Sociologist Examines the Commodification of Childhood

Allison Pugh studies how families deal with the increasing demands of a consumer culture.

By Melissa Maki
Allison Pugh

Allison Pugh
Photo by Melissa Maki

Parents in the U.S. have become all too familiar with the latest fashion trends, toys, and electronic gadgets as children regularly plead for the next best thing.  But how do parents—especially those with limited incomes—comply with kids’ demands? 

Allison Pugh, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, began looking at parents’ buying habits as a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley.  “I wanted to look at consumption and how the standards for an adequate childhood are ratcheting up, and how affluent and low-income parents are handling that,” she says. With the help of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant, Pugh is currently completing a book based on her findings.

Pugh spent three years conducting ethnographic research: interviewing parents, volunteering, and observing in three different California schools, including a private school and two public schools, one low-income and one affluent.  She found common themes among the study’s economically and racially diverse participants. “In all these schools, children feel the need to have certain things or experience certain things—like going to popular movies or local attractions—to be visible or to belong in their social groups,” says Pugh. 

The need to belong transcends class boundaries, as does the parental tendency to comply with children’s desires.  Pugh found that even those parents struggling to put food on the table and pay bills at the end of the month find ways to provide their kids with expensive, popular items so that their children achieve a sort of “dignity” among their peers.

Pugh did find differences in the specific buying habits of poor and wealthy families.  “Low-income and affluent families are all buying, and they are all buying in response to this need to belong on the part of their children,” says Pugh.  “And in some cases they are even buying the exact same thing, like Game Boys, but the way they buy is different and the way they talk about buying is different.”

Affluent families engage in what Pugh terms “symbolic deprivation,” deemphasizing their spending, not wanting to appear materialistic, and focusing on specific items they don’t buy for their child, whether it be electronics or Barbie dolls.  In contrast, Pugh says low-income families engage in “symbolic indulgence.”  Since poor families can’t provide their child’s every desire, they focus on key items with the highest social value, like Sony PlayStations.

Much of the current literature in this area explains the growing culture of spending around kids in the past few decades as parents acting in a rational way in an increasingly materialistic society.  The argument is that people are simply trying to get ahead and have more.  Pugh’s research is unique in that it brings the significance of emotions into this equation.  “The proliferation of commodities in childhood has changed what possessions mean,” explains Pugh.  “Now they mean belonging to children and they mean care to parents and to children.”

Pugh argues that buying for children has created a new dynamic in parent-child relationships.  “It’s about recognition of desire, it’s about empathy, and about the parent realizing how difficult it is to be different in American culture,” she says. 

Pugh notes that parents today are confronted with two choices, neither of which is good.  They can give in to the consumer culture, even if they can’t really afford to, or they can deprive their children of goods, putting kids at risk of being ostracized by their social groups.

Regulating how companies are allowed to market goods to children may be part of the solution to this dilemma, but Pugh asserts that items achieve social value not immediately after children are exposed to advertisements, but when kids get together in small groups and talk about them.  With this in mind, Pugh concludes her book with suggestions of how parents and schools can collectively organize around consumption issues in order to drain commodities of some of their social power.  Some promising examples include a Michigan group that is fighting the escalation of party bags and other birthday phenomena, informal groups of parents agreeing to limit their children’s exposure to popular culture, and schools banning cell phones and iPods on their campuses.

Pugh’s book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture, will be published by the University of California Press in the spring of 2009.