More Than Money
Issue #39
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Money and Children

Table of Contents

“Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture”


Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
(Scribner, 2004)
By Juliet B. Schor
Reviewed by Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary is a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post. She discusses personal finance on National Public Radio's Day to Day program on Tuesdays and online at

Consumerism expert Juliet B. Schor has written what should be a must-read for every new parent, seasoned parent, aunt, uncle, and grandparent. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture frightened me, and it will you, too.

"American children are deeply enmeshed in the culture of getting and spending, and they are getting more so," writes Schor, a professor at Boston College. "The more they buy into commercial and materialist messages, the worse they feel about themselves, the more depressed they are, and the more they are beset by anxiety, headaches, stomachaches, and boredom."

Here is what Schor found, based on various studies and her own survey of 300 children (ages 10 to 13) in the Boston area:

  • Children are becoming shoppers at an earlier age. It is estimated that children aged 6 to 12 visit stores two to three times per week.
  • More children go shopping every week than read, go to church, participate in youth groups, play outdoors, or spend time in household conversation.
  • Children's top aspiration now is to be rich. Forty-four percent of kids in the fourth through eighth grades now report that they daydream "a lot" about being rich.
  • Nearly two-thirds of parents report, "My child defines his or her selfworth in terms of the things they own and wear more than I did when I was that age."
  • One study found that nearly two-thirds of mothers thought their children were brand-aware by age 3, and one-third said it had happened by age 2.
Recently, my usually sweet and gentle 6-year-old boy got in my face about something he saw on television and wanted me to get for him. After watching a Saturday morning cartoon program, my son stormed into the kitchen and demanded that I take him to a certain fast-food restaurant so he could get a toy that was in a kid's meal. He stood there with his hands on his hips, asking: "When are you going to take me? How many times have you taken me?" Then he had the audacity to answer the question for me: "Zero times, Mommy, zero times," he said, forming two fingers into the shape of a zero.

Clearly, my son had lost his mind. Usually I just ignore it when my kids nag me for stuff. But there was something in my son's manner that morning that made me take notice. He was productpossessed, and after I stopped fuming, I got scared. I turned my son around and ordered him to go shut off the television. In fact, I went a step further. After that incident, I have severely limited his and his sisters' television watching.

In Born to Buy , Schor outlines the numerous tactics that advertisers are using on our kids, many of which turn them into disrespectful tykes and teens. For example, there is an "anti-adult bias" in the commercials. "It's important to recognize the nature of the corporate message: Kids and products are aligned together in a really great, fun place, while parents, teachers, and other adults inhabit an oppressive, drab, and joyless world," Schor says. "The lesson to kids is that it's the product, not your parents, that is really on your side."

There is the practice of "trans-toying," or turning everyday items into playthings. "Child development experts worry that this trend leaves little space for imagination, as every item in the environment becomes a toy," Schor writes. How many times have you heard your kid say, "I'm bored"? What he or she really means is: You need to buy me something that will entertain me because I can't possibly be put upon to be creative.

Schor concludes that kids who are overly involved in the values of consumerism become problem children. "The prevalence of harmful and addictive products, the imperative to keep up, and the growth of materialistic attitudes are harming kids," she says.

People-parents-are under siege. And what's at stake isn't just a depletion of our assets to buy what our kids are brainwashed to believe they need. What's at stake is the well-being of our children.

Advertisers and marketers are turning our children into materialistic monsters. And sadly, we are aiding and abetting the enemy. We let the enemy into our house when we allow our children to watch endless programming surrounded by a steady stream of messages that communicate they aren't worthy- a somebody-without certain products. We deliver our children to the enemy every time we choose to entertain them by shopping.

I hope Born to Buy will motivate you to fight back, because our children- my children-weren't born to shop.

From "Material Girl and Boy" by Michelle Singletary, The Washington Post , November 14, 2004, ©2004 The Washington Post Writers Group.
Excerpted with permission.

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