Raising Kids in a Consumer Culture

By Leah Dobkin, Ode Magazine

A war is raging between parents trying to raise children and corporate America trying to raise customers. As a parent of three children, I think I’m losing, or at least losing my mind. I’ve tried to educate my children about our materialistic society and how our family values differ from those of a culture of consumption. My kids, however, want more, buy more and throw away more.

I’ve decided advertising is my biggest enemy. Thanks to ads, my kids won’t take no, no, no for an answer and instead nag, nag, nag. Advertising targeted to children in the United States is estimated at more than $16.8 billion annually, over twice what it was in 1992.

Product placements are on the rise in TV shows, movies, children’s books-even textbooks, since my kids’ schools have become commercialized because of budget cuts. The number of corporate-sponsored school events and commercialized lunches is climbing too.

I’m most frustrated with the offensive products targeted directly to my teenaged kids. My daughter (14) covertly buys thongs with “Do I know you?” written on the front. Last year, I couldn’t find a Halloween costume that didn’t make her look like a prostitute. Meanwhile, my oldest son (16) is a walking advertisement for Puma sneakers and Joe Boxer underwear (which is never worn under). My youngest son (12) organizes backpack sales so he can offload his six-month-old, outdated CDs, DVDs and software, and buy the new stuff.

How do I protect my children and raise them to become healthy, caring and well-balanced people in what seems an off-balanced world? I have responded by becoming the media police in our home. I put parental controls on my children’s computer, but one child maneuvered around this system, designating herself as the administrator, changing my password and obtaining complete access to the Internet.

Media policing was a losing game. I decided on another tactic. My husband and I bought property in northern Wisconsin to give my children an antidote to the commercialized tech world. The land has 100-foot-tall pine trees, a quiet lake and creatures galore to explore. The natural assets were augmented with a canoe, kayak, floats, tubes, fishing gear, badminton and archery sets, even a 15-foot-wide water trampoline. (Hey, I’m not completely immune to consumerism.)

The only rules were: Have fun, and no electronics once we arrive at the lake. That last one was problematic. You’d think we’d asked them to cut off their arms. We allowed their cellphones, CDs and MP3 players in the car traveling to and from our property. But once we got there, we insisted everyone unplug and encouraged them to listen to the magic of the natural world: to slow down, look around, talk to each other, ponder, wander, sleep, play instruments, sing around a campfire.

Our youngest seems to appreciate our little piece of heaven, but the two older kids hate the place. I’ll never forget passing my oldest son’s tent late one night and seeing that eerie blue light spill out into the forest. I peeked in and there he was, zoned out while plugged into his smuggled cellphone playing a video game. My daughter spends most of her time putting makeup on, and vegetates in the car or in our camper.

But we won’t give up the ‘good’ fight, for I know we’re planting seeds of change. My 12-year-old son whispered to me this summer, “Mom, do you think when I get older I could have my wedding up here?” I whispered back, “Yes, honey. I would really love that.”

For me, this was a small victory in my personal crusade against consumerism.

Leah Dobkin is a freelance writer who writes about social change and aging issues.


Ireena W.
Past Member 6 years ago

Children nowadays demand a level of consumer comfort greater than that experienced by their parents. I attempt to curb my children's reliance on "the next big thing" but they complain that they will be the only ones left out, and they are RIGHT. I must say that having almost raised one child, she seems is indifferent to peer pressure, consumer culture and has held on to most of the positive traditional values. Having the latest allows your child to be cool for a time (until the next new thing comes out) but over the long term, it entrenches values that do not serve them or society well.

wendy b.
wendy b.6 years ago

I have had six kids over several decades, the youngest is just fifteen. We have no TV (programs, but lot's of DVD's) and they home school till about grade ten or eleven. They get fantastic grades, they are very socialized, do a lot of volunteer work, and care about their fellow beings and the environment.
Don't get me wrong, they do have stuff! But not the usual stuff. If one wants a sail boat he provides half and we, his parents, the other half. If another needs great cameras, we pitch in. BUT, no designer labels are asked for, no latest toys, coolest bikes or even a demand for a car for graduating!
I am told they are mature, well dressed and delightful to know, and they have friends parties and so on like others. However, I never have to worry about them taking advantage of me, or of others, nor do they associate with those that do.
Why? I think the formative years are far too important to leave to the school system and to the TV. So when I had kids I stopped teaching and did my MOST IMPORTANT job, raising kids that I hope will leave the world a better place than before they came.

Rachel R.
Rachel L.6 years ago

If you attend school, you'll understand and be disgusted at the way so many kids (I'll even go as far as to say the majority) disregard and even make fun of any chances they hear of that they could help someone. A slideshow of homeless children is playing in the background at lunch, and a kid laughs and says people across the world aren't his problem and spends $10 for his meal, including a slushie, candy, 3 burgers, etc, half of which he throws away. A girl donates 1 can to the food drive, because she's going to the mall after school to buy a Gucci bag. Girls buy a new designer outfits every weekend, and after wearing it once, throw it in the back of the closet never to be worn again. Would it really be a bother to give it to Goodwill? would you even notice it's gone???

Lisa B.
Lisa B.6 years ago

Cindy, you have made some very wise observations. I do believe that people like to keep up with the Joneses. Kids in particular want to have everything that their friends have. They want acceptance, and think that “everyone else” has the latest and greatest, so to be accepted, they will need to too. People often don’t know or think about the sacrifices that need to me made to keep up. It is not until later in life that we realise what we are losing, most importantly lack of time to spend with our friends and family, or to enjoy nature, or just to relax.

Cindy F.
Cindy F.6 years ago

These are all heart issues that need to be addressed (preferrably from a very young age but it's never too late!). Behaviour is a symptom of what is inside a person's heart. Rules are important, but not "the end all be all". Why does your child need the latest and greatest? Why do we? (Even if it doesn't come wrapped in plastic.) Why does it mean so much to us that our children are content with less? This may seem like a noble desire but even this desire can stem from selfish motives, which our children can see right through, I might add. These are the questions that need to be asked and addressed in our homes. We can blame the world for the behaviour of our children but each generation and culture has it's struggles. God help us to equip our children to live well regardless of what is out there!

Sarah D.
Sarah I.6 years ago

Could we all please take a big breath & ask ourselves why we're attacking each other like this? We are all trying to do better-- as parents & as people-- we all want to change the societies that we live in. Please let us support one another in that goal. Let's leave the undermining, judgemental sniping to those that truly enjoy it for it's own sake, shall we?
That said, I must admit that I can't quite relate to all of the details posted here. I live on a tiny island off the west coast of Canada & my family lives well below the poverty line. Isolation + lack of money = freedom from corporate interests. Right? Wrong! We (mostly) grow our food, we've never had TV or mobile 'phones, our only computer is in the most high-traffic area of our home (& Mum cuts off the electricity at 10 p.m. each night-- don't worry, we have a wood stove for us & a cold cellar for our food) but STILL our children are slaves to consumer desire. My youngest son (6) knows everything about all manner of craptastic plastic toy spinoffs from the latest movie/advert & is utterly convinced that no-one will befriend him unless he can keep up; the 16 year-old is all about flash gear, saggy trousers, getting wasted & acting (or at least talking-- when he does actually talk) like a chauvinistic pinhead. The eldest boy (21) seems fairly well sorted, but perhaps he's just discreet. On good days I think, 'Well at least they read books, empty the compost bucket & use cloth handkerchie

Lisa B.
Lisa B.6 years ago

Wow, Therese. It must be really hard being so perfect.

No, I didn’t pay for the shop till you drop party. The kids used their own pocket money. Since only one of the children was mine, and not the birthday girl, you expect me to also set limits for the other children?

And no, I didn’t get my 10 year old a cell phone, her father did. We use it to keep in touch when she is away with him, because he is an asshole who won’t even let the kids phone me on my birthday.

I am not quite sure what you are expecting posting such a critical and berating post. I agree that it is a parents job to set boundaries rather than be their friend. Where do you get off setting boundaries for other parents as well?

Teresa T.
Teresa T.6 years ago

Here's the thing, if you are a parent your job is NOT to be your child's friend. Your job is to be a parent; to set limits, have expectations and dish out consequences when needed. Your job is to raise people who will be responsible adults, not spoiled children who happen to be over 18. Yes, sometimes your kids won't like you, they may even "hate" you temporarily. Guess what, sometimes you won't like them either. But if you truly LOVE your kids you will do what is right for them, and then hope they can make responsible decisions for themselves once they're adults.
Lisa, you waited until your kids were all of 10? What 10 year old needs a cell phone? As as for the "shop til they drop" party, who paid for it all? If you did you just reinforced that you don't practice what you claim to preach. Learn to say NO, and the sooner you teach your kids that there are limits the better off you will all be.

Shaktiva Irahs
Little A.6 years ago

I like this one too. LOL

Nora J.
Nora J.6 years ago

My niece and nephew are very materialistic. Last Christmas, I gave them wildlife adoption kits and they weren't impressed. However, I refuse to buy them cheap, useless, plastic trinkets that come from Chinese sweatshops and wrap them in miles of paper that ends up in the bin. This year, they are getting a piece of rainforest each.