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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007 10:09 am

Curb their materialism

Professor identifies factors that make some kids demand so much

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Untitled Document With the year’s biggest gift-giving holiday just weeks away, your kids are probably already busy making lists, specifying all the things they absolutely must have this year. You wonder, exactly how did those little angels turn into greedy consumers? Lan Chaplin, a marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied the subject of children and materialism, and his research appears in the December edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. In a recent interview Chaplin talked about what parents can do to keep their kids from turning into materialistic monsters.
How do you raise a nonmaterialistic child in a materialistic age?
I wish I had a simple answer to this question, because I’d make a lot of parents happy.
Are advertisers to blame, or do other factors trigger kids’  need for things?
This is a good question. The media blame parents, and parents blame the media. A number of factors contribute to children’s need for things, including social-cognitive changes with age, pressure from the media and peers, and self-esteem. During early adolescence we see a peak in materialism. By this stage of development, early adolescents have developed a very sophisticated understanding of the symbolic meaning of products and brands, leading them to have strong preferences for certain brands and products. They are also experiencing major physical and emotional age-related changes, which makes them more critical of themselves, and their social awareness heightens. One seemingly easy way to fit in and feel good about themselves is through buying the most popular brands to project a desirable image. One way to encourage this type of thinking is to allow children to make their own decisions from time to time. For instance, if there is no harm in the child wearing a fancy sweater with a pair of old sweatpants other than it might not match, then parents should allow the child to decide what to wear. This not only builds children’s self-confidence but also allows them to practice decision-making and critical-thinking skills with strong support from parents. Take countless situations where parents encourage children to think critically to better understand their environment and make their own decisions, and you have children who are armed with what I consider to be the most powerful defense against possible pressure from their environment whether it be from peers or the media: self-confidence and the ability to think critically. If children feel good about who they are and who they are not, they will be less likely to feel a strong need to buy certain brands just to fit in. In addition, if children are encouraged to think critically from an early age, they will be armed to question advertising messages they encounter on a day-to-day basis. As a result, they are likely to feel less pressure to buy things for the wrong reason. With the holidays approaching, what should parents and gift-givers consider to keep from reinforcing materialistic values?
Parents should lead by example. If parents give and let their children see how happy it makes them to be able to give to others, children will learn the value of giving and focus less on receiving. What parents don’t realize is that children do enjoy the simple things in life, such as going for a walk with their parents or playing a board game with family, but parents can’t expect children to enjoy these things if they aren’t used to doing these things. With the holidays approaching, attractive, enticing material things will be displayed everywhere, which only fuels the desire to acquire even more. So my advice to parents would be to focus on giving. However, when the inevitable happens — that is, when children ask for things or receive presents, redirect their attention away from the fact that they just received the most popular toy or a very expensive cell phone and help them direct their attention toward feeling genuinely appreciative and grateful for the people and things in their lives.  
Jan Dennis is with the University of Illinois News Bureau. Contact her at jdennis@uiuc.edu.
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