107: The impact of consumerism on children
A few weeks ago we talked with Dr. Brad Klontz about the ‘money scripts’ that we pass on to our children – perhaps unintentionally – if we fail to examine these and make conscious decisions about the messages we want to convey about money to our children.
Today we continue our series on the intersection of parenting and money with a conversation with Dr. Allison Pugh, whose doctoral dissertation (and subsequent book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture) remain seminal works in this field even a decade after their publication.
In this interview, we take the position that advertising to children is happening – so what do we do with that? How do children make meaning out of the messages sent to them through our consumerist culture? How do parents attempt to resist the effects of this culture, and how successful are they?
In our next episode in this series we’ll dig more deeply into the effects of advertising itself on children’s brains, so stay tuned for that!
Book mentioned in the episode
Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture (Affiliate link).
Other episodes on this series
This episode is the second in a series on the intersection of parenting and money. You can find other episodes in this series:
105: How to pass on mental wealth to your child
112: How to Set up a Play Room
115: Reducing the Impact of Advertising to Children
118: Are You Raising Materialistic Kids?
Click here to read the full transcript
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode is part of a series that I’m doing on the Intersection of Childhood and Money. A while back now I interviewed New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, on his book The Opposite of Spoiled and we do use his approach to several topics related to money. But it seemed to me for a while now that there’s a lot more to say on this. So more recently, I interviewed Dr. Brad Klontz on his concept of Money Scripts, which are the ideas about money that were passed on to us by our parents and that we will probably pass on to our children as well if we don’t critically examine these and potentially make a conscious decision to choose a different path. Another avenue I’ve been wanting to explore is consumerism since I come from England, which is certainly becoming more Americanized than many other places, but where consumerism still doesn’t have the same force that it does here in the US where buying things to express love or because you’re feeling sad or just because you feel like it is pretty much considered a birthright. And I spent a lot of time looking for someone to talk with on this topic and finally found our guest today Dr. Allison Pugh. Dr. Pugh is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia whose teaching and research focuses on contemporary work and relationships, and particularly the intertwining of culture, emotions, intimacy and economic life. She’s currently a fellow at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles while she writes a book about her research on the automation of work that’s historically relied on relationships between people like the caring professions. She wrote the book Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture back in 2009, in which she studies how children and parents in both affluent and working class communities in the East Bay Area of California where I live, manage the commercialization of childhood. The book was named by contemporary sociology as one of the 12 most influential books on the family written since 2000 and received several awards. A decade later, it remains the seminal work on this topic. So I’m excited that Dr. Pugh is here today to talk with us and help us think through this important topic. Welcome, Dr. Pugh.
Dr. Pugh 3:26
Thank you so much.
All right, so I’d like to start by quoting a few of the very first sentences from the preface of your book. So you say “Ask them straight out and most upper income parents will tell you they don’t buy much for their children because they have the ‘right values’. Meanwhile, low income parents will try to convince you they buy quite a bit because they are not ‘in trouble’. Go into their children’s bedrooms, however, and you will find many of the same objects Nintendo or Sony gaming system, the collectible cards, the Hello Kitty pencils.” You go on to describe how nine in 10 Americans feel that children today want too many material things. And four out of five parents think Americans overly materialistic society produces over commercialized children. Oh, my goodness. So what are some of the popular reasons why we might think this situation exists?
Dr. Pugh 4:17
Well, the first thing I would say is what is the situation?
Dr. Pugh 4:20
And the situation is that children have a lot of things and yet Americans are worried about how much children might attach to those things, how much kind of emotional attachment they might feel towards material things. And those two, that’s why I’m saying that, I’m describing that situation using those two things. They both have the things and Americans are worried about their feelings toward those things. That’s the situation we’re describing. And why do we have that situation? One issue is the kind of massive influence of consumer culture on Americans generally, not just children but children and adults, and that’s why children have those things. And then the question about like, or the issue about how Americans are worried about how children feel about those things, that’s a different issue. And that reflects our ambivalence towards consumer culture. As a culture, we both embrace it and we are worried about it. We are concerned about its impact on our own lives. And we express that concern with our concern around children. That’s what I would say, kind of writ large. Now, the question about like popular reasons why people think children might be materialistic. That is, you know, people are sure that children are just glued to the TV or to their screens and then very susceptible to the advertising that’s they’re more susceptible than they see themselves as being. That would be like the number one reason why people are afraid that children are too materialistic. Another thing that you hear sometimes popular reasons would be people are pretty sure that other people, other parents are less able to control themselves than they themselves are. So they’re pretty sure that other parents are, you know, kind of opening the spigot and just letting kids have whatever they ask. And then there’s often a lot of generational critique, like, oh, kids today, you know, that would be another kind of popular reason why people are afraid. They’re like, oh, kids today, they’re more materialistic. They’re more screen-focused, they’re more obsessed with stuff, you know, that kind of thing. So those are three potential reasons why people—those are reasons you hear batted about, like, why kids, they have so much and be maybe too attached to those things.
It’s like we’re caught in a really difficult bind here, isn’t it? We want the convenience of being able to make one click and buy something on Amazon that shows up tomorrow, whenever we feel like it. But at the same time, we’re so worried about what this means for our children’s futures. It’s a very difficult position to be in for parents, I think.
Dr. Pugh 7:04
Yes, I agree. And, yeah, my overall kind of conclusion from all the years of research that I did and talking to people about this subject after is that, you know, the overarching conclusion I would want people to walk away with is something like, you know, be aware that children live in the same culture that you do.
Dr. Pugh 7:28
And whatever you’re worried about for your children, kind of look at your own self, and what is the kind of modeling that you are doing? That’s kind of the main thing that I come away with.
Yeah. Okay. All right. Thanks for giving that away early on.
And so you’d mentioned advertising, and I know that advertisements geared towards children isn’t a big focus of yours. And so I’m hoping to do a follow up episode on that with somebody else who does really focus on this, but I wonder if you could just tell us briefly before we move on, why do you take a different view on this topic?
Dr. Pugh 8:02
Right. Well, it’s not that I don’t think advertising is important. Advertising is very important. I’m not, you know, kind of discounting the findings of many, many psychologists and experimental scientists that find that, you know, you show children an ad in an experimental situation in a lab, and then they turn out they want it more later or, you know, like there’s a lot, not to mention all the corporate research finding efficacy, you know, they spent billions of dollars on advertising to children, and they’re not doing it for their health. They’re doing it because they believe it to be effective. So it’s not that I’m saying advertising is not effective. For me, I was less interested in tracking the effectiveness of advertising than I was in kind of how children what’s the meaning children make of the stuff in their lives when they’re out in the real world? What does it mean to them? And so the reason why I didn’t focus on the advertising is because I kind of made it a constant. I just assumed all kids are exposed to advertising to some degree. And I did this at a time when I myself had three young children ranging in age from about, I think it was about three to 10. And my kids, you know, we don’t have a TV, you know, like all these things, I was doing all these things to, I thought shelter my children from advertising.
As a good middle class parent does.
Dr. Pugh 9:29
You know, doing my best. And then they’re in school or just walking around, like they swim in this water just like we do. So, even if you’re doing some things, to keep them what you think sheltered or protected from advertising culture or consumer culture, they get it anyway from a whole bunch of other sources. And so that was part of the thinking that like, you know, advertising is everywhere. But that’s not the end of the conversation. That’s the beginning of a conversation like, given that advertising is everywhere, what do we know then? What’s next about what to know about the meaning that children make from stuff? That’s where I started. I wasn’t controlling the effect of advertising because I didn’t perceive that that was very possible. I was just like, okay, assuming advertising is everywhere, what next?
Yeah. And so that takes us nicely to one of the key themes in your book, I think, which is the balance of needing to fit in, but also not be too different from people. So you want to be different enough to express your individuality, which is why you need Nike sneakers, right? The right logo on the side. So you have to fit in, but you also have to show your individuality. And of course, this exists both on the part of the children that you studied, as well as on the parents’ memories of their own childhoods and whether or not I as a parent felt like I fit in as a child really can have some profound impacts on how I want to raise my child. And so I’m curious, what can you tell us about the differences that you notice that were important to children and parents?
Dr. Pugh 11:05
Mm-hmm. Well, one thing I want to emphasize a little bit differently, put a slightly different emphasis on what you are saying, which is I found that everyone, I would say, was concerned about fitting in. And the concern about individuality seemed, I’d say, of course, that’s going to vary by temperament. So some kids are more concerned with that, but really, that was coming from the parents. So the kids were much more interested in belonging. And that’s why I came up with that title. That title says it all.
Yeah, longing and belonging.
Dr. Pugh 11:43
What’s the meaning? If the question is what is the meaning that kids make of the stuff in their lives? The answer is belonging. And that’s actually a really different thing than a lot of research I found thinks the existing research is like thinking about status and how to be better than, you know, the better than your neighbor or your, you know, in a hierarchy. And actually, the kids and I remember, you know, I sat with kids for three years.
You knew these kids really well.
Dr. Pugh 12:17
I knew them really well.There were three different locations that varied essentially by class. There was a kind of wealthy public school, a private school, and then a low income public school setting. And each of these the kids are using the meaning of the goods and the kind of services that they could buy or that the parents were buying to belong more than to assert their dominance. So it was like I kept seeing again and again, you know, kids sitting around going, you know, I have a Gameboy, which I realized is a rather outdated reference, so, whatever they’re talking about today. I have a Gameboy and then someone else would say, well, I have a We or something they would try and trump it. They would instead say, well, I have a Gameboy. Yeah, I have one too. Yeah, I have one too. And it was like, I have one too or I’ve done that too, was much more prevalent and much more prominent in the conversations that I was witnessing over three years. Then, well, that’s for losers and really everyone should have this or whatever, you know. Now, that’s the kids’ world that I was witnessing. And that was a surprise to me, because I had been kind of prepped by the culture, I think the Mean Girls trope, you know, the obsession with status that is a lot of popular culture as well as the existing research. But then you talk to the parents. So I also interviewed parents of the children that I was observing in each location, and the parents were worried like about belonging also. But they were also worried about their kids’ individuality or I should say the affluent parents in particular were most focused on their kids’ individuality in ways that the children were less so. And I can talk more about that, because that’s tied into all sorts of other things about parenting, but those things I found in their consumer.
And I think from the affluent parents’ side, that sort of, I’m thinking ahead to the college years and the getting into college years, and you’ve sort of got to show that your kid is different from the other 50,000 kids who are applying to Harvard, right? Is that a big part of the difference aspect?
Dr. Pugh 14:34
Isn’t that interesting? So I think that’s true. But it’s mediated through a kind of generalized parenting style of, you know, intensive concerted cultivation that I think you may have talked about before on the podcast. So Annette Lareau’s really important work diagnosing what middle class and above parents are trying to do, this concerted cultivation is figure out how your kids are unique individuals and then cultivate the things that they are going to make them particularly special that are their particular passions. That’s something that starts at very young, will say toddlers, and I think is powered by, in my opinion by rising inequality and the higher stakes of getting into college and which colleges, the college race.
Yup. So you mentioned Dr. Annette Lareau’s work there, and yeah, we have mentioned that on the podcast before and the term concerted cultivation is one that she used to describe how parents used organized activities and I guess consumption as well to foster their child’s talents and I’m going to quote you on this that you said,“From the perspective of upper income parents knowing children’s desires was also part of caring well, of listening, empathizing and reflecting back to their children their true natures, so they grew to know and love themselves. Upper income parents sought to understand their children’s individuals including their desires as part of diagnosing their individual strengths and weaknesses, the central task of every upper income caregiver before commencing on the path of concerted cultivation, plumbing the depths of children’s desires was good parenting.” And I have to say, I’m gonna go out on a limb here, this statement made me really feel kind of uncomfortable, because I see so much of myself and my daughter in it. And there’s a lot kind of going on in my personal life right now that I’m struggling with or related to not really knowing myself and I talked to Dr. Carol Gilligan recently about how patriarchy causes women to not really truly know and to use their true voice and men not to know and express their true feelings. And so I do want to help my daughter to know herself and to express herself from a very young age and we plan to homeschool and so we’re going to have the time and space for her to really know her own strengths and weaknesses. And kind of in a way cultivate herself and I think and hope this will help her to live a fulfilling life. But I also see Dr. Lareau is arguing I’m essentially preparing her to function as an upper middle class white person in society. And of course, the reason I’m able to do this is because I have economic privilege. And so what I’m trying to tease out here is, is it wrong of me to do it in some way?
It’s okay to say yes.
Dr. Pugh 17:15
I completely empathize with it. And I have a kind of two part answer.
Dr. Pugh 17:21
The first is that what you’re describing is kind of seeing another person with positive regard and reflecting that person back to her or him, you know, the child, that’s part of good parenting. That’s part of good caring on some level, like even the psychologists with their analysis of infant caregiver relations will tell you that that this is mirroring. And that’s part of good care. So on the most fundamental level, the answer is no, no, it’s not wrong. The problem is when it gets kind of activated as entitlement, and that’s the direction in which our culture is going. So there’s really great work after Lareau, which was published, you know, 15 years ago or more. There’s really great work showing that kids of middle class versus kids of working class or poor backgrounds, take that the streets you could say that they derive from being seen so regularly and so typically by their parents, and take it into the classroom and customize the classroom to their needs, in ways that accentuate the advantages that they have. You know, it’s not just their parents speak more vocabulary to them or that they have more books in the home, but that they assume that they can customize their environment to meet their needs in a way that working class and poor children do not. This is this great work by Jessica Calarco, who’s at Indiana. There’s additional work talking about, you know, kind of a customization of experience that kids take into high school, and may I say as a college professor, you know, I see these kids, which are my own kids as well, going in and being like, you know, I’ll just give you an example, you know, like just at the last semester that I was teaching, this girl was saying, oh, I didn’t see that the final exam was on this date, and I bought these very expensive plane tickets, can I get accommodation so that I can take it on another day, you know, that’s like, a classic example of kind of assuming on some level that you can customize your environment, because that’s what’s been done for you your whole life. And so I’m making a link between recognition or this mirroring, that is good care, and this kind of message that you can customize your entire environment that leads to a kind of entitlement that I do think is wrong. So, somehow, our task I think as middle class parents in particular, because we have all this privilege accruing to us is to somehow convey recognition, convey mirroring, convey that the person you see is a valuable person and these are their contours and you are an individual, convey this positive regard of who they actually are, but also say, as somehow convey a sense of humility and restraint with that.
I love that answer. And yeah, the idea that the world doesn’t revolve around you and that part of your role in society is to make society better for other people, not just make it better for yourself.
Dr. Pugh 20:50
Yes, but you can understand I mean, I think it’s completely understandable that it’s not clear like those are different, different messages. One might be the world like, I see you in all your uniqueness. And then the second message is all that uniqueness is fine at home I guess.
Dr. Pugh 21:13
But when you’re out there, be a little less unique and settle with the masses so that you’re not like assuming that the world revolves around you, you know, like it’s different message and that can be hard. That kind of subtlety can be hard to convey.
Yeah, for sure. And just as sort of a sidetrack here, we talk a lot about middle class parents. And Dr. Lareau’s research is getting a little older now. And she said that the low income parents are not as engaged in concerted cultivation and really use this different approach where they support the development of their child’s natural abilities. But some more recent research has observed and I know that you pointed me towards some research as well on slightly different topics related to buying food and that kind of thing that support the idea that low income mothers actually do engage in a lot of sacrifice, a lot of self-reliance and protection in the absence of really anything in the way of social support and a great cost to themselves. What do you make of that sort of discrepancy? Is it just a question of looking at different populations or a different way of thinking about things since Dr. Lareau was working on this?
Dr. Pugh 22:13
Well, two things, first, I don’t think it’s necessarily a discrepancy. And I think Lareau would definitely agree that the working class parents that she saw had a lot of self-sacrifice. It’s not that they weren’t sacrificing, they did withhold a lot from themselves to make sure their kids could get it, you know, they could pay rent, they could house them, they could, you know, like they’re doing a lot. It’s not that they weren’t doing self-sacrifice, it’s that they thought good parenting was about establishing right and wrong, and kind of letting the child kind of come to who they were going to be kind of. As opposed to this kind of active cultivation through daily scheduling of activities and stuff like that. But in addition to that slight difference in emphasis, I would also say there has been some changes. What’s interesting is this is a hotbed of scholarly research people are really in this area and have been for the last 10 or 15 years since this book came out. It just started spawned this enormous industry of experiments and surveys and extensive research and the reason why it’s spawned the so much activity is because people are arguing, and they’re arguing about two things. They’re saying, is it a cultural difference, which is what Lareau was arguing like that by which she means working class people had a different values about parenting compared to the middle class people.They had a different cultural approach to parenting, you know. A whole other category of scholars are instead arguing no, no, no, this is about material resources. And if we gave working class people more advantages, you know, more money, more, etc, their parenting would look more like the middle class parenting. It’s not a cultural difference, it’s material. That’s a fight that’s happening. And there is some research suggesting that the two groups are getting closer. By two groups I mean these middle class working class family parents. The most pithy summary I’ve seen says that working class parents in the kind of parenting they value and what they’re kind of doing like after school activities, etc, working class parents are moving towards middle class parents in scheduling kids, in reading to kids, etc. They’re about where the middle class parents were 25 years ago.
Okay, interesting. So things are changing. And I want to pursue this line of thinking on the differences between affluent families and parents with less income, but I don’t want to let drop something when I asked question about a while ago, when we were talking about how children are using their possessions as a way to belong to indicate their belonging and it just made me feel so sad when you said that. I mean, it just feels so wrong to me in some way that we need to have physical things that are produced at great environmental cost and great social cost to people in often other countries living in atrocious conditions, so that they can make us a Gameboy that we can use to express our belonging in a culture. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Pugh 25:29
Yeah. Well, the first is kids will do this with anything. So actually not necessary that it’d be a Gameboy.
It could be a stick.
Dr. Pugh 25:38
Right. In fact, they’ll do it with rocks that they like gave different, you know, some of them would like there was a kind of painting rocks. In my book, I talked about this puff balls and they were like creating out of these little strings or whatever. Like it doesn’t have to be a Gameboy. They create meaning from the stuff that’s around them and then the others want to join in. If it’s got enough, I don’t know, charisma to it or magnetism to it, the others want to join in and then that creates its own economy of sorts. And so it’s not necessarily something that is, you know, has that whiff of tragedy to it that you are sensing. The tragedy, I agree, though, that when it’s attached to expensive goods made in other countries that, you know, with under terrible labor conditions, and you know, with horrible environmental effects, and purchased by working class parents who are just trying to help their kids feel normal at school, that is a tragedy.
That is a whiff of tragedy.
Dr. Pugh 26:42
That’s a bad situation. And so actually, in my book, and actually in talks that I’ve given since then, I’ve been thinking about what’s to do? Like if this is something that kids do with anything, but it’s been attached to this pretty high priced and damaging consumer economy, what’s to do here? And I kind of went down, I go down two paths. One is to help people in their neighborhoods and schools, in their small communities, control to some degree the meaning of difference and the meaning of sameness. That’s what it comes down to. So what that means is if you’re in a neighborhood and everyone and like the birthday gifts are getting out of hand or not just the birthday gifts, but the party gifts are out of hand, that’s something that was happening when I was raising young kids. You can get together as a group and just kind of agree like, okay, actually, we’re just going to spend X on party gifts or how about we just do you know, like kind of collectively decide things. Similarly with school uniforms can kind of often bracket a whole area of spending out, you know, take it out of the equation. There’s ways in which our communities kind of almost established sameness that just may takes a little bit of the heat off of this for kids. That’s one path to go down as a group. And I have to say my research says these solutions are going to be by group.
Yeah. Ron Lieber describes that too in his book, doesn’t he, where he talks about that parents getting together for Hanukkah celebrations and realizing they’re collectively going to spend like 30 grand on this, and they decided to set up a fund that the children were going to administer and decide how it would be split among different charities that everybody could participate in whether or not they contributed money.
Dr. Pugh 28:39
Yeah, I think his work is pretty terrific. So the other thing though is to make difference safer, and that’s a much more complicated. But also it’s one that I think actually, you know, adults benefit from too like I’m a real believer and do as I do, kind of like walk the walk is what I think like parents and parenting and myself, I’m no exception, we think that we can talk our way through these issues, but kids aren’t actually listening that much. They’re watching, and they’re really watching. And so if your own life doesn’t really include a lot of difference, then how are we to assume that the kids are going to do that too, so they’re going to look for difference themselves. So thinking about difference, thinking about who your friendship group is, and who their friendship group is, thinking about like how it is to walk out and someone else might perceive you as weird or strange, you know, like doing that more and articulating that more, I think is actually a powerful parenting tool.
Interesting, okay. And so to keep going on this point about how parents from different economic backgrounds think about consumerism because this was another major theme in your book, and I wonder if you can tell us some of the things that you identified among affluent families and parents with less income as well.
Dr. Pugh 30:01
You mean like the differences between them?
Yeah. What were the major ideas that that each of the different groups of parents had about money and how they were spending it?
Dr. Pugh 30:10
Yeah. So I found this core similarity among the children. And I was looking at children with vastly different resources. You know, people who spent the summer in Oakland in their tiny little apartment and someone who went to Brazil and Germany in the summer, like totally different universes.The patterns were the same, the wanting to use stuff to belong, etc. But among the parents of these children, they really had markedly different ways of talking about spending that showed me that they were kind of, I would say, responding to different pressures. So the way I captured that was with the term symbolic deprivation, and symbolic indulgence and symbolic deprivation is what I found the affluent parents doing by which I meant I would be talking to affluent parents and they would be saying, you know, we don’t spend, I’m not very materialistic, my neighbor, now my neighbor, that’s another. Like oh, my sister, she’s really bad or whatever, you know, like, they would have these kind of people that they saw themselves as not us and those people were almost cautionary tales for themselves and they were kind of trying to cue a different line of honorable parenting that was not materialistic. And then you go into the kids’ bedrooms and the kids bedrooms have a ton of stuff, you know, it’s just what it was. They had like all of the basics, obviously, but then also some other stuff. But the parents would like kind of point to particular items that they didn’t buy, that other people were buying to tell themselves that they were kind of honorable, as I say, or you know, not materialistic parents. So I had one family that I use as an example, they were going to Australia for the summer and you know, all the stuff, but the kid didn’t have a Gameboy. And again, I know that the data differs but like, you know, didn’t have the electronic thing that all other boys his age in his school had. So he had to kind of figure out a path to belonging without it. And a lot of my observations were charting how interesting and adept he was at making those paths, but also the parents’ tactic of bringing him to Australia and outfitting with all this stuff, but then like not getting him the Gameboy, as if that was a kind of statement of, I’m not materialistic. I kind of saw that as in some way characteristic of that kind of dimension or that level of parenting. Then on the low income side, they didn’t care about being materialistic, that was not their problem. And that was actually a very powerful transformation that I experienced when I began this research, the research question itself was a middle class question. You know, how do we handle the commodification of childhood? You know, like that is a middle class question. The low income parents did not care about my question. The kind of parenting they were, they’re kind of cautionary tale. It was not the overly materialistic neighbor or sister. It was the person who couldn’t provide, it was the person down the street whose kids were neglected or abandoned or the homeless person or like they were like I’m a good provider. And so that’s what they were proving. So they did not care about, you know, how much stuff their kids has. So, their language, what I’m talking they were like, he’s got this and that and this and that. I’m like, oh my god, and then you go in their bedrooms and they have very little very, very little. In some cases, because I was speaking to parents who were quite destitute, the kids would have almost nothing. And they definitely would not have what a middle class family would consider the basics, they wouldn’t have blocks, they wouldn’t have bikes, they wouldn’t have, you know, things that are the first order of business for a middle class family. The low income family wouldn’t have those items, but instead, they’d have a few of the items that got a lot of conversation at school. So people don’t really talk about their bikes at school, but they might talk—no, there’s a lot of that, but they might talk about their We or their Gameboy or whatever. They talked about their electronic item, they talked about, you know, and that’s what these people would have.
Dr. Pugh 34:47
So it was the like the mirror opposite of what I saw going on in the middle class families. And so I call that symbolic indulgence. Because they were doing what they could to prove that they were good providers, and in some cases, they’re holding back on their own very basic purchases, even rent or food to be able to afford these kind of big ticket. But I would say also kind of big bang for the buck socially for their child in school. And so those were very different. But yeah, those were the primary differences I saw.
Yeah. I recall one anecdote from your book about how a mother subsisted on one meal a day for I think three months so that she could spend $50 on something that was really important to her child.
Dr. Pugh 35:34
So yeah, and you summarize these differences so succinctly and I guess this is why this book got so many flipping awards because there were so many quotable statements on it. You said affluent overspending is a bad idea, but low income overspending is in decent. The affluent parents have a responsibility to teach their children restraint. But it is shameful for low income parents to spend money on toys and branded sneakers when there isn’t enough money for food and you go on to say that to be able to…
Dr. Pugh 36:01
Look, if I can interrupt that?
Dr. Pugh 36:03
You’re saying that I mean I hope you realize that I’m saying that as this is what the culture says.
Dr. Pugh 36:10
Not what I am saying.
Dr. Pugh 36:12
Not part of the shame and indecency. I’m just saying what the culture is telling these parents basically.
Yeah. Thank you for clarifying that. And so people buy again quote “To be able to create their experiences, their lives, their identities, their very selves.” And also the people that you interviewed spend money on their children to compensate for something, either something amiss in their own lives or something they perceive as amiss in their children’s lives. And I guess it sort of goes to what we were talking about buying things to belong, you know, is buying things the best way to accomplish these goals?
Dr. Pugh 36:45
Yeah, I mean, exactly. I would say that there’s a lot of different reasons people buy and there’s been a lot of research that documents all those different reasons. You know, people buy to connect to their child, to make their child smile or feel joy or feel wonder, you know, there’s a lot of reasons why people buy for their kids. The reasons that kept coming up in my conversations with them because I was coming from their kids’ classroom maybe these were kind of accentuated in these conversations or maybe they were able to articulate reasons that we don’t hear in other places or another research but in any case, I heard mostly parents talking about wanting their kids to fit in. And that I think speaks to it’s their anxiety about their kids fitting in was so much stronger than I thought warranted having watched their kids. Like I watched kids really manage those moments. All kids at some point, no matter how wealthy didn’t have the thing or hadn’t experienced the thing that everyone was talking about at some point in the school, like everyone had that experience. It was not something you could protect your children from ever experiencing, ever. And kids manage those moments like they manage them well, you know, they do a lot of different things. And I actually have a whole chapter where I talked about that. You know, they learn a lot about the culture so that they can talk knowledgeably about it, even though they don’t own one. That’s what I saw that was so interesting to me. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they borrow. You know, like they just do a lot of different things that suggest they’re really good at their own cultures, I would say. And, of course, their facility or their competence at managing these moments is going to vary by child, but I saw a lot of really adept management of these slightly uncomfortable experiences. As parents we’re really, this was a motivator for them. So if kids had figured that out and would say that to their parents in some way, couch their requests to parents in ways that emphasize belonging. That was a powerful motivator for parents and I saw parents respond in ways that made me think they’re working from their own memories of their own childhood, feeling undue shame, or just those moments where you don’t have where you’re feeling left out, like parents response to the children’s, you know, fitting in motivations, or fitting in questions, you know, nagging around fitting in. They responded so quickly and so strongly that it made me feel like oh, this is responding to something in your own childhood because the kids are actually fine.
So yeah, that reminded me of something that you had said in the book where, just to draw this out more fully, the parents would purchase toys that were otherwise prohibited if their children said they needed something to fit in with their peers to participate in their social worlds, and yet it does seem as though we’re looking back to our childhoods and thinking that I think there was a Greek woman particular in your study who really seemed to have this experience when she was younger of not fitting in and possibly even continuing today, when her daughter saying don’t speak Greek to me, when you come pick me up, that’s a pretty obvious marker that there’s some kind of difference there, some feeling of difference, and that we don’t want our children to feel as outcasts. And if we can buy something to make that feeling go away, we’re going to do it.
Dr. Pugh 40:37
Dr. Pugh 40:39
Yeah. And I noticed that, you know, so that’s affluent, as well as low income parents are responding to that. As some parents were able to say, you are unique, we are unique. We’re not like these other people in our neighborhood. You are not like those other kids in the class. We’re not buying. But those people, the people who could say no on a regular basis were few and far between and many more people told me that they said no than actually said no. Just based on what I saw in there.
Dr. Pugh 41:19
Bedrooms or saw their kids with.
Yeah. So do you think we should say no more often? I guess I’m thinking back to the child that you mentioned earlier who didn’t have Gameboy. So his parents had the right values. Should more parents be saying no to the Gameboys? And I guess that’s maybe a bad example, because that child was going to Brazil and Germany and all the other places as well. But is this a lacking skill in parents?
Dr. Pugh 41:43
Oh, that’s such a hard question. My feeling is that it’s not a bad thing to say no. Part of my message is, you know, kind of, I would say Postcards from children’s world. Hey, I’m watching them and they’re doing just fine in those moments there, you know, that they’re not suffering as much as you think from not belonging. And I can’t remember exactly what he said. But Ron Lieber I think has a very nice way of parsing this moment, which is something like you don’t want to be the first by and you don’t want to be the last by, but you wanna be the two thirds in.
Yup. Something like that. Yeah.
Dr. Pugh 42:21
Again, I don’t remember how he does it, but I actually thought that was not a terrible thing because I also, in talking to the parents who could say no, there was this one family that I profile in particular, and they were refugee family who had recently moved to Oakland, and they view themselves as separate from their low income neighbors and better and they were like, we are, you know, we are not like them. You know, what? Buy you a Halloween costume? Why would I do that? You know, and so they were had a very hard line, even though they had a lot of affection and care for their kids. There was no doubt that they care for the kids. But their kids had a lot of work to do in the classroom to overcome not having even a Halloween costume, you know, not having even the most basic even in a low income environment. So it looked fatalist to me. It looked rough. It looked tough on those kids to me. So I think is that my American middle class self saying, oh, but the kids just want to belong, you know, like it’s really a balance. I don’t think you want them to be the first as Lieber would say and you don’t want them to be the last and you want them to be somewhere towards the end.
Somebody does have to be first.
Dr. Pugh 43:37
Somebody has to be first. Don’t let that be your child.
Yeah, and I remember that anecdote about the immigrant child. And I think you described him as picking up something in the store and not even asking for it. Just picking it up and looking at it and putting it back and already knowing that there’s no point in asking for it.
Dr. Pugh 43:55
And there was a sort of sadness in that as well. You know, it’s sad that we have, to me at least, that we have to buy these things with huge impacts to express belonging. But it’s also sad to know that this child is seeing something that could help him to belong and he knows that it’s not even worth making the request because the answer is going to be no.
Dr. Pugh 44:13
Right. I mean, I agree. And that’s why I, you know, told that story, that’s why I let the readers see what I was seeing.
Dr. Pugh 44:24
But I also want to remind us that, you know, how many times we live in our consumer paradise, where we’re surrounded by things we want, and would love to have maybe, you know, like, so how many times as an adult are you looking at something and then going, I’m not, you know, can’t do that. I’ll put that back in or whatever, you know, so it’s actually not a terrible experience, not to look at something and then put it back. It’s not a terrible experience.
Life will go on.
Dr. Pugh 44:50
So, we see it in all of its points, but it’s not absolutely terrible. And actually, the other thing that I saw him do in the same shopping trip was pickup magazine about I think Gameboys and like kind of leaf through it, basically picking up the cultural symbols and language so that he could bring that right into the classroom and be like, Oh yeah, the latest Na-na-na-na, you know, and that was him learning the culture so then be more fluent in it, even though he didn’t have the stuff and I should say, again, going back to this theme, like children are not an alien creature but they actually are just like, living in the world that we do. Adults do the same thing. So I see my, you know, my husband talk about why, you know, like what are the things that is important that you are knowledgeable about? And you may not be spending all that or, you know, you might not have everything but you’re learning about it so you can talk about it and whatever is important in your world, you know, sure some of it is politics or, you know, more high fluent language but it’s also could be consumer goods. We do this as adults also.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. And so as we…
Dr. Pugh 46:08
And how do I know? I should even mention this, but those fancy shoes that have red on the bottom, why do I even know that there’s a brand of pump that has, well, I will never afford those. I will never wear those. And why go about that?
Right. Yeah. If somebody mentions them someday you have some idea of what they’re talking about.
Dr. Pugh 46:27
Yeah. Okay. So let’s look at kind of the other end of the spectrum for a minute before we end on a really practical note. I think you mentioned in the book, the idea of noblesse oblige. And I wonder if you can describe that term for us and then talk about how you see it playing out among affluent families.
Dr. Pugh 46:45
Right. So, noblesse oblige is when I would say privilege or advantage group people who have more money, see that money and privilege as coming with obligations to help people who are worse off. It is not generally tax me at a higher rate things are redistributed or I’m going to pay myself less and my lowest paid worker more so that the ratio is less so that we have more equality. It is more an emphasis on I would say philanthropy and giving back in a way, but not necessarily taking away from what gives you riches in the first place. So I would say, you know, my radical children and you know, my leftist colleagues and you know, people would critique noblesse oblige, as not really changing the inequality that makes so much trouble in our society. Nonetheless, without noblesse oblige you’re left with a kind of, you know, oligarchy of wealthy that feel no obligations to others and don’t have that purpose in their lives kind of structuring their spending and their practices. So, some wealthy parents communicate noblesse oblige to their wealthy children and some do not. And you can do that through the kind of consumer practices that you model, and you suggest for your children. There’s a writer who’s really good on this that I would recommend, called Rachel Sherman, who wrote a book called Uneasy Street, which is about she interviewed, you know, the ultra rich in New York City and how they manage parenting as well as other things. And it’s a really interesting book. Yeah, so I had some people talking about what we owe others and how we do that through what we buy, or we’re spending and others did not.
Yeah. And so I’m thinking particularly of an example of one parent who’s saying to her child, you have so much stuff, don’t tell me you need four teddy bears or whatever. There’s a kid out there who doesn’t have one. I think she’s a recounting this anecdote to you. And then of course, my question was why do we have four teddy bears in the first place? And then the same parent refused to take her child to places where poor people live in Oakland. And she said, “I don’t want my kids to have to see that much. I don’t take them to most places where homeless people are. I’d much rather write a check and deal with it on that level than expose them to anything”. And so your summary of this was most of the affluent parents seem to prefer the inequality serve as an abstract lesson and charity and the responsibilities of the wealthy rather than as a concrete experience of empathy and what we owe each other as humans. I mean, where do we go with that?
Dr. Pugh 49:34
Yeah, I think that example and this problem really like crystallizes so much that’s a problem right now because what we have there is a case of ultra responsible parenting on one level, you know, she’s trying to help her kids be safe, be protected, be sheltered. She views her, what is good parenting is sheltering them from the coarseness, the kind of strife of modern society and I am deeply sympathetic to that, you know, that’s why we have say movie picture ratings, you know, like we don’t show them R rated movies. There are reasons why we shelter children on some level. But on another level, what does not seeing it in your daily life when it’s all around? What does that do to the child growing up? And what does that tell them? Is there place in the world, this kind of bubble that is, okay, it’s okay to be in a bubble. So real attention. So if we think that’s wrong, somehow, that’s kind of perversion of the ultra responsibility of the good parents, you know, how do you introduce children to inequality safely? How do you do it in a way that doesn’t kind of dislodge all that they think is secure in the world. You know what I mean?
Dr. Pugh 51:02
It’s like a conflict between parenting as communicating security and parenting as communicating connectedness to others. And community basically, and who is your community kind of? And I am sympathetic to those who want to communicate security, especially in a world that seems just rife with insecurity. But at the same time I’ve seen the real costs, and what that does to the child’s emerging sense of who we are connected to and who is our community and who was the distant other.
Mm-hmm. I wonder if the answer is maybe imagining that our children can handle probably just a little bit more than we think they can handle or maybe that we’re comfortable with handling ourselves?
Dr. Pugh 51:52
Yes. I still agree with that. That is completely true. That is completely true.
It’s us that need to go out on a limb here. Not our kids.
Dr. Pugh 52:00
Exactly. And part of it again, there’s a gendered issue here that these are kind of women trying to do what they perceive as good job of parenting, you know, as best as they can. And we need to give them, you know, women are really disciplined for doing parenting wrong on so many different levels. And we need to give them a little more space. You know, there’s also an entire as I’m sure you know, entire kind of revolutionary movement in favor of free range parenting, keeping kids more space, and that’s not just about disciplining parents, it’s also about making our communities more kid aware. And that applies to not just affluent kids, but also low income kids like allowing kids in spaces that are not necessarily designated as kid only, not compartmentalizing kids but actually integrating them into our streets and our daily lives.
Dr. Pugh 53:07
And I actually for all I believe in that free range movement, I actually see the decrease in, you know, the fact that we’re having fewer and fewer children is making that less and less likely.
Dr. Pugh 53:20
It’s not that visible in many places now because they’re compartmentalized in their universities kind of in the places that we’ve demarcated as kids safe.
Right. Yeah. In the gyms and music lessons and all that stuff.
Dr. Pugh 53:34
Yeah. Okay. And so I know we’re almost out of time here, but I just want to touch briefly on allowances because I know that you’re a fan of Ron Lieber’s work and I’ve read his work too. And so we actually do use this approach to allowances which is $2 a week in each of spend, save and give jars. And then of course, I read your book. And it wasn’t until I did that, that I’d fully articulated to myself, which is why I started the system which is because I got tired of the endless nagging to buy stuff. And so you summarize this neatly again, for me saying, “Like rules, allowances were a way to help children consume while also maintaining the ideal of restraint, similarly accomplishing this trick”, so that parents were ideally left out of the moment of compromise, which is exactly what I was trying to do. So are our children learning valuable lessons from allowances? And I guess, why do I keep asking you to judge my parenting? Is it wrong of me to put this artificial constraint in place basically to make my life easier?
Dr. Pugh 54:31
I totally hear you and I wrote that from the heart because I’m also a believer in kind of just stepping back and letting them. You know, my view is no, you’re not wrong. I was just pointing out what we’re doing. You know, in my view, kids are in this consumer world. And it’s not a bad thing to give them more autonomy in it. And the notion that parents as kind of police figures that are going to constantly mediate their experience in this consumer world or in the world in general is, I think, not the way to go. I think better to give them small, safe kind of moments to practice, even though we’re not going to be that happy with what they buy. Kids don’t necessarily have the same taste as us. And they’re going to express that through their allowance. And by giving them an allowance, you’re letting them have a little bit more autonomy. So I’m actually pro allowance, even though I see it as a little bit of a cop out in terms of parents not kind of constantly having that tough conversation with kids about like, you know, what they do or do not buy.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, and of course, in reading some of your other work, where you talk about windfall child rearing, I realized that it’s my privilege to know that I’m gonna have $6 each week to put into these jars, right? Because not every parent has that luxury.
Dr. Pugh 55:59
No, exactly. That’s something I’ve seen again and again. That’s a totally different article, but it felt like a discovery to me. And that itself is a statement of middle-classness. But I just wanted to convey this to others that poverty is a problem like to be sure not having enough is a problem. But actually one of the things that make it worse is not how little you have, but how little control over when you have it.
Dr. Pugh 56:28
So when you’re living quite close to the poverty line or under it, things feel like a windfall, you get that seasonal job at Walmart or, you know, your nephew suddenly comes into a gift from something or your child gets something from the grandparent or all of a sudden there’s a check from the government or you know, like whatever. Different things are not predictable and it makes this sheer unpredictability is the problem or is like kind of a major problem of poverty. That kind of being middle class gives you some protection from because sure, we might have the same kind of waves, but because we have a kind of more basic level of income, you don’t feel the waves as much. And you can pay for something like piano lessons or whatever like things that require a basic level of consistency. Like I know, I’ll have X amount next week. As you say, allowance is the perfect example.
Yeah, gosh, money’s such a hard topic, isn’t it? Thank you so much for helping us to walk through some really difficult ideas and for critiquing my parenting.
Dr. Pugh 57:34
I hope you didn’t feel critiqued.
Not at all. It was invited but yeah, for helping us think through this and make decisions that really align with our values as parents because I think it’s really easy to just kind of fall into something and as I so clearly have done so many times with allowances just being one example and then afterwards, oh, realizing this is what I’m doing here when I’m doing this and so thanks for helping us to tease that out and make it really explicit.
Dr. Pugh 58:00
Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
So, just as a reminder to listeners, all the references for today’s show along with a link to Dr. Pugh’s book which is called Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Consumerism.
Auty, S., & Lewis, C. (2004). Exploring children’s choice: The reminder effect of product placement. Psychology & Marketing 21(9), 699-716.
Buijzen, M. (2008). Associations between children’s television advertising exposure and their food consumption patterns: A household diary-survey study. Appetite 50, 231-239.
Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2003). The unintended effects of television advertising: A parent-child study. Communication Research 30(5), 483-503.
Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2003). The effects of television advertising on materialism, parent-child conflict, and unhappiness: A review of research. Applied Developmental Psychology 24, 437-456.
Coffey, T., Siegel, D., & Livingston, G. (2006). Marketing to the new super consumer: Mom & kid. Ithaca, NY: Paramount Marketing Publishing.
Cook, C. (2004). The commodification of childhood: The children’s clothing industry and the rise of the child consumer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cross, G (2010). Valves of adult desire. In D. Buckingham & V. Tingstad (Eds.), Childhood and Consumer Culture (p.17-30). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
Elliott, S., Powell, R., & Brenton, J. (2015). Being a good mom: Low-income, black single mothers negotiate intensive mothering. Journal of Family Issues 36(3), 351-370.
Mayo, E., & Nairn, A. (2009). Consumer kids: How big business is grooming our children for profit. London, U.K.: Constable & Robinson.
Opree, S.J., Buijzen, M., van Reijmersdal, E.A., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2014). Children’s advertising exposure, advertised product desire, and materialism: A longitudinal study. Communication Research 41(5), 717-735.
Nairn, A., Bottomley, P., & Ormrod, J. (2010). “Those who have less want more. But does it make them feel bad?”: Deprivation, materialism and self-esteem in childhood. In D. Buckingham & V. Tingstad (Eds.), Childhood and Consumer Culture (p.194-208). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nairn, A., & Fine. A. (2004). Who’s messing with my mind? The implications of dual-process models for the ethics of advertising to children. International Journal of Advertising 27(3), 447-470.
Pugh, A.J. (2009). Longing and belonging: Parents, children, and consumer culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Pugh, A.J. (2004). Windfall child rearing: Low-income care and consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture 42(2), 229-249.
Pugh, A. (2002, May). From “compensation” to “childhood wonder”: Why parents buy. Working Paper No. 39. Berkeley, CA: Center for Working Families.
Pugh, A. (2001). When is a doll more than a doll?: Selling toys as reassurance for maternal and class anxiety. Berkeley, CA: Center for Working Families.
Rozendaal, E., Lapierre, M.A., Van Reijmersdal, E.A., & Buijzen, M. (2011). Reconsidering advertising literacy as a defense against advertising effects. Media Psychology 14, 333-354.
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