Childhood is meant to be an accumulation of new experiences: some set us free, others bring us joy, and there are those that we dearly wish we had avoided. Think about that list of firsts: the first step, first ice cream, first poetry recital, first detention class… somewhere in there lies the kernel of an adult life lesson.
But never before in our rapidly evolving history as consumers have children accumulated material things quite like they do today. How did we get to a point where every demand is met with a yes? In Juliet B Schor’s book, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Cult, she notes that children’s toys began to serve as markers of social status in the 1870s. Now, children have begun to represent the family not just in name but also in the purchasing power they represent.
Indian parents are having fewer kids today than they were a few decades ago, and those kids are growing up a lot quicker, with the age of puberty falling in most parts of the world. On the other hand, with adults so openly worshipping at the altar of youth, the boundaries between grown-ups and children are blurring—our toys are rapidly becoming their toys; they want the same things we covet.
Parents may be the gatekeepers of their children’s consumption but it is not easy to say no. A Mumbai-based mother, whose 13-year-old son just returned from a school-organised ski trip to Switzerland, recounted the last five things she bought him: a PlayStation 4, a fidget spinner, Adidas Yeezy Boost shoes, an iPhone 6, and, of course, platinum tickets to the Justin Bieber concert in May. In her defence, she said, she makes him wait a minimum of one year after his classmates first acquire these gizmos. (To wait any longer would mean he’d feel left out when the other kids at his school got together.)
A father who recently shifted from Delhi to Mumbai shared a similar story. He has bought a smart TV, and is saving up money to buy his ten-year-old a PlayStation 4.
“It’s the ultimate ice-breaker when he’s in a room full of new kids,” he said.
The parental anxiety about whether his son will fit in socially takes other, equally expensive forms—he took his unenthusiastic son to the Justin Bieber concert, simply because he knew all the cool kids in his class would be going.
A Delhi-based parent said her young child wanted Reebok shoes and a Plasma television because her sentence construction at school in grammar class is thoughtlessly riddled with examples like “I am tying the laces of my Reeboks” or “I have got a new Plasma TV”. Most schools, however, are trying to keep it simple. A working mother in Mumbai blamed her own guilt rather than the school’s influence.
“She’s an only child and I’m away at work all day,” she said, by way of explanation. Her affection or guilt takes the form of six pairs of Converse sneakers, and more clothes than can fit into the wardrobe of her 15-year-old (who shops online twice a week anyway). Her child goes to a school that is strict by most standards—it maintains a no-mobile-phones-or-gadgets policy and has a strict uniform code—but get-togethers outside of school are where everyone cuts their social teeth.
A Mumbai-based couple had to refuse an invitation on behalf of their child because the party was in Egypt, and they knew they would never be able to reciprocate an invitation at that scale. Even toddlers have begun to return from parties with return-gifts like iPads and iPods. Adrian Furnham and Barrie Gunter’s book, Children as Consumers: A Psychological Analysis of the Young People’s Market, proposes that children can identify products by brands by the time they are two—so there’s barely enough time to socialise them before brand consciousness sinks in.
Bangalore-based psychotherapist Tasneem Nakhoda doesn’t see a quick cure for this sort of pressure on parents and children. “The onus is on parents here,” she said. They are a child’s primary socialising agent and set the bar for the family’s spending. Often parents haven’t helped children develop the confidence to just shrug off the competition with classmates, to buy and consume more.
Cultural theorists have long argued that notions of childhood innocence versus adult appetite are nothing more than a projection of adult desire. We live in an age where our desires are souped-up by social media and digital marketing. We may have a good thing but enjoy it only until we want to upgrade it for the latest thing. Why should children somehow be exempt from this endless material greed?
It may be a good time to take a long hard look at ourselves as parents and role models, and see what gaps in family rapport and exposure need to be plugged. To put children in the driving seat when it comes to economic decisions is to take away opportunities for them to accumulate things that money can’t buy.
Sometimes, perhaps the best role a parent can play is the ability to say no.