For `tweens,' parental time is a real deal

March 11, 2003|By Susan Reimer

WHEN I SAW the results of a recent poll released by the Center for a New American Dream - purporting that six of 10 children would rather spend time with their parents than go to the mall - my immediate response was, "Who are these children?"

Forgive my skepticism, but if you polled my daughter and nine of her friends, that's not the answer you'd get from any of them, let alone six of them.

A closer look at the poll clarified the results: The children surveyed were ages 9 to 14.

My daughter and her posse are 15, 16 and 17, and they'd rather serve time in school detention than sit through a meal with Mom and Dad.

Betsy Taylor, president of the Takoma Park nonprofit that's pro-family and anti-consumerism, says the results of the survey reflect the kinds of pressure pre-teens and younger teens are under. And their willingness to express their need for more time in the safe embrace of their parents is proof of it.

"`Tweens,' as we call them, are in transition from true childhood to adolescence, and this group is actually targeted most intensely by advertisers and marketing groups," she says.

Children this age are such attractive consumers because they are sooooooo impressionable, and they are starting to carry around a little cash - around $40 billion as a group last year, according to MarketResearch.com.

You can talk kids this age into buying anything, and everybody who has anything to sell knows it.

"This age group is under the greatest commercial pressure," says Taylor. But her poll revealed a surprisingly mature attitude about consumption.

Nine of 10 of the respondents said family and friends are "way more important" than things that money can buy.

Fifty-eight percent said they feel pressure to buy things that will help them fit in, and three-quarters said that's not a good thing.

This attitude is coupled with an awareness that they and their friends are a special target for advertisers, and a sense that this commercial pressure causes trouble between kids and their parents.

I am ashamed to say that is much more self-awareness than I would have given this age group credit for.

"If guys aren't athletic and handsome and if girls aren't thin and beautiful, like the ads on TV dictate, we soon begin to think we are without value," wrote 13-year-old Jason, who responded to a call from the Center for a New American Dream for kids' thoughts on commercialism.

Among the other responses, Taylor says, were drawings of clocks.

"We had at least 10 beautiful pieces of art, and they drew pictures of clocks," she says. "I thought it was startling."

With their artwork, the children were describing the end result of their own, and their parents' need for things - the amount of time it takes to earn the money to pay for them.

"We have defined happiness in terms of possessions," says Taylor. "That forces you to take on debt to pay for it and to work longer hours to pay the debt. By the end of the day, you have no time to enjoy life."

So many of the children who answered the pollsters' questions and who submitted their comments and their artwork were saying the same thing: We have enough money. We have enough stuff. We don't have enough time.

Only 13 percent of the children polled said they wished their parents earned more money.

But more than 60 percent said that if they could change anything about their parents' lives, it would be a job that gave them more time to do fun things.

Parents and their children are on twin treadmills. The parents work more so their families have more. And the kids are booked into an array of activities to ensure they will have the success that will earn them the money to pay for the lifestyle their parents have provided.

The children who responded to the survey said they don't spend much time with their parents, and it is because the parents are working or the kids are busy with homework or activities.

"What we are hearing from the kids is that this doesn't feel right," says Taylor. "They are telling us that the rhythm of our lives is not healthy."

I am not sure my 17-year-old would advocate my taking time off and a pay cut if it meant I could no longer foot the bill for her cell phone and her car insurance. I am not convinced she'd choose me over the mall or the movies, and I don't plan to ask because I don't want my feelings hurt.

She is busy doing what Taylor says is her most important job right now, moving away from family and forming an identity of her own.

However, those teens right behind her might be the canaries in the coal mine.

They are in a special zone between innocence and perception, and the result is a kind of straight talk we all could use: They have enough stuff. They are busy enough. They'd rather just hang around and do a little more of nothing with a lot less.

And they wouldn't mind if we did it with them.

For more information about living simply with your children, read What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy, by Betsy Taylor (Warner Books, $22.95); Living Simply with Children, by Marie Sherlock (Three Rivers Press, $12.95), and Trees Make the Best Mobiles, by Jessica Teich and Brandel France De Bravo (St. Martin's Press, $22.95).

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