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Family Room

Why Kids Beg...

It was the autumn of 1980. "Another One Bites the Dust" ruled radio. The nation was about to elect Ronald Reagan president. And if pestering parents had been an Olympic sport, I would've been a 9-year-old gold medalist.

In those days, J.C. Penney's Christmas catalog was a favorite read among grade-schoolers. My family's copy was always dog-eared to the Breyer Horses page. One year I wanted—no, I pined for—the special collector's edition of The Black Stallion and his boy rider, Alec Ramsey, wearing riding silks.

I saw the toy only in the catalog and a horse-lovers' magazine, but that was enticement enough. It positively called to me. After all, my life's ambition was to become a jockey. "This would be an educational purchase," I calmly reasoned.

I left my parents notes. I verbally reminded them daily for three months. I told my Sunday school teacher about it and even got on my knees and pleaded when it looked as if all the adults in my life were oblivious to my deep need. But despite my zeal and determination, I did not receive The Black and Alec that year. Or any year, for that matter. And I still remember the disappointment, all the result of my exposure to one page in a catalog.

Begging Power
Now consider that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child sees more than 3,000 ads of various kinds each day. Advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to target children. And though youth-oriented television programming used to be limited, today's cable and satellite channels devoted solely to young audiences ensure marketers a niche to plug their goods. Frequently. And all promise happiness, popularity and entertainment through buying their products.

Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales and JellyTelly, recently told Plugged In, "When Sesame Street showed up, no one knew how much money you could make on children. … Today, kids are an industry. A huge industry. They don't just have a kids' show; they have a kids' network. And not just one, but six kids' networks. There are now 70 kids' TV networks around because they've discovered how much money there is to be made from kids."

With that sort of advertising din, it's not surprising that many kids adopt an unhealthy, materialistic attitude.

Is Materialism a Sickness?
A recent study at San Diego State University linked a decline in mental health to America's materialistic society. Researchers analyzed the psychological tests of more than 63,000 American high school and college students between 1938 and 2007. The data shows that, throughout this time period, more and more students reported signs of mental illness. In fact, today 85 percent of college students have a considerably higher mental illness "score" than students in the 1930s and 1940s. But that could be due to any number of variables … right?

Actually, survey responses regarding money, status, community and finding meaning in life revealed a significant connection between increased psychological problems and materialism. One participating psychologist writes, "These results suggest that as American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life." Other social commentators and scientists agree, saying they've seen increased narcissism, entitlement, dissatisfaction and competition among youth.

How Parents Can Fight Back
If marketing is partially to blame for our children's declining well being, then how do parents respond, since advertising is all but inescapable? Web banners. Billboards. Television commercials. Mall posters. Even school buses and classrooms now feature ads and product placement. So trying to shelter kids is unrealistic. Rather, we should teach them to discern true needs from mere wants. While there's nothing wrong with a child—or adult—wanting something, there's also nothing wrong with analyzing why you want it and determining if you should have it.

There are practical ways we can help kids develop this perspective. Each time a desire for a toy or game seems to morph into a demand or an inappropriate yen, ask your son or daughter specifically what it is about a product that they think they need. Ask whether their desire for the item is strictly personal or if it includes others and might help to develop relationships. Also, inquire how they believe their lives (and the lives of others) would be better or different if they were to possess the cherished item in question. Gently challenge any wrong thinking.

To her credit, my mother did that for me, even after I'd hounded her for weeks to purchase that very overpriced plastic horse. One day in December, after I'd whined so long that she probably dreaded seeing me, she sat me down and looked me in the eye. "Meredith," she said, "you have almost 20 other horses to play with. You can make your own tack and clothing for a doll. You do not need this toy and it will not magically change your life. In a few months you'll even forget about it. You are not going to receive this model horse."

Then she stood by her answer again and again, reminding me of it every time I tried to pester her.

Thirty years later, she still stores a box of old horses for me up in the garage rafters. True to her prediction, I stopped playing with them not long after I'd begged for The Black Stallion. She was right. I can't even remember what's in that box. But I do remember her reasoning and well-spoken answer of "no" despite my pleas. She practiced it firmly and frequently. I gradually grew to understand her point … and appreciate her wisdom.