“Responding To Children Who Want To Buy Everything”

My 8-Year-Old son, Ricardo, wants to buy everything he sees. One minute he wants the newest action figure, the next minute he wants a remote control car. I don’t mind buying him some of these things, but some of these toys are so violent, I don’t want him to have them. Also, it doesn’t seem like getting a new toy slows down his desire or his insistence for the next toy. We are hardly home from the store with his new action figure before he is begging for something else. It concerns me that he doesn’t seem satisfied with what he gets and I’m worried that he is going to grow up to be a compulsive buyer. Should I just stop buying him things all together?

— worried about consumerism in Whittier

There are several factors that are influencing your son. He is a member of a society which places a high value on consumerism. He looks around him and he sees people buying things all the time. He sees that having money and owning things makes you an important person in our society. As a young person, he is being specifically targeted by the advertising industry. A few decades ago, only adults were considered to be consumers, and all advertising was aimed at them. But, now advertising which directly targets children is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Children at this age are highly influenced by peers and there is often pressure to get the same toys as your friends. Ricardo may also believe that other kids will like him more-or be impressed with him-if he gets a particular toy.
Then there are also the toys themselves. Toy manufacturers have enough information about children to design toys that will catch their attention-but not necessarily hold their attention. Between the appeal of the toys and the power of the advertising campaigns, it is difficult for children to resist “wanting more.”
The other thing which may influence Ricardo is the power and control he sees in purchasing. Daily, he sees adults go into stores and “pull whatever they want off the shelves,” to bring home. He wants some of that power. He wants to be like the grown-ups.
All of this occurs against the backdrop of a child’s limited understanding of how money works. During the first several years of life children think very magically about money. They see their parents pulling seemingly endless quantities of money out of their wallets. If our wallets are empty, kids see us miraculously get money out of a machine at the bank by just sticking in a piece of plastic and pushing a few buttons. They may understand that we have to go to work to earn money, but it may still be unclear to them that our earnings are limited. So when children see us putting things in a shopping cart, it seems like a clear message to them that we have money to spend.
The challenge for parents is to respond to our children’s desires in a way which allows them to get some of the things they want, extends their understanding about how money works, teaches them about the pressures of consumerism and gives them practice making good buying decisions. Here are some suggestions to consider:
. Talk about advertising. You can ask your son where he heard about the toys that he wants to buy. Sometimes it will be a toy that a certain friend has, but often, children learn about new toys on TV. If you spend some time watching with your child, you will see what kinds of advertising is being targeted toward him. You can talk with your child about why companies advertise, how TV makes toys look better than they really are, and some of the things they don’t tell you about toys on the commercials.
If you are really concerned about the amount of advertising your son is exposed to, consider limiting or eliminating TV from your home. In families where TV is not available, children’s desires for “the latest toy” diminish dramatically.
. Provide toys which are open-ended and require more participation. Often the toys which are promoted through advertising are “closed-ended” or “single-purpose” toys. These toys usually only have one thing they can be used for and tend to be for observation, rather than interaction. Providing more open-ended construction, art and creative toys will give your son the opportunity to experience really satisfying play and to use toys in multiple ways. When toys are versatile, children don’t need as many.
. Engage in an open-ended dialogue about certain products. Talking with your son about his interest in certain toys can help him clarify his thinking, give you information about his interests, and show him that you respect his thinking. You can also let him know what you think of certain toys. Tell him why you are uncomfortable with some of the toys he is interested in. Talk to him about toys you feel more comfortable with. If you avoid arguing with him about every little thing he wants and concentrate on a dialogue in which you both share your beliefs, he will have an easier time understanding your value system.

Mom:

      So, tell me what it is about those action figures that you really like.

Son:

      Mom, they’re really cool. They are really strong and they can fight and do Kung Fu.

Mom:

      So, you like how strong and powerful they are.

Son:

      Yeah.

Mom:

    I like strong people, too. The thing that concerns me about these guys is that they all have a weapon attached to them. They can’t ever do anything but fight.

. Consider an allowance. Giving your son an allowance allows him to begin to take charge of his discretionary purchases. It can help him learn to budget, save and plan for the expenditure of his money. (For more on giving kids allowances, click here.)
. Set up a decision-making process to help your son. Since one of the things children want at this age is a sense of power and control, it can be useful to involve your son in setting up a system for buying new toys. This can also teach decision-making, budgeting, prioritizing, and planning ahead.
You may want to set up an agreed-upon time frame for toy purchasing: “You can choose one small toy (under $5) a month or a larger toy every other month.” The specific time frame and amount of money will depend on your family’s economic situation and belief system.
You can also set up a prioritizing process: “Every time you want a toy, put it on a list. When it is time to go shopping, you can look at your list and decide which one of the toys you want the most.” You could elaborate on this system to help your son actually make his final decision: “When you put a toy on your list, write (or draw pictures of) all the things you could do with this toy. When you look at your list to decide which one you want, you can choose the one that has the most fun looking pictures.”
You could also encourage Ricardo to do research about toys with his friends. Together, you could develop interview questions for his friends, such as: “Why did you first buy this toy?” “How much do you play with it?” “Do you like it as much now as you did when you first got it?” “Is it a good toy to use with friends or is it better used alone?” “Has it broken or had any other problems?”
Finally, you can ask your son whether he thinks he will like it as much when he gets it home, in a week, and in a month.
. Teach your son about comparison shopping. Once Ricardo has decided which toy he wants, you could help him call around to find the best price. It’s never too early to become a thoughtful consumer.
. Help him reflect on his disappointments. Allowing your son to acquire some of the toys he is interested in (through your purchase or with his allowance) gives him an opportunity to learn that things are not always what they seem. Checking in with him after a purchase about whether the toy met his expectations will help him learn first-hand about the deceptions of advertising and may teach him to be a more careful consumer.
. Look at your own buying habits. Our own behavior around spending and acquiring things sets a tone for how consumerism is viewed in our family. Honestly assessing your own spending habits can give you a sense of the norms you’re establishing for the rest of your household. Are you an impulse buyer or do you take your time to plan purchases carefully? Does your son see you buying whatever you want or does he see you carefully recycling, reusing, or creatively solving problems without money?
Helping your son develop a thoughtful, healthy relationship to making purchases can give your whole family an opportunity to learn and grow together. When everyone in the family approaches buying decisions consciously, you gain a deeper understanding of what is really important for you as a family.
. Talk about the difference between wants and needs. Often kids get so caught up in the desire to have something that they feel a kind of desperation to get it. You can help your child make the distinction between things he really wants and things he really needs. You can make a list with him of things he really needs: healthy food, a safe place to sleep, warm clothes, grown-ups to care for him. He also has needs for things that may not be as obvious to him at first: to be listened to, respected, and encouraged; to be hugged and touched gently, to be supported in solving problems. You can contrast these kinds of basic human needs with the kinds of material things he (and all of us) want and desire.
You can also help Ricardo make the distinction between basic material needs and the desire for “extras.” Maybe Ricardo needs a new pair of shoes or a sweatshirt, but he doesn’t need a particular brand of shoes or a sweatshirt with a certain logo on the front.
. Give your child an appreciation of non-material treasures. In our materialistic culture children can lose sight of what is really essential. In fact we all forget sometimes that most of what is truly important in our lives can’t be purchased. Remind yourself (and your child) of this basic truth by taking the time to do things together that aren’t centered on buying things or being entertained. Go out for a walk together. Take turns reading books to each other. Teach a new skill to your child. Learn a new skill from your child. Invent a secret language together. Grow a tomato plant in a window box and eat the first one together. With a small investment of time and creativity, you’ll both be reminded that “presence” rather than “presents” is what matters most.


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