Children as Consumers and the Invention of the Toddler

Lately, I’ve been reading Joyce Ann Mercer’s exciting book, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood. I picked it up with the hopes that it would help me understand how the church can encourage children to actively participate in worship and Kingdom-building, rather than being relegated to classrooms on Sunday mornings to passively receive “spiritual education.”

I didn’t expect to stumble across a fascinating discussion of children as consumers in American culture, and what Jesus has to do with such an identity.

One of Mercer’s main arguments is that Christian theology can offer an alternative vision of the meaning of childhood. In her words, this alternative vision “takes as its critical principle the liberation, thriving, and well-being of children. This critical principle includes their liberation from oppressive manipulations of the market.”

In other words, Jesus’ Kingdom has the power to offer children a new identity which opposes the destructive identities consumer culture offers today.

Mercer’s focus on children and their relationship to consumerism fascinates me, especially since I have recently become interested in disentangling myself from the global marketplace.

Mercer begins by offering a history of global capitalism. She formulates the problem of consumerism like this:

“In the high-modernist period of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism, the owners of capital depended upon continued production and consumption on a mass scale for continued profits. But owners faced a major problem. The ultimate user of whatever goods they produced only needed a limited amount of the particular good. To deal with [this problem], owners needed to stimulate new consumption.” (p. 83)

She then goes on to explain that one of the ways new consumption can be stimulated is by encouraging the concept of “fashion.”  In other words, creating the urge to have the latest style accelerates the pace of consumption, which is what marketers want.

One way this concept of fashion is mobilized is “through the development of different age groups as discrete marketing niches.” For example,

“the stage of life termed ‘the toddler’ arose in conjunction with the marketing of products specific to that age group as distinctive from other ages. By increasingly segmenting human life into discrete age groupings, each associated with different consumer products that display a person’s identity status in a particular segment, ongoing consumption of goods is assured.” (p. 83).

As soon as I read that passage, I was struck by how much the evidence seems to support such a claim: it’s not hard to believe that the concept of the toddler was invented by marketers to sell more stuff.

I reflected on my recent trip to the grocery store, when I noticed half an aisle devoted to special “toddler foods”: jars of pureed food with chunks in it; little canisters of puffed grains that “melt in baby’s mouth;” individually-wrapped cereal bars and fruit snacks; even tiny juice boxes that have been specially watered down for toddlers. (This all separate from the “baby” foods – i.e. the canisters of formula, the jars of liquified fruits and vegetables, the boxes of powdered cereals).

Since learning about and then practicing baby-led weaning, I know for a fact that babies don’t need specialized foods. Yet there is an enormous market for these items. As long as people believe that their children move through distinct phases, each with its unique needs for specific consumer products, corporations will be able to sell them.

Mercer goes on to explain how children are shaped into consumers, right from birth:

“Various cultural artifacts, including intense medicalization of childbirth, the existence of specialized infant foods and furniture, and the burgeoning market in children’s designer clothing, all form part of a dominant social ideology of the child as one who needs things—things that can be supplied by the marketplace in corporate America.” (p. 98)

So from birth, children are understood as consumers, and are trained to be “good” consumers. At each stage in life (and there are increasingly more and more “stages” in a child’s life), they are thought to have special needs which only the market can supply.

I’m eager to read more from Mercer about how Christianity can offer an alternative identity for children.

In the meantime, in an attempt to fight back against the global market’s schemes to sell us things we don’t need, I plan to offer a list of baby items you can actually live without. (Take that, corporate America!)

Our children do not need the global market!

What do you think of this idea that different life stages were invented to sell more stuff?

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  1. Ascentury says

    One quibble: while I acknowledge the heavily consumerist wielding of the term, I don’t think that the idea that the toddler was created exclusively by modern marketing holds up—at least not in the same way that the tween was created by the aforementioned. From the Oxford English Dictionary,
    toddler, n. /ˈtɒdlə(r)/
    Etymology: < toddle v. + -er suffix1.
    One who toddles; esp. a toddling child.
    1793 D. Ure Hist. Rutherglen i. 95 She who sits next the fire, towards the east, is called the Todler.
    1819 J. H. Vaux New Vocab. Flash Lang. in Mem., Toddler, an infirm elderly person or a child not yet perfect in walking.
    1821 Sporting Mag. 9 51 The road…exhibited a variety of toddlers eager to arrive at the destined spot.
    1876 W. Besant & J. Rice Golden Butterfly III. xi. 197 Little Phillis—a wee toddler of six or seven.

    (Although the 1819 usage as an elderly person is intriguing.) But I certainly appreciate the sentiment that our developmental life and its perceptual divisions are largely framed in consumer terms, even more than in medical terms. It is a disturbing trend to observe, this molding of creatures designed specifically to consume, like the tween, the metrosexual, and the retiree.

    • Ooh, Ascentuary . . . I bet you didn’t know I love etymology! Thanks!! And thanks for pointing out the other terms (tween, metrosexual, retiree) that were specifically designed to encourage consumption. I wasn’t aware of their significance!

      While I can see that the term “toddler” has been around for quite some time, I think Mercer’s point is that it didn’t have the same connotations — i.e. a person with specific consumer needs.

  2. This gets me right away because I hate, Hate, HATE when people associate kids or children with money. When I enter a building with our three kids, and people say, “Oh that’s expensive!” Or my friends say, “I could never afford another child.” I do use disposable diapers, I confess. Other than that, we have never bought new clothes or new toys. They really don’t cost us a whole lot. Maybe they will when they are older, I’m not going to say now. I know the homeschooling route does, in fact, cost money. But to EXPECT that your children need whatever society says is completely laughable. Whenever I go to Babies R Us, I genuinely crack up. Imagine, if you needed that stuff to have a “happy” baby (which I think means, a SLEEPING baby.) I try to show my oldest, now, the silly stuff so he’s aware of it. We make fun of small packages of stuff for less money, to the extent that I got a dirty look from a lady in the grocery story at the yogurt section (Oops.) We show him that “used” means it can handle us! “New” means it might not make it past the summer. We do not watch TV shows on TV, because I don’t even want them watching commercials at this point. Whenever they ask for stuff at the store, I say, “Do you want Daddy to have to work more to pay for it?” Sounds harsh, but that’s where our budget is. The answer is always no! They would rather have him home. It’s good you are studying this now, Kathleen, because think of holidays, and what they come to mean to children. GIFTS. Please, publish a list of items people don’t need. Maybe I will learn from it too! I hate how we are a culture willing to work many more hours to pay for the things that will save us a few minutes. And also turning our next generation into one that seeks instant gratification in all things, and soon will be gratified by nothing.

    • So, I’m so passionate about this subject that I don’t think my point came across. My point is this: our children are what we make them. What we expose them to, how we influence them, how we let others influence them, all of this subtly makes a difference. If we are market and consumer-driven and believe everything we hear about what we “need,” we cannot be surprised when we see the same characteristics in our children. If we want to have leaders, we cannot raise followers. Hopefully that makes sense. In my head it does.

    • Sandra: I love hearing how you’re educating your children to resist consumerism! It sounds like you’re doing a phenomenal job! I love the way you frame the issue for your kids — if you want more stuff, there’s a price to pay besides money (i.e. the absence of their dad). Brilliant! And I’m totally with you in loathing to hear people refer to children as an “expense.”

      “I hate how we are a culture willing to work many more hours to pay for the things that will save us a few minutes.” I’m with you. Well said!

      You’re so great at articulating your thoughts, Sandra, and it sounds like you have a lot of practical experience with this kind of thing . . . would you ever consider writing a guest post for me?

  3. Interesting. Thanks Kathleen for sharing these thoughts. I will for sure need to look more into baby led weaning and would really appreciate some of your sources if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks.

  4. I learn so much every day! I am very new to a lot of this stuff but I have held some of these thoughts for a long time. We too are trying to train our kids that they don’t need ‘things’ to make them happy. I agree with Sandra, that children are not an expense. I also agree that being a toddler has become a huge sales gimmic. I have bought into a lot of it, but as I mentioned I am learning. I am also interested to know how Christianity can offer an alternative identity for children. I will have to get Mercer’s book myself. Thanks for posting.

    • Maria: don’t you just love the internet? I think I learn more on a daily basis now as a stay-at-home mom than I ever did in school! And as for “buying into” marketers’ sales gimmicks: of course we all do it. We, too, have been trained since infancy to be consumers. It is SO HARD to be aware of just how much we’ve been entangled in the ideology of consumerism. The more we talk about it, though, the more aware we can become so that we can actually learn to resist it!

  5. I totally believe that the different stages were invented, or at least appropriated, by marketers in order to sell stuff! Toddler-specific foods and “tweens”, as you and the commenter pointed out, are just silly. I’m just waiting for the phrase for the 20-somethings who haven’t grown up yet. Another thing we’ve noticed is how anti-family marketing has to be. I don’t really know that “anti-family” is the right way to put it, but definitely anti-lots-of-people-living-in-the-same-house. Because the more people who are sharing items, the less that are needed. But the more people who are divorced, living alone, etc., the more there is a perceived need for refrigerators, beds, cars, furniture, etc etc etc.

    I think I also read somewhere else about just how much power our children have as “consumers” – basically because they whine and think they need it because all their friends have it, and parents give in. I so do not want to become that parent. My husband is strong enough to resist and to get onto me if I do slip up, thank goodness!

    I’ll be interested to hear Mercer’s take – and yours! – on a positive approach to avoiding all this.
    That Married Couple recently posted..Before you buy it…My Profile

  6. Hmm, as a teacher, I can see plainly that there are specific stages that children go through, and it’s unfair to children to assume otherwise. I would never teach a 3 year old and a 5 year old together, they are at such different places mentally and physically!
    There definitely has been more and more of a separation of the ages, especially in the past 100 years or so. But I don’t think all of that can be traced back to consumerism. I think if you look at any third world country there are still two basic periods in life: childhood and adulthood. And that’s because children are not going to school and college. They are either playing when they’re little, or working/getting married to help their family when old enough. There is not enough money to allow children to experience different stages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t there. Simply study human development and there are specific neurological, hormonal, and physical stages/growth throughout a child’s life.
    I think if a business wants to sell things and uses those specific stages/ages to help market their products, that’s not a bad or evil thing. A business trying to make money is a good thing. It helps the economy. It gives people jobs. When consumers don’t do their research, aren’t satisfied with a product, and then complain that a company ‘exploited’ them to make money, well, duh! Businesses are in the business to make money, and as long as they aren’t doing anything illegal, there shouldn’t be a problem. Which is why people should research products/companies/stores and decide where they would like to shop. Again, as long as a business isn’t being dishonest, it’s not the business’ fault when a consumer ‘falls’ for their good marketing campaign, that’s just good business!
    Now, as a Christian I don’t believe we should buy into the consumerism hype, but I also don’t think buying things new or things that we may not even need (so long as we can afford it) are not bad things. It’s a fine line though between wanting a little and thinking you need a lot.
    Bekah recently posted..I’ve misplaced my fabulousness.My Profile

    • Thanks for weighing in, Bekah! But I’m worried that you’re going to hate my upcoming posts. I’m planning to explore in more depth why I actually think businesses trying to make money is in fact a bad thing.

      I won’t go too far into it here, but I will say that I do think it’s wrong when companies try to make money by selling things that people don’t actually need, and might in fact do them harm — especially when they spend millions of dollars trying to convince people that they need them. Because making money is their ONLY goal, they pay little regard for how much potential harm their products could do to consumers (and no regard for the harm done to producers).

      Buying things that you don’t need may be wrong per se, but when entire nations develop a whole lifestyle based on the consumption of unnecessary commodities, it becomes a problem(especially when this level of consumption goes beyond what our planet can healthily sustain).

      And lastly, I think it’s interesting how you highlight the fact that it takes a certain level of affluence to be able to “afford” to have so many different life stages. I agree that children undeniably move through different psychological/hormonal/physical stages as they mature. However, the fact that marketers have appropriated (to use That Married Couple’s word) these stages to make money seems insidious to me.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts!
      Kathleen Quiring recently posted..Children as Consumers and the Invention of the ToddlerMy Profile

  7. Nice post! I grew up in a family that decided having mom stay home with the kids was more important than “stuff.” We also were not allowed to watch much tv so were not exposed to a lot of commercials. I grew up on second-hand clothing, cloth diapers, used toys, etc. I think I’m a better, more resourceful adult for that. I’m still waiting for my daughter to start costing us a lot of money. We put aside some money, but have barely touched it. Nursing, cloth diapering, buying used (love yard sales!), making our own, etc. has saved us a bundle. Plus, my daughter is healthier for many of those decisions.
    Michele recently posted..Baby Projects Reviewed – Blanket & Baptismal GownMy Profile

    • “I’m still waiting for my daughter to start costing us a lot of money.” I know, right? Same here. I don’t think we’ve spent much beyond the $200 or so we spent on cloth diapers (which we won’t even have to repeat with future babies). Agreed: yard sales (and thrift stores) are the BEST.

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