“Why Parents Can’t Resist Buying…the Hottest Gifts”

A sociologist discusses the compulsion parents across social classes feel to purchase the season’s hottest gifts:

After observing and interviewing children and parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Pugh published “Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture” in 2009, which explored commercial culture and how it relates to economic inequality and community. Since then, the spending trend hasn’t let up – even through the recession – and she typically fields media calls around this time of year on the topic.

Parents often have trouble deciding what to do in response to their children’s “I want’s,” Pugh found when she studied a range of families in Oakland, California. She found that both affluent and low-income parents disliked the pressure they felt to buy the most popular gifts for their kids; affluent parents were worried about giving in to materialism, while low-income parents knew that popular items cost money they would prefer to spend on household essentials…

Affluent parents often said they were uncomfortable about buying the latest popular items and they didn’t want their children to be so materialistic. Nevertheless, even if they decided to forego a certain product – which Pugh calls “symbolic deprivation” – they bought a lot of other things for their children that they thought added to what’s perceived as a good childhood.At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income parents were willing to forego some basic needs at times to buy products for their children, to show that they were capable of fully caring for their children – which Pugh called “symbolic indulgence.”

Wanting to belong – or on the flip side, not to be left out – is a powerful human motivator. And what American parent wants to be held responsible for their kid not fitting in? Arguably, this sort of logic drives much consumerism: as a number of scholars have shown, companies decades ago shifted advertising from emphasizing what products could do to what lifestyles were associated with having the product. Do you need the latest smartphone because it has such revolutionary technology or you do you want to be seen as part of a certain group? Do you need the clothing with the brand label to signal your status or to cover yourself?

It would be interesting to follow some of these same families to see how these choices about buying the hottest gifts influences children. Does it lead to more materialistic attitudes and behaviors? Do families who do not purchase such items encourage different kinds of behaviors?

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