activity by cutting pictures out of old magazines or catalogs. After the lists are complete, set them aside for future reference.
3. Count your blessings.
Point out that in this world, and even in this country, there are people who are not as fortunate as you. These are families without enough to eat, a place to live and without books, toys or schools. Once children are aware of others’ needs, they will begin to realize how lucky they are.
4. Take a reality check.
Go back to the lists you and your children have made. With each item, help them discern whether it is a want or a need. For example, if your 10-year-old listed a purple backpack, perhaps ask her, “Why do you need a new backpack? Is the one you are using falling apart? Or, do you just want a purple one?”
Proceed this way for each item on the list.
5. Examine what motivates your desires.
Talk about the forces that cause us to want certain things. Perhaps your child wants a new backpack because Sarah at school “has a really cool one.” Or, more likely, a television commercial has convinced her that she “must have one.”
6. Acknowledge your own weaknesses.
Adults are not immune to such persuasions, either. Unknowingly, we often choose our plastic wrap or laundry detergent based on something we heard on television. Children feel better knowing we are gullible too:
“Mom, sometimes I get so mad when I fall for something on TV. Why do they have to trick me?” my oldest confessed.
“I know just how you feel,” I assured her.
“You do?” she asked, surprised.
“Yep, sometimes they get me, too. I bought that new brand of soap they were advertising and I found out that it makes me itch.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that.”
7. Arm Yourselves with Knowledge.
Play the “What do they want us to do?” game. As you watch TV with your children, don’t tune out during commercial breaks. Instead, ask your children what the commercial wants you to do.
Commercials generally have three purposes – they want you to buy something, watch something or do something. You may have to prod your children at first but they will catch on fairly quickly. You’ll know you have succeeded when your child responds as mine did recently:
“Mom, in order to collect all 12 toys, we would have to eat there once a week for 12 weeks – what a rip-off!”
8. Dissect truth from fiction.
After your children understand that commercials are trying to sell a product or an idea, you can then examine them further. Toy commercials are especially good for this activity, but any commercial will do. Look at the way the product is used and point out any disclaimer appearing in small print at the bottom of the screen. Ask questions like, “Do you really think that doll can tumble on her own?”
In this same vein, it is important to point out that just because you think a commercial says something, it isn’t necessarily so. I remember an air freshener commercial that said, “Works as well on the first day as on the 30th day of use.” The commercial was misleading because people thought it meant that it still worked well after a month of use. If you examine the statement carefully, you will see that is not what they said.
Children – especially small ones – often believe that if they see it on TV it is true. Teaching our children to be good listeners and to use techniques to discern fact from fiction will provide them with the skills they will need and most likely use for their entire lives.