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Wall Street Journal: Keeping Kids' Consumerism in Check

September 14, 2010

by Sue Shellenbarger

I began teaching my kids to stick to a budget when they reached middle school. Looking back, I should have started earlier.

For my “Work & Family” column today on how a growing number of families are teaching their kids to downsize spending, I interviewed many parents who started shaping their children’s expectations as early as preschool. Pressed by constantly rising child-rearing costs or just weary of consumer excesses, parents have come up with some smart teaching techniques. For example:

–A Virginia mother has her daughters, now 5 and 7, share a bedroom since her younger daughter was born, one factor that has enabled them to avoid moving from their 1,300-square-foot house into a bigger one. She also has canceled direct-mail catalogs for American Girl dolls and other consumer items, so the girls aren’t tempted.

–An Illinois mother taught her children in elementary school to sell possessions on eBay or at rummage sales, to raise money for new clothes and gadgets. She also makes a family game of ridiculing such shows as MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” which showcases excessive spending.

–A Maryland mother turned her 12-year-old son’s pleas to replace their road-worn 2006 minivan with a new SUV into a teaching opportunity. He was horrified to learn that that the real cost of taking out a loan to buy a car is nearly twice the sticker price.

–A Massachusetts mother taught her three children as preschoolers to recycle juice boxes and paper cups and to shop on a budget. Now, 10, 8 and 6, they know how to find brand-name clothes at resale stores, and to take apart flashlights and calculators to build other devices from the parts.

Some families ask relatives to give their children gifts of time rather than purchasing presents, says Wendy Philleo, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit advocating responsible consumption. For example, her children’s grandmother takes them on a walk to look at wildflowers or birds, rather than buying them a toy, she says.

Another technique is to translate the price of an item a child wants into the hours you have to work to buy it, says Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,”  who also does training with teens. When one boy complained that his mother wouldn’t buy him new shoes, she told him, “If those shoes cost $125 and your mom makes $12 an hour, with 20% taken out for taxes,” the mother has to work 13 hours, or almost two days, to pay for them. The teen stopped grumbling, Ms. Wiseman says.

Readers, do you try to shape your children’s expectations about how much they will spend, or how much you will spend on them? What teaching techniques do you use? Or do you feel, as many parents do, that making a big deal about spending merely makes kids anxious?

Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2010

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