Parent News for November-December 1998

Of Interest

Selling Out America’s Children: How America Puts Profits before Values and What Parents Can Do
by David Walsh, Ph.D.

A Summary for Parent News

by Peggy Patten

Parents often must struggle against the materialism and desire for instant gratification that is part of modern American culture. David Walsh’s book Selling Out America’s Children: How America Puts Profits before Values and What Parents Can Do helps explain why parents find it increasingly difficult to counteract society’s harmful messages. This article highlights the key points in Dr. Walsh’s argument.

Society has always depended upon parents to socialize children about the ways of the community and to provide children with their first lessons in trust, responsibility, reciprocity, discipline, and self-restraint. These traits, according to Walsh, are very important from the larger society’s point of view; they are essential if a free democratic society is to flourish. However, as Walsh points out, many societal messages run contrary to these values. Rather than promote reciprocity, many societal messages extol selfishness and cut-throat competition. Rather than promote discipline and self-restraint, many societal messages glorify instant gratification, violence, and a "win at all costs" attitude.

Walsh discusses at length the power of advertising and shares some fascinating findings about the advertising industry. His research revealed that advertisers believe a child becomes a consumer by about age 3; that an estimated 6.8 billion dollars were spent in 1992 alone by advertisers targeting the 4- to 12-year-old age group; and that many of the products being sold to children have violence as a theme (including 80% of Nintendo video games sold in the United States, according to a National Coalition on Television Violence study done in 1989). The advertising industry, Walsh says, is in the business of influencing behavior and has developed sophisticated and powerful technologies to do so. If positive values are reinforced in the process, fine. But if they are undermined in the process, according to Walsh, the advertising industry feels no responsibility.

Walsh discusses the way children acquire values through observation, imitation, and trial and error interactions. For thousands of years, Walsh says, this pattern of observation and imitation happened directly between significant adults and children. When children were older, they would try out behaviors with and learn from their peers. But the introduction of television has had an enormous impact on children’s learning. In 1950 only 10% of American families had a television set in their homes. By the end of the decade, that percentage had risen to 90%. In the 1980s cable television, videocassettes, and interactive video games were introduced, adding to the kinds of mass media available to children. Walsh cites studies which report that the American child spends 35 hours a week watching television and playing video games. Television has become a prominent and powerfully attractive teacher of today’s youth.

What kind of values are espoused by television? For example, Walsh describes seven harmful messages from TV that he thinks parents should be concerned about:

Walsh recognizes that it is unrealistic to recommend throwing out the television set. He encourages parents instead to help children learn how to use television appropriately and offers the following suggestions.

1) Avoid using television as a babysitter.

2) Limit the use of TV.

3) Watch TV together.

4) Examine how you use television yourself. Do you "channel surf" to pass time, for example? Be sure there is a program on worth watching.

5) Establish clear ground rules about times when TV can be watched.

6) Use the VCR to your advantage by fast forwarding through commercials on shows taped previously.

7) Do not give the television the most prominent location in the house.

8) Keep television out of children’s rooms.

9) Make sure you know what a movie or video is about and its rating before giving permission to your children to view it.

10) Use the radio, records, or tapes when the television is not on to help children experience pleasure from other forms of media.

11) Provide alternative activities that are enjoyable with the entire family.

Children by their nature, Walsh says, are impetuous and impatient. They are already inclined to want their needs filled immediately. One of the tasks of parenting is to help children learn to be self-disciplined, to help them learn to tame their drives and needs. Walsh discusses two crucial ingredients that contribute to self-discipline: the ability to delay gratification and the ability to seek and achieve balance—values that often seem at odds with modern American culture’s emphasis on instant gratification and excess.

Children are conditioned to expect instant reward and gratification in multiple ways. They learn this when messages from the media tell them they should be able to have what they want right now, when they see difficult problems on television solved quickly, when they are allowed a treat with every trip to the grocery store, and when they observe adults overusing credit cards or shopping constantly without real need.

Self-discipline, like many other skills, is developed over time with practice, repetition, and reinforcement. Without self-discipline children are left without the ability to manage strong emotions such as anger. They may not learn the value of persistence in working toward goals requiring time and effort, such as learning to play an instrument or learning to work through difficult school work assignments.

The need to win and to come in first at any cost is an example of how values such as success and excellence can get out of balance. Competition is not necessarily unhealthy, Walsh says. It becomes excessive, however, when coaches recruit child athletes at younger ages for all star teams, when children are pushed to read at earlier ages, when summer camps offer accelerated and intensive courses, or when parents push to get their children into the "right" schools before the age of 5.

A consumerist culture teaches children that happiness is found in material possessions and material success. Walsh reports that the percentage of college freshmen who stated that it was "essential" or "very important" to be well off financially increased by more than 67% over the past two decades. America’s reliance on credit cards (credit card debt more than tripled from eight billion dollars to over a quarter of a trillion dollars from 1980 to 1990, Walsh reports) could be seen to reflect values of materialism and instant gratification.

Households with children are the most lucrative consumer segment in the United States, Walsh says. As a result, they are a primary target of those with goods or services to sell, including fast food restaurants (94% of 6- to 14-year-olds visit one monthly) and the tobacco industry (youth represent the only segment of the population with an increasing rate of new smokers, Walsh says).

Walsh offers the following suggestions to parents to help counter consumerism and competition:

Examine our own behaviors.
What are we modeling when we buy on impulse, overextend our credit, shop for recreation, or always pursue the latest model car or gadget? What do we teach children when we are consumed by work and relentlessly pursue the next income level?

Keep consumer impulses within bounds.
Do we help children understand how advertising works and how to counter its messages? Do we teach children that long-lasting happiness is found in other than material possessions?

Spend twice as much time with kids and half as much money on them.
Do we take the easy way out by buying our kids off instead of reprioritizing time commitments?

Set boundaries and limits.
Do we assume responsibility for setting limits on children’s desire to consume?

Help children learn about the responsibility that comes with having money.
Do we help children learn about budgeting, saving, and waiting before making a purchase?

Walsh talks about the need to help children strive for a balance between considering their own needs and those of others. While we want children to have enough self-confidence and self-respect to express their opinions and needs, we also want children to learn that others have equally valuable rights, desires, and needs that sometimes conflict with their own. Too often the "What’s in it for me?" attitude leads to virtues like sacrifice and altruism being viewed as foolish. Walsh cites a Search Institute survey which found that 33% of responding teens reported that they had not done a favor for free for anyone in the previous month.

What can parents do to support the values of generosity, cooperation, and sacrifice? Walsh suggests that parents need to model altruistic behavior, assign chores and responsibilities, ask children to contribute earnings to others (a church or a charity, for instance), and encourage involvement in community service.

It is tempting, Walsh says, to look for quick fixes and for scapegoats to blame for the materialism and competition in our society: parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents, both blame political leaders, who in turn blame one another. Walsh points out that there is enough blame to go around for everyone. Walsh believes that parents can override many of the harmful influences of modern culture by taking the following actions:

  1. Being honest with ourselves about the values we are espousing and teaching our children.
  2. Developing traditions that reinforce core values and provide a counterbalance to the values of the marketplace.
  3. Examining our priorities in terms of how we spend our time.
  4. Being willing to say "no" to children’s unreasonable requests.
  5. Being clear about our intolerance for antisocial behavior.
  6. Limiting the amount of television and video games children are exposed to.
  7. Teaching our children to be media literate.
  8. Teaching our children how to budget and save their money.
  9. Making sure our teenagers’ jobs do not interfere with more important things.
  10. Linking responsibilities with rights so children learn that the two go together.
  11. Reading to our children.
  12. Exposing our children to heroes who embody healthy values.
  13. Staying engaged with our teenagers.
  14. Talking to other parents about our shared concerns for children.

Online resources on this and related topics:

Television Violence: Content, Context, and Consequences by Amy Aidman

Video Games and Children by Bernard Cesarone

Center for a New American Dream
"How do kids get so caught up in consumerism?"

"The joy of responsible gift-giving"

Other resources:

Coppock, J., & Staeheli, J. (1991). Unplug the Christmas machine: A guide to putting love and joy back into your holiday celebration. Quill Books.

Rosenberg, E. (1994). From Barney to Super Nintendo: What to do when your child wants it all? PTA Today, May/June, 5-7.

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