Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

Pugh Allison J. Pugh is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Pugh's latest book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture was published by UC Press in February 2009. For more information on Pugh and work, please visit her website and her blog, Care Work Live. In her blog entry below, she talks about how recent economic woes effect parental spending.


By: Allison J. Pugh

Apparently, the age of consumption is over.  Time Magazine is proclaiming this the era of the New Frugality.  The New York Times conducted a poll reporting that 71 percent of Americans say they've cut back on luxuries.  The Wall Street Journal contended there was "good reason" to believe that America's turn to thrift will outlast the recession.

To be sure, the recent economic dislocations are profound.  There is no doubt that many people are cutting back where they can.  But what counts as "luxuries"?  What are viewed as the basics, the fundamental priorities for a strapped budget?  What is consumption for, anyway?

For the children I observed for three years in Oakland, Calif., spending on things as mundane as GameBoys or Magic cards served as critical markers of belonging in their social worlds.  Had they seen that recent movie the girl sitting nearby just mentioned?  Could they talk about that kind of Lunchable, what came on the tray, what it tasted like?  Had they been to Marine World? Kids continually had to negotiate their way in and out of conversations that formed a sort of "economy of dignity," a system of fleeting moments of belonging.

What did they do when they did not own or had not experienced whatever everyone else was talking about?  Most children had multiple strategies for handling those incidents, strategies that I explore in my book Longing and Belonging.   While they could manage those difficult moments, however, children up and down the class ladder also disliked them intensely as felt instances of deprivation.

Parents felt the ensuing pressure, and in most cases, even under dire economic conditions, responded by making sure children had what they needed to participate in the social world at school.  I visited with one mother who bought her daughter a full bedroom set, even though she herself was sleeping on the floor.  Even when financial necessity forces parents to reshuffle creditors, they often put their child's desires first.

At the same time, when parents talked to me about their buying habits, what they reported was not quite as straightforward as those news reports of cutting back on "luxuries" suggest.  Affluent parents would tell me how little they bought, maintaining that they were not materialistic or spendy.  Low-income parents would tell me how much they bought, how they could really take care of their child's needs and desires.  Both seemed to view their kids' consumer desires as the psychological need to be normal.  Is that a "luxury"?  Only to those few parents who actually did resist, who had the convictions or biographies that inured them to the social risks of their children's difference from others, risks that their children bore on their own at school or in the neighborhood.

We don't know exactly how most American households will respond to the changing economic tides, where they will reduce, where they will not.  The spending data are not yet in, despite the trend pieces and poll data.  But without change in the root causes of spending on children — the risks and fear of difference, the paramount importance of commodities in determining normalcy, and thus belonging — parents may be reserving the New Frugality for themselves while for their children resorting to some of the Old Consumerism.

4 thoughts on “Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

  1. Over a year later an the economy is even worse than when this article was written. Yet Children still have a huge sway in consumer buying. I have a 5 year old, times a little tough and we still fold like blankets when my little one wants something. I don’t really think the economy has too much to do with the issue. I think the lack of discipline and understanding of desires is the problem… Or maybe I just don’t want to be embarrassed in the store, or I’m tired of the whining, or just maybe daddys a sucker ;P

  2. “We don’t know exactly how most American households will respond to the changing economic tides, where they will reduce, where they will not.”

    Looking back from just post-Christmas…. shopping, gifts, electronic media…all in full swing. The influence children keep having over their parents, effectively fueled by the media, has not lessenened in the face of the lasting economic crises.

  3. “Only to those few parents who actually did resist, who had the convictions or biographies that inured them to the social risks of their children’s difference from others, risks that their children bore on their own at school or in the neighborhood.”

    That is quite a fascinating perspective as it is inherent in society as a whole. Your research and critical thinking is spot on. Great post!

  4. Children as an influence market

    Fascinating post — I’m particularly interested in the idea of an “economy of dignity.” I look forward to reading your book.

    It’s interesting to note, too, how much influence children exert over parents’ purchasing decisions. I’m sure you’re familiar with market research company Harris Interactive, which publishes annual “Youth Pulse” reports that track consumer trends among children and youth. Its 2007 poll of 2,350 U.S. children and young adults (aged 8 to 21 years) found that youth influence the majority of household purchasing decisions — in some cases, by as much as 90 percent. (Clothing and DVD purchases are the biggies, but youth also hold enormous sway over grocery, video game, music and book purchases.)

    Fortune 500 companies rely on this data to create ads that effectively target children and teenagers. An annual subscription to “Youth Pulse” costs $7,500 — a small price to pay, perhaps, to tap U.S. children’s purchasing power, which Harris Interactive values at an annual $132 billion.

    It will be interesting to see how these numbers compare to more current data, which, as you point out, might reflect the influence of the recession.

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