The start of a new school year used to just mean dealing with the end-of-summer blues, figuring out which classes to take and which books to buy, and making sure you had a first-day-of-school outfit. For today’s kids, however, there’s another real challenge: keeping pace with all the other kids your age, from brand-name clothing to expensive gadgets.
Consider this: about one quarter of children aged 12 to 15 in the United Kingdom have their own tablet while, on this side of the pond, there’s been a five-fold increase in tablet ownership among kids. Couple those statistics with other trends, such as the percentage of children and teenagers who have mobile phones (78 percent) and toddlers who have used mobile devices (38 percent), and it’s evident that children growing up today want and have more technological gadgets than ever before – and that comes with a hefty price tag for their parents.
The struggle to keep up – to give your child what “every other” child seems to have, for fear of making them feel left out – can be daunting for parents. After all, buying your child a $100 mobile phone may not seem like much, until you factor in the cost of the monthly plan. The same goes for gaming systems like PS3 and Xbox, for which a couple hundred dollars now may not break the bank but, before you know it, the next version will come out and you’ll be shelling out more cash.
So, how can parents keep up with the demand, provide their children with some fancy gadgets, without breaking the bank and without spoiling their children?
Back to school: lessons at home
In the back-to-school rush, you may be focused on all the new things your child will learn at school this year, but it’s a great time to think about the lessons you can teach your child at home, with the first one being the value of a dollar (or two). If your child sees you spend hundreds on new smartphones and tablets every two years, they get the message that it’s a normal expense and nothing out of the ordinary, like your yearly taxes or other such payments, when these devices are luxuries, not essentials (although that could be debated).
Instead, you want to show your child that you’re happy to provide them with some of the latest trends but not all of them, all the time. Consider saving the bigger-ticket items for special occasions or milestones you want to celebrate. As well, involve your child in the discussion: how much is too much for a kid’s first phone? How long do they think it takes for you to work to earn the price of that phone?
According to Kevin Sylvester, co-author of Follow Your Money: Who Gets It? Who Spends It? Where Does It Go?, parents can and should explain the value of money to children with practical examples. For example, say your son wants the new iPhone. You buy it, but explain that the purchase means no movie tickets or outings for him for the next six months, until he’s helped pay for it. One of the reasons this can be difficult for kids to understand today is because of how little they actually see real, physical money.
“Money has moved away from the physical to the abstract. [Before] kids were forced to deal with the reality of how much something cost (they had to count coins, for example) when we needed actual money to buy things,” he writes. “But with credit cards, debit cards and automatic e-transactions, that tangible relationship with money is almost gone. So, [kids] need to know the underlying ideas about ‘value,’ ‘cost’ and so on to understand what they are spending.”
To do this, he encourages parents to give kids ownership over how much they’re spending and what they’re buying, as well as discussing why saving is important – even if it means waiting until the iPhone 15 comes out.
Quiz time: self-evaluation
Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech, reminds readers that kids pick up what they see their parents doing. The average child spends more than seven hours in front of a screen per day. If you think that’s much too high, then it’s time for a back-to-school quiz: are you any better? If you’re spending hours on your phone, computer or tablet – whether it’s watching TV, working or playing games – your child learns it’s OK to spend your day in front of a screen. However, childhood should be a time to explore, imagine and wonder, which gets lost if a child has a computer doing it for them.
“How did your children develop their relationship with technology? In all likelihood, from your relationship with technology. You influence your children’s exposure to technology in two ways,” says Taylor in a blog post about creating a healthy relationship with technology. “First, whether consciously or otherwise, you determine the technology to which your children are exposed and the frequency of its use. You buy it for them, give them permission to use it, and provide them with the time and space for its use.
“Second, and perhaps more importantly, you model the presence and use of technology in your own life. In doing so, you’re constantly sending your children messages about the role that it should play in their lives. Think about how often you, for example, watch television, play video games, surf the internet or check your email, and you’ll probably see the kind of relationship that your children have or will develop with technology.”
It’s too early to tell what impact technology will ultimately have on children who don’t know life without it, but Taylor’s points remain true nonetheless: too often we think of technology as an end itself, a way to pass time, a chance to get the kids to quiet down while we finish our day’s work, but it developed as a means to an end – a way to enhance the quality of life and do more with less.
By reminding your kids and yourself of these origins, you can instil in them the value that technology can bring – efficiency, independence, ingenuity and, perhaps, a better quality of life – while showing that they don’t have to have everything at once. And that there are other ways to work and play.
Vicky Tobianah is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter, @vicktob, or at [email protected].