Professor Allison Pugh Melissa Maki

Tis the season of commerce. From Black Friday to Cyber Monday, parents face an increasingly sophisticated marketing machine. An estimated $670 billion is currently spent on and by children in the United States. Another $17 billion is spent on advertising targeted to children. Allison Pugh, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, has a book due out this spring that tries to make sense of this explosion in spending titled Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture.

“There has been a lot of judgment and finger pointing, but not a lot of explanation,” Pugh said during a recent talk in Charlottesville, where she focused on the role of two major types of “gimmes,” those generated primarily by advertising and those borne of a basic social desire to belong at school. Short of regulations on advertising, the most parents can do about the advertising gimmes is to limit the amount of media the child takes in. “The average child spends more time per year watching TV than they do in school if you include the summer months, with only 20 percent of households having enforced media limits. Families have to set media limits and stick to them,” Pugh says.

The socially derived wants—those forged on the playground, in class and after school when kids are going about the business of forming friendships, alliances and social cliques—are far more difficult for parents to resist. “What’s clear,” Pugh says, “is that parents, even low-income parents who struggle to pay the bills, will prioritize their child’s social comfort to help them achieve a kind of dignity among their peers.” Parents may fear that saying no will keep their child from belonging or make them feel different.

Regardless of income level, a focus on acquiring the trendiest toy or the “right” clothes often leads to problems. “Materialism has been associated with negative outcomes like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem,” says Pugh. While most parents intuitively sense this, given the social nature of the problem, it can be difficult to find individual solutions. Pugh recommends forming casual groups with other parents and setting limits together or giving kids clothing, toy, or “gadget” allowances to get them involved in the process.

Pugh concludes with the good news. “Children can and do adapt and creatively manage this feeling of ‘social difference’ far better than parents think. Keeping this in mind when setting a budget or saying no might help parents realize that they are acting as a caring parent, not a pitiless authoritarian.”