More Than Money
Issue #39
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Money and Children

Table of Contents

“What Really Matters? Letting Kids Be Kids”

An Interview with Betsy Taylor

Interviewed by Mara Peluso

MTM: What is different in our society for children growing up today that earlier generations did not face?

Current American Culture
In the past ten years, the number of preschoolers taking ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) drugs has tripled; the number of school-aged children taking the drugs has multiplied by 20. Currently, more than two million American children are prescribed drugs for ADD/ADHD. -From "A Drug Kids Take in Search of Better Grades," by Rebecca L. Weber, Christian Science Monitor , November 30, 2004.
(Available here .)

The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in the past decade, white, middle-class, family working hours increased by 246 hours to 3,885 hours per year. African- American middle-income families' working hours saw a 500-hours-per-year increase to 4,278 hours per year. The typical suburban mom now spends almost three times as many hours in the car as she did just 15 years ago.
-From "The Politics of Time: Why School Reform Should Put Less Stress, Not More, On Children and Families," by John Buell, Independent School , Spring 2001 (full text available at ) and "Economic Indicators," compiled by the Progressive Review , 2001 (available at )

TAYLOR: Almost everything. One major difference is that children today are being saturated with the effects of media and electronics. They are spending more and more time in front of electronic screens and with electronic equipment. They are surrounded by commercial messages. They are seen as a market segment that has potentially huge financial benefit for sellers and corporations. As a result, children are being bombarded with messages that they are going to find happiness, friends, and excitement through buying stuff-which, increasingly, is electronic stuff. Marketers are now targeting children as young as one year old to get them to buy electronic toys and brand-name products. Advertising comes at kids through television, computers, radios, magazines, and even in school. In schools, children's food products and sports equipment are often labeled with corporate brands (such as Coca-Cola and Nike).

Another major difference is that children today have less leisure time than children of previous generations. Seventyfive percent of a child's time on weekdays is scheduled with school and other structured activities; that is almost double the hours children's time was scheduled in 1981. Kids today spend 29 hours a week in school-that's eight hours more per week than in 1981. Children's overall leisure time dropped from 40% of their day in 1981 to 25% of their day in 1998-and what's considered "leisure time" includes things like getting dressed, sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. Children have very little free time.

Is your child doing too much?
There may not be a "right" number of activities for every child, but you can ask yourself these questions to help determine whether your child is getting enough downtime.

  • Does he act grouchy, mopey, or irritable?
  • Can she fall asleep at bedtime?
  • Are his grades slipping? Does he finish his homework?
  • Has she started overeating?
  • Does he zone out in front of the TV?
  • Is she complaining of stomachaches, headaches, or mysterious illnesses?
  • Does he grumble about being bored?
  • Is she over-anxious about getting approval from authority figures?
  • When you're heading out the door, does he throw a tantrum or lose equipment?
  • Does she pick fights with her siblings or complain you don't love her as much as them?
  • Can he keep track of where he's supposed to be?
  • Is her schedule draining you or your family members?

  • If your child exhibits three or more of these behaviors on an ongoing basis, you may want to re-examine his/her after-school schedule.
    -From "Overscheduled Kids! Heed these 12 signs that your child is doing too much," MSN Family. (Available here .)

    So, children today are dealing with huge amounts of advertising aimed at them, while at the same time leading more structured lives, spending more time in school, and having more homework than previous generations. Many children living in urban neighborhoods can't play outdoors freely because their parents are afraid of what could happen. All of that adds up to a profoundly different experience than children had in earlier generations.

    MTM: How does that affect children?

    TAYLOR: Evidence shows that it's not making them happier. The number of kids on medication to help them cope with depression, anxiety, or hyperactivity is startling. Children are becoming extremely materialistic; they are gaining their sense of identity through their activities and material things. At the Center for a New American Dream, we conducted a poll of parents and half of those in the sampling said their children get their primary sense of self-worth through material things.

    When I wrote my book, we did a survey asking children what they really want that money can't buy. What amazed me was the number who said they wanted time simply to be a kid. Because of everything they are inundated with, most children today don't have time to experience the natural rhythm of life-in a relaxed way that is not highly structured. Parents are always overscheduling their children's time and pushing them to do more.

    We are living in an insecure, fear-based time. Children are told that they need to be king of the mountain, that they better stay ahead of everybody else; there is tremendous competition within the school system. We don't make time to do the things that human beings have done for tens of thousands of years, like sit around the fire, hang out with Grandma, or pursue something for the pure pleasure of pursuing it. Instead, we have to achieve something or impress somebody.

    MTM: What advice do you have for parents raising children in these times?

    TAYLOR: First, there is no substitute for communication between a parent and a child. Beyond that, my main advice for parents includes the following:

    Limit your children's exposure to advertising -not just to the materialism found in advertising (the kind that pressures high school kids into feeling that they need $500 handbags), but also to other content in advertising and, generally, in the media, such as violence and sexuality. That can have a very detrimental effect. You need to really limit the amount of time your children spend in front of electronic screens.

    Talk to your children about advertising while they are still young . If you haven't done this and you have teenage children, set aside a couple of weeks or a month to have your children analyze advertising with you. Help them see what advertisers are trying to sell, through media such as magazines, billboards, and television. You can turn it into a game. When you're watching television with your children, ask them, "What are they trying to sell and how are they trying to sell it?" Have a conversation about it. (Don't do this for too long, though, or it will get tiresome for the kids.)

    A majority of American youth buy things in an attempt to improve their self-esteem. More than half of those surveyed (53%) say that buying certain products makes them feel better about themselves.

    Twelve and thirteen-year-olds are particularly vulnerable. More than three in five (62%) say that buying certain products makes them feel better about themselves.

    Among the vast majority of kids (81%) who ask their parents for money or permission to buy a product, 4 in 10 say they know in advance that their parents will disapprove of the purchase before they even ask. And nearly 6 in 10 keep nagging -on average 9 times-in the hopes they can get their parents to give in.

    This "keep asking strategy" is paying huge dividends for kids and marketers alike: 55% of young people surveyed say they are usually successful in getting their parents to give in.
    -From a poll commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream and conducted in May, 2002 by Widmeyer Communications. Based on a nationally representative telephone study of 750 American youth, ages 12-17. The margin of error is /- 3.5%.

    When you say no to something, say yes to something else . The key is to ask yourself, "What do my children really want that money can't buy?" The number one thing children say they want is time. They want time with you when you're not multi-tasking and are really talking to them. If you say no to television or a shopping trip, then say yes to Scrabble, or to making a pie, or to learning how to play Ultimate Frisbee-even if you don't really want to. Think about what gave you a sense of magic in your own childhood. Your teenage children may say they would rather go to the mall than go camping with you, but just try it! If they've never been, how would they know? Let them each bring a friend or turn the camping trip into a party and bring a few other teens, and it will be an experience they'll never forget.

    Help your children connect to others. When there are opportunities for your children to make connections with extended family or with other support systems beyond your immediate family, take advantage of them. For example, if there is a family reunion, be sure your kids go, even if they say they don't want to. It's very important for young people to know that they have an extended support system.

    Help your children become engaged in making the world a better place. Children say they want to help make the world a better place, but often, they feel they can't. Parents can help children learn how to volunteer and be more engaged. Children whose parents are trying to help solve societal problems will feel more optimistic about the future.

    MTM: What can children themselves do about the pressures they're under?

    TAYLOR: I think it's important for parents to help kids take a break and just stop sometimes. Because children are on an ever faster-moving machine, the most radical thing they can do is just stop. I recommend that parents build in "days of rebellion"-I think it creates good habits. Once or twice a year, when I can sense that my children are getting worn out, I take them out of school and we play hooky. Sometimes it means just spending the day together at home baking bread or reading a novel-just not doing anything that we have to do.

    Above all, help your children learn not to overschedule. Children are under tremendous pressure to always be doing more. Parents need to understand that their children will be O.K. if they don't have the "right" lifestyle. We do have to attend to their security, but do they really need to be a part of the rat race to the Ivy League? We as parents need to start saying no to more -more stuff, more activities, more accomplishments for their résumés. Universities are starting to send this message, too. I recently heard an admissions counselor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say that students are coming into their freshman year exhausted. The kids are brain-dead from trying to build the appearance of being ready for the Ivy League.

    We need to stop and take time to ask ourselves, "What really matters?" If we knew we were going to be in a car crash six months from now, would we continue in this rat race? Or would we want to be having a potluck with our neighbors, playing Capture the Flag with our children, or gazing up at the stars? What really matters most?

    Betsy Taylor is the president of the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization that helps Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice. Her two decades of experience in the nonprofit sector include serving as executive director of the Merck Family Fund and vice chair of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. Ms. Taylor is the author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy (Warner Books, 2003, 2004) and co-editor, with Juliet Schor, of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century (Beacon Press, 2002). She appears frequently in the national media and served as a member of the Population and Consumption Taskforce for the President's Council on Sustainable Development.

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