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1999-01-25

By MARY HOOD HART

Every now and then, I read a news article that infuriates me, but the article isn’t intended to arouse my ire, it’s designed to enlighten readers about current trends. This sort of article, when reporting on a trend I find appalling, makes me wonder if I’m the only reader in America who thinks the trend is crazy. (I’m not talking about tattoos and body piercing. I’m referring to practices common to mainstream America.)

For example, I have long been disturbed by the common practice of allowing high school seniors to take unchaperoned, coed excursions (often to exotic locales) to celebrate graduation. I can’t believe sane parents permit this. (I have known several of these parents, and they are very nice people who love their kids.) They tell me that one day, under pressure, I may change my mind about these graduation trips. My oldest is a high school sophomore, and I can’t imagine giving in to such a request. She knows better than to even ask. I also can’t believe sane parents permit their teens to stay overnight in motel rooms and rental homes on prom night in groups of unchaperoned couples. Maybe I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Maybe I have my head in the sand. But I can’t believe what some intelligent, well-intentioned parents are willing to allow.

I’m not referring to parents who are coping with rebellious children, who constantly test their parents’ authority. I feel for these parents. At least they are trying to do the right thing, even though their children in rebelling make that very difficult. The parents who buckle under pressure and give approval to activities that are clearly misguided are the parents I can’t understand.

This morning, I picked up the paper and became infuriated again, this time over a business article about children’s purchasing power. It’s a subject I’ve written about before, but I’ve become increasingly disturbed because the practice continues to go unchecked. According to a Jessica Guynn author of the Knight Ridder piece “Offspring influencing more purchases,” children’s income has been growing at the rate of 20 percent a year for the past five years. Kids spend $23.5 billion of their own money every year. They also spend $118 billion of their parents’ money, and parents spend $300 billion just on their kids. Naturally, with all this money revolving around youngsters, marketers are targeting children relentlessly.

James U. McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University, addresses this trend: “I don’t know of any consumer goods industry that doesn’t target children. They have all of their purchases ahead of them. Any company that doesn’t would find themselves out of competitive step with those companies that do.”

According to Guynn, progressive companies “conduct focus groups and dispatch scores of market researchers to figure out what makes kids buy. Some are even experimenting with kids’ credit cards to gather information about kids and develop ties to them.”

Is anyone else bothered by this? Will parents permit their children’s privacy to be invaded by allowing them to use credit cards designed to create spending profiles and “develop ties” to marketers? Does anyone besides me long for the good old days, not so long ago, when children were dependent on their parents to make spending decisions? When kids weren’t viewed, according to McNeal, as “a future market of goods and services?”

What makes this crass manipulation of children even more frightening is that parents, those entrusted to protect them, seem unconcerned. Indeed, what matters most is that kids be happy, regardless. In the article, Cathy Estrada, the mother of four boys, confesses she allowed her 4-year-old to choose the color of the family’s new van. And she admits that she and her husband “gear our [spending] choices to what is going to be fun for our kids. We are pretty driven by what would be enjoyable for them.”

Of course, the Estradas are not alone. A generation of parents is working long hours and having fewer children just so they can provide the money and goods they think make for happiness. Out of guilt for not being available to spend time with their kids, they try to compensate with more fun. In the meantime, American children are growing up lonely, alienated, depressed. I’m convinced that children are quick to realize that all this stuff  all this buying power  cannot compensate for time, attention and guidance from Mom and Dad. Despite their consumer savvy, these kids would be deeply grateful if their parents realized it, too.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 7 to 15.






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