We can’t escape pester power, so let’s lead by example

Children learn about consumerism from a very young age, so we should teach them about spending money as soon as we can. Sheena Hastings reports.

THERE’S a lot of twaddle out there in the blogosphere. Democracy is all very well, but there are a load of people opining their socks off into the ether with little or no following, either because what they say isn’t interesting or the idea is there but they simply can’t express it in an engaging way. As with so much in life, you have to wade through a lot of frogs before you kiss that prince.

Ben Kerrane has no difficulty on either score. A lecturer and expert in consumer behaviour with a particular interest in the consumption issues around children, he studies what turns our youngsters into consumers and what kind of consumer they are. He writes on the Bradford University School of Management Blog Management Thinking.

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Kerrane has done research with families, talking about what and who influences the family’s spending, and in particular the role of children have in spending behaviour within a family. As a father of two young children himself, he has more than a professional interest in the fact that globally children collectively spend $300bn of their own income (from pocket money/allowances) each year and are an influence on how a further $1.8 trillion is spent by families, from choice of cereals to holiday destinations.

With monotonous regularity we hear the old arguments aired about the pressure parents face from “pester power” – being nagged by their children until they submit to demands for products they don’t need – or even necessarily want. Pester power is about the insidious cocktail of advertising combined with peer pressure.

Kerrane’s view, backed up by research, is that – while debate goes on about whether to introduce more protection for children regarding what may and may not be advertised to them and how – there’s a lot a parent can do to counteract the onslaught of marketing aimed at youngsters. In other words, instead of simply wringing our hands we should be talking to our kids and also leading by example.

“Children primarily learn about consumption by the actions of their parents,” says Kerrane.

“They can pick up bad habits; for instance, if you wander around the shops as a way of getting out of the house and having a nice afternoon, then the child is learning that shopping is leisure and pleasure, not about need. Parents can take their children on accompanied shopping trips, though, and teach them about shopping around and looking at good brands and bad – this kind of thing is retained by children and used throughout their lives. Parents are very important in teaching their children about products, values and consumption in general.”

Some parents feel they should give in to their children because they themselves were not indulged in childhood. This is not helpful in teaching them about the value of money, says Dr Kerrane.

He doesn’t advocate banning children from watching commercial television in order to avoid ads, but suggests instead that parents should talk to their children about what advertisers are trying to do and how they do it. If an item is advertised at a certain price and they really want that particular toy or gadget for Christmas, he proposes harnessing children’s IT skills by asking them to do online price comparisons. Another useful and even enjoyable exercise is taking them to the supermarket and getting them to compare prices and brands, as is asking them what items on the shopping list the family could do without if it needed to save money. “They can usually work out what’s essential and what’s a frill – and that is a great skill to learn early on.”

Comfortingly, children interviewed in pre-Christmas research knew about shopping around for bargains. “They seemed to acknowledge that parents were having a hard time financially, and doing research showed that they were being financially canny but also bolstering their chances of getting a particular thing if they found the cheapest price.” One clever parent gave the children a piece of paper for their Christmas list – with only six slots on it.

Where parents give youngsters regular pocket money over time they’ll often become clever about how they spend it. Kerrane has noticed this at home with his young daughter, who gets £3 a week. “To begin with she spent a lot on sweets, but soon realised she had nothing to show for it. She then went into a phase of buying the monster stickers her age group are mad about, but recently she has been saving and has £21 in her piggy bank.”