If a household with children moves into a new house, buys a different kind of car, builds a swimming pool, purchases racing bicycles, buys a used air conditioner, or acquires the latest computer system, the children often play significant parts in the consumption decision and almost always alter their own daily activities and relations as the new possession becomes a routine resource for family life. But how exactly does consumption engage relations of children to adults and children to each other?
For those same-sex households Carrington studied who had children, consumption work, besides expanding as it would in any other family, involved special concerns. Most notably, lesbian and gay families tried to protect their children against stigma from intolerant salespeople or service providers. They spent time and effort searching for “inclusionary” stores and providers. In this regard, they resembled heterosexual households, whose adults likewise seek stores and services that will treat their children civilly. All sorts of parents worry about their children’s consumption and their contact with providers of goods and services. But to understand the relational side of consumption we must look not only at parents’ efforts, but at children themselves as active agents in consumption.
Children’s purchasing power is no trivial economic matter. Researcher James McNeal reports that as of the late 1990s, American children between the ages of four and twelve, with an annual income of over $27 billion, spent $23 billion and saved what was left. Over $7 billion a year of children’s own money went for snacks, and a similar amount was expended on play items. What’s more, they influenced about $188 billion of their parents’ spending each year (McNeal 1999: 29). By 2002, kids’ impact on parental purchases had climbed to $300 billion (McNeal cited in Schor 2004: 23). This influence had grown so great that a practical guide to home purchasing included the following advice to parents: “If you have children, you should give some thought about how best to include them in the home buying process… . Older children.. . can not only provide you with valuable input, but should rightly have a voice in the matter” (Perlis 1999 15).
As Juliet Schor reports, kids’ influence extends to major consumer items: according to one industry estimate, for instance, children influence 67 percent of parents’ car purchases (see also Sutherland and Thompson 2003: 118). One marketer told Schor: “When I was a kid I got to pick the color of the car. Kids nowadays get to pick the car” (Schor 2004: 24). American children have, indeed, been increasing their involvement in household consumption. An important study of American three to twelve-year-olds’ time use in 1981 and 1997 indicates that among children of single parents, shopping time rose 65 percent, from 71 to 117 minutes. Trends in two-parent households were similar: shopping rose from 117 minutes to 188 minutes (Hofferth and Sandberg 2001: table 4). Judging from participation in shopping, American children’s involvement in consumption is increasing not only in terms of dollar volume, but also in terms of time expended.
Child consumers are not simply indulging themselves. They are often performing relational work. Elizabeth Chin’s ethnographic account of ten-year-old, poor and working-class black children’s consumption practices in the Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, documents the day-to-day relations activated in children’s consumption. To understand Newhallville’s children’s practices better, Chin supplemented her two-year participant observation in homes, schools, and neighborhoods with shopping trips. She gave twenty-three children $20 each to spend entirely at their discretion (some of the children brought along other children— siblings, relatives, or classmates). With her money, ten-year-old Shaquita bought: two pairs of shoes at Payless—$6.99 denim mules for herself and $9.99 golden slip-ons as a birthday gift for her mother. She spent the remainder at Rite-Aid: $0.99 for a bag of bubble gum to share with her older sister and $2.09 for foam hair rollers to give her grandmother (Chin 2001: 126). As with most of the other children, Shaquita’s shopping spree did not turn into a wild, self-indulgent experience. Instead, Chin identified two notable features of child shoppers’ purchases: practicality and generosity. They bought useful items for themselves, such as shoes, socks, underwear, or school notebooks, and picked gift goods for family members. Both types of purchases cemented children’s position in the household. They also established or confirmed their social ties with family members.
Lest these New Haven children appear to be impossibly reasonable and altruistic, Chin reminds us about the mixture of meanings that flowed from their purchases: obligation to share with other members of poor families, acting out of responsibility within the household, as well as the pleasure of giving. Chin sums this up:
The deep sense of mutual obligation, and even debt, between family members played a central role. [For kids] these obligations and debts were often not only sustaining and joyful but also painful, onerous, and highly charged. I sometimes suspected that the lesson imparted to children and imparted by them was at times a coercive generosity: share or else. (128)
As Chin suggests, household members often struggle over consumption. Recall Carl Nightingale’s reporting on conflicts over children’s clothing purchases in chapter 4. The same households got involved in other types of disputes over household expenditures. Nightingale tells the tale of eleven-year-old twins Andre and Georgie Wilkins:
[Their] parents would occasionally succumb to a temptation that is surely hard for inner city parents to resist—promising their kids a new Nintendo or some sneakers when the “income tax” [refund] comes. The news would immediately earn Mr. and Ms. Wilkins the undying affection of their kids and a sense of family solidarity that would be written all over their faces, only to disappear when the appointed day arrived and there was no new Nintendo (Nightingale 1993: 159)
To the children, such disappointments were serious. Georgie, Nightingale reports, “bears a set of jagged scars on this forearm from the time shortly after one episode like this, when he took a broken bottle by the neck and ground the sharp end into the top of his wrist” (159).
In the course of his fieldwork, Philippe Bourgois heard similar stories coming from “El Barrio,” New York City’s crack-ridden East Harlem. Ten-year-old Angel complained about his mother’s boyfriend:
[He] had broken open his piggy bank and taken the twenty dollars’ worth of tips he had saved from working as a delivery boy at the supermarket on our block. He blamed his mother for having provoked her boyfriend into beating her and robbing the apartment when she invited another man to visit her in her bedroom. “I keep telling my mother to only have one boyfriend at a time, but she won’t listen to me.” (Bourgois 1995: 264)
Likewise, the middle-class divorced mothers studied by Katherine Newman encountered serious resistance from their children to forced reductions in their standard of living. In the case of mothers who stayed within the same neighborhood, the conflict was often bitter: “My children don’t seem to realize that we can’t afford the kinds of things we had before. They are always asking me for money or clothes, and they sulk if I don’t give it to them. .. . What can I do? We can’t live the way we used to, and they can’t seem to understand that” (Newman 1988: 225). Children’s consumption within households thus takes place in a context of incessant negotiation, sometimes cooperative, other times full of conflict. Consumption, furthermore, demonstrates far more than individual acquisition. It reveals children as active, inventive, knowledgeable consumers. More important, it shows us dynamic, differentiated, social relations in action.