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Teaching kids about advertising

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Intro to savvy consumerism

You just can't escape advertising these days. Even on what was once ad-free space, there it is. Kids are inundated earlier and earlier with messages about the superiority of this or that product, the latest gadget, and even health claims.

Little Girl with Remote Control

When my daughter turned to me the other morning - after watching her 30 minute allotment of public television, no less - and said, "Mommy, can you please get me chocolate milk? It only has 8 more calories than regular milk," I realized I had to make more of an effort with this one. My perfect little advertising parrot needed some advertising education.

A need, yes

Yes, advertising does serve a purpose. Yes, advertising dollars pay for programming (good and not-so-good), websites, support sports teams and even support charitable endeavors, but that doesn't mean we should take every piece of advertising we see at face value. As adults, this seems obvious, but was kids we had to learn it, just like our kids need to learn it.

Question, question, question

A first step at helping kids understand advertising -and questioning it - is to ask them a very simple question when the see an ad for something they think they want: is that something you need or something you want? While yes, my daughter needs food, and milk is a food I would say that she needs, does it have to be chocolate? No, of course not. Would it be fun to have chocolate milk every once in a while? Sure. And the conversation continues from there.

We talk - in very simple terms - about how advertising can let us know about products that really are great, and some that really aren't. We need to be careful and really think about what each ad is selling us and how it's doing that. Some products we don't "need" in the strictest sense, but they might make life easier and/or more enjoyable. In that case we have to consider carefully benefits versus the cost and so on. This is a conversation that will be ongoing, I am sure.

Enjoying it for what it is

I remember having similar conversations with my sons. As my sons have gotten older, we are now to the point where they pretty well understand advertising for what it is - and can enjoy advertising as an art form in and of itself. There are some pretty clever and creative ad people out there working hard to separate us from our money. Sometimes we respond to it, and sometimes we don't...and sometimes we pick up a new catchphrase that we repeat ad nauseam.

Teaching kids about the whys and hows of advertising is an early step in raising a savvy consumer. The earlier they understand the reasons and the methods of advertising, the sooner they can understand their own role in the dynamic. I'll never be able to completely prevent the kids from seeing advertising, but at least I can help them understand what they are seeing.

For more on teaching kids about media influence:

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