Table of Contents

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Four - Choosing

3. Shop around

How do we make up our minds about which cereal to buy? which automobile? which life insurance policy? which political candidate?

Take advantage of your shopping trips to help your child learn to make careful consumer choices based upon the common sense and compare-and-contrast skills mentioned above. You may also introduce values-based buying in contrast to the wants-based, impulse buying promoted by Madison Avenue. Rather than sweeping through the store pulling items from the shelves in what appears to be automatic or impulsive behavior, explain how your decisions have been made over time and actually lead your child through the comparison process a number of times. Demonstrate how you consider price, quality and previous experience in making your choices.

The cereal section of the grocery store provides a good practice area. Because this section is the subject of so much television advertising, if your child has absorbed much of that advertising, chances are good that some of those powerful messages will surface in this aisle. Even the placement of boxes increases the likelihood that the child will pressure parent to buy certain heavily sugared brands.

It is the parent's job to introduce the importance of values in making consumer decisions, values which may sometimes run counter to the needs and wants which are created by Madison Avenue's messages. Good health should be a priority as you and your child select cereals, and that value should be made explicit.

Express the value openly so the child understands your reasons for avoiding some boxes and selecting others. Point out the high sugar content on the box label. While your child may not agree with the outcome of your decision, it is essential that the decision not appear arbitrary or unreasonable. That is why your thinking must surface and your values must become evident. While advertising is hoping your child will pressure you into wants-based, impulse buying, you will model thoughtful, values-based buying.

Because the sugar cereals are promoted with heavily emotional arguments, it helps to express your good health values in terms which can compete with some dramatic impact. Parents can focus upon the consequences of diets which are overloaded with sugar - the impact upon teeth, the hyperactivity, the excess weight - recognizing that in our society various forms of substance abuse begin very early in a child's life, long before illegal drugs surface and tempt the adolescent. High on the list are sugar, fat and caffeine.

Early on Madison Avenue pushes unhealthy products upon young children with an emphasis upon good feelings and good taste in the present. Consequences are ignored and hidden. The message is a simple, "Do it - if it feels good."

Instant gratification is glorified and young children are trained to maintain energy highs throughout the day with a series of sugar products starting with breakfast cereal and moving on through candy, sugared soda water and heavily sugared desserts. Before very long the child adds caffeine to the list of artificial stimulants which keep them revving through the day, as well as items that are heavily loaded in fat. It is a rare child who emerges from school without some degree of addiction to sugar as well as an excessively fatty diet, but you can create a different fate for your family.

Once you and your child have identified cereals which are basically unhealthy, focus decision-making and choice among the remaining, healthy boxes. Demonstrate how preferences and wants may come into play within this narrower group. Encourage your child to select a box from within the acceptable group and then ask why they picked it. Encourage application of compare-and-contrast skills.

"Why do you like it better than Cereal X?"

Instead of vague statements such as "I just like it better," you try to promote more specificity.

"Is it the taste? Did the last box get soggy too fast?"

When your child begins to pick out boxes which include nuts and dried fruits, demonstrate how easily the same effect can be produced for far less money by buying the nuts and fruits separately. If convenience is part of what a product offers, be it microwave dinners or cereals, make certain that the additional price is worth it, both in dollars paid and in quality delivered.

As your child grows older and acquires the necessary math skills, you may start teaching about deceptive packaging, labeling and pricing practices. Engage her or him in selecting the best buy when picking out a box of pasta. As the level of skill increases, give your child a short list and send her or him out into the aisles to make selections based upon the decision-making model you have developed together. Independent practice early in life helps set the stage for responsible behavior later in life. If you can turn values-based buying and healthy decision-making into a childhood habit, you will have helped your child climb to the crow's nest mentioned in the chapter on puzzling. He or she will rise above the surface level of decisions to view choices with perspective and good judgment.

Raising her young fawn in wilderness, the mother doe devotes considerable attention to survival skills, showing the young one how to avoid the many predators which would love to make a meal of her wobbly legged offspring. Fortunately, we can arm our own offspring with critical thinking skills which will protect them from mass marketing and high powered sales pitches. "Peter and the Wolf" makes an excellent story to share with your child as a metaphor to express the temptations and the dangers which await the modern consumer.

4. Use role-playing to test consequences

Think before you act!

Look before you leap!

How often we hear this advice during our lives. Role-playing is a kind of thinking before acting. It allows us to test the consequences which are likely to follow from the choices which lie before us. Play-acting thereby helps our children to explore without pain or suffering what might happen if they make certain choices.

If a child breaks a neighbor's window while playing baseball and wonders how to handle the situation, he or she might simply follow rules of good behavior or he or she might turn to role-playing to see how it might feel to pretend ignorance or make some other choice. In this kind of role-playing it is important to play more than one's own role. Imagine the neighbor arriving home to find a broken window with no explanation. What will the neighbor do? How will the neighbor try to find out who did it? What will be the consequences of leaving the scene of the accident?

Children are taught many rules and principles as they are growing up which are meant to govern their decisions when they encounter difficult moments. Most children, however, will question at least some of these rules upon occasion and will challenge the wisdom of some. Role-playing provides them will a tool to explore the implications of their own choices, to discover their own rules of behavior, many of which will mirror the rules and principles they have been taught. The important thing is to encourage some kind of thoughtful decision-making rather than action by default or impulse. When adolescents begin to challenge the adult rules and beliefs they have been taught throughout childhood, it is important that they have an alternative system for steering and deciding.

5. Bring your child into the voting booth

How do we make up our minds about the candidates and referenda which confront us in these turbulent and often confusing times?

How do you raise your child to be a thoughtful citizen, one who participates in the political process with eyes open and a belief that a single citizen can make a difference? Once again we turn to the power of the parent as model. To the extent that you shoulder your citizenship opportunities with conviction and commitment, your child is likely to follow in your footsteps, making political decisions with much the same style, commitment and consideration as you demonstrate.

Why does citizenship appear in a book on preparing children for the next century? Because our democratic system is in considerable danger. Even though we count that system one of our distinct blessings and even though our voting decisions are among our most important, many Americans have let their citizenship lapse. They have stayed away from the voting booths and polling places in droves. In many elections, winning candidates are selected by fewer than 25 per cent of those eligible to vote.

The younger the citizen, the less likely they are to bother with voting. When asked the cause for this absenteeism, many respond that they see little difference between the candidates, or they complain that politicians end up doing the opposite of what they promise. Cynicism and scepticism run strong in these times of Madison Avenue's heavy involvement in marketing candidates. We find widespread popular disgust with campaign tactics that stress negatives, and yet the evidence is strong that such appeals are effective in swaying public opinion and voting behavior. Campaigns persist in using such approaches because they are rewarded by those who do vote.

To make matters even more serious, participation falls off dramatically when it comes to local elections, school elections or political actions other than voting. Very few people attend meetings or public hearings, leaving policy-making and influence to highly organized pressure groups, lobbyists and special interests.

If the disenchantment with the political system progresses, many of the social niceties which we take for granted - such as freedom of speech and religion - may be lost. History provides us with many instances of what happens when an alienated citizenry is mobilized by a demagogue. Hitler came to power in Weimar Germany, for example, by converting unregistered voters into a powerful and ultimately victorious political force which turned around and dismantled the democratic machinery which had brought them to power. Authoritarian regimes seem to thrive in countries where democratic behaviors have fallen into disrepair.

Active involvement in the political affairs of your community and state will go a long way toward developing feelings of competence and efficacy in your daughter or son. Bring your children along when you go into the voting booth. Show them how you pull the lever. Explain how you made up your mind. Better still, share your thinking aloud long before Election Day as you are seeking to make up your mind about the candidates. If you sometimes vote by party label because you don't know much about the individuals, explain how you came to believe in that political party. What are the ideas that party holds dear? When, if ever, do you break with that party and cross lines to vote for a candidate from another party? How do you make up your mind to do that?

Take your child along to public meetings, exercising some discretion as to the age of your child and the type of meeting. Give your child a taste of the wide range of political activities which take place on a daily basis in between the big elections. How are statutes dealing with pollution of streams and ponds developed and passed on a local level? How is the school budget decided? If someone doesn't approve of those decisions, how might they influence or modify the decision?

A word of caution is in order. Because real political decision-making often follows serpentine paths and because elected officials often attempt to limit their responsibility for unpleasant events, the young child might quickly become disillusioned if expecting quick and sensible results. Because politics is necessarily the business of compromise, we must find ways to show our children a thread of progress running through what might often appear to be the theater of the absurd. To see this thread, one might need to climb with the child to the crow's nest mentioned earlier in this book to gain the long view, to win the perspective to see how the pieces of this particular puzzle fit together to make a sensible picture. A school budget defeat may seem to be a disaster as it is happening, but it might just mobilize enough previously passive and uninvolved citizens to establish the basis for a decade of forward movement and progress.

In learning to make up her or his political mind, the young citizen struggles with gray issues rather than clarity, often voting for "the lesser of two evils" rather than any pure choices, selecting a referendum outcome which is better than nothing but far from one's dream. Citizenship often requires a tolerance for ambiguity and outcomes which fall far short of ideals. Making up one's political mind may require some bending and twisting of the puzzle pieces. Perhaps that is why so many citizens stay home and avoid the polls. When theirs is but a single hand pulling on the great civic rope, it is difficult to see their own impact upon the much larger tug-of-war.

Perhaps the best armor against disillusionment is fore-warning. Parents who raise children with fanciful notions of how politics work are likely to see their children respond to reality latter in life with bitterness, cynicism and apathy. Children raised on the pieties of the 1950s often turned off and tuned out when facing the difficult decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sustained political involvement requires the perspective of the old man in Zorba the Greek who persists in planting saplings which stand little chance of becoming large trees during his lifetime. When asked to explain such seemingly foolish behavior, he explains that he chooses to live his life with the passion of one who might die tomorrow yet with the planning of one who might live forever. We plant seeds in soil which might sometimes seem unfriendly and infertile, ever hopeful that some of those seeds will sprout and flourish. We learn patience and perseverance rather than expecting immediate gratification.

Chapter Four - Choosing (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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