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Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

reviewed by Lisa Jacobson - October 22, 2009

coverTitle: Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture
Author(s): Allison J. Pugh
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520258444, Pages: 320, Year: 2009
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In recent years, probing the perils and pleasures of children’s consumer culture has developed into a cottage industry within the book publishing world.  Sociologists have produced gripping exposés of the lengths to which contemporary corporate marketers go to capture children’s brand loyalty, while historians have located the roots of such practices in the early twentieth century.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the widespread anxieties surrounding children’s consumer culture are nothing new.  Yet, even as parents have decried manipulative corporate marketing and the commercialization of childhood, children’s relationships with their parents and peers have become ever more deeply enmeshed in consumer culture.  Sociologist Allison Pugh, in her brilliant study Longing and Belonging, succinctly frames this conundrum of contemporary child-rearing: “If consumer culture is the ‘enemy’ of good parenting, why do so many parents invite the enemy into their homes?” (p. x).  Pugh’s compelling answers to that question take us deeply into the social worlds of children and their parents to reveal how consumer goods and consumer experiences shape what it means to provide care and what it means to belong.

Longing and Belonging examines several families who reside in Oakland, California, a racially diverse city with enormous disparities of wealth and poverty.  Pugh focuses on children between five and nine, ages when children are old enough to make their opinions known but young enough that their parents still make most purchasing decisions.  To gain a diverse sample, Pugh studied children enrolled in three elementary schools: Sojourner Truth, a public school that serves predominantly Black and Latino students from low-income families; Arrowhead, an expensive, progressive private school where whites comprised 60 percent of the student body; and Oceanview, a predominantly white public school, ranked as one of the city’s best.  Pugh conducted interviews with parents from fifty-four families and gathered information about children through informal conversations and field-work observations.

Pugh argues that children claim and confer dignity based on the types of consumer goods and experiences that their peers think make one worthy of belonging.  Children together create what Pugh calls an “economy of dignity,” a social order which enables children to make themselves visible to peers, join conversations, and become worthy of esteem.  In such economies of dignity, particular consumer goods and experiences become a form of scrip that children use to establish themselves as part of a group and “transform themselves into citizens of their public sphere” (p. 52).  According to Pugh, children’s conversations about goods and experiences were less about vying for status—determining who possessed the best toy or had the best birthday party—than about “forging a community around particular valuable tokens,” many of which were heavily advertised electronic games and collectible cards and toys (p. 55).  Children who did not own valued scrip managed their difference from others through “facework,” which might involve claiming to own a toy they did not possess or highlighting differences from peers to challenge the salience of prized commodities.  Children accepted alternative forms of scrip, such as knowing how to play with electronic games without actually possessing them or enjoying noncommercial family activities that demonstrated that they were cared for by parents.   Depending on the context, children’s facework might involve concealing either their affluence or their poverty from peers.  

Pugh contends that parents of all income levels are vulnerable to children’s longings for the tokens that confer dignity because parents place a high premium on their children’s social belonging.  Parents’ own memories of social exclusion or being different as children made them especially sensitive to children’s anxieties about not fitting in.  Affluent African American parents who sent their children to Oceanview or Arrowhead protected their children from “interactional differences” with affluent whites by making sure they had similar things, but they also tried to help their children gain fluency in street culture by enrolling them in Little Leagues and other extracurricular activities that brought them into contact with poorer blacks and Latinos.  

Concerns about helping children fit in help explain why affluent parents spent lavishly on children, despite their fears that excessive consumption would create materialistic and spoiled children and reward manipulative corporate marketing.   To “distance themselves from their capitulation to the consumer market,” affluent parents, Pugh argues, practiced “a form of ‘symbolic deprivation,’ pointing to particularly meaningful goods or experiences that their child did not have as evidence of their own moral restraint and worthiness as parents” (p. 9).  Some parents, for example, required their children to donate clothes and toys to Goodwill, seeing this as an opportunity to teach them about “inequality and the responsibilities of the affluent” (p. 104).  Parents also resolved the contradiction between their spending and their professed distaste for consumer excess by giving children allowances and limiting time spent playing electronic games and watching television.  Caught between competing values—the desire to make children happy and the need to inculcate self-control and delayed gratification (habits essential for later professional success)—upper-income parents looked for ways to fulfill children’s consumer desires without seeming to sanction toys and games that stimulated addictive behaviors or displaced more edifying activities.  Some parents used allowances to inculcate restraint, but others used them to avoid paying for toys and experiences they found distasteful.  A kind of “mediated parenting,” allowances enabled “parents to act as if they were saying no when they were really saying yes” (p. 116).  Similarly, rules governing electronic game use, “or even the mere appearance of rules, enabled most upper-income parents to take steps to rein in their children’s desires after answering to them in the marketplace” (p. 114).  How effectively parents enforced rules governing media consumption and play with electronics was not simply a matter of parental willpower.  For Arrowhead parents, TV restrictions were not hard “to impose because the Arrowhead economy of dignity did not seem to center on knowledge about network programming” (p. 154).

Low-income parents also sought to satisfy children’s dignity needs, but doing so required careful planning and greater restraint.  Children learned to mute their consumer demands, having been told that their parents would provide for their needs, but only some of their wants.  Low-income parents compensated for children’s enforced deprivation by purchasing items or experiences that had “the most significant symbolic value for the children’s social world” (p. 10). Such “symbolic indulgence” inspired the purchase of electronic systems, brand clothing, and collectible cards—goods that could communicate belonging—instead of bikes, trampolines, Legos, or LeapPads—goods that might provide more opportunities for exercise and edification.  Pugh thoroughly debunks the myth of low-income instant gratification by showing how the unpredictability and limited supply of money (due in part to the cyclical nature of low-wage work) made it necessary for parents to plan extensively for purchases beyond food and rent.  “Low-income parents were forced to lie in wait for months for a few punctuated moments … in which they could engage in the brief symbolic indulgence” (p. 135).  Critics who see Game Boys as wasteful indulgences fail to recognize underlying practicality of such toys.  In dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods, such toys help keep kids indoors and happily entertained.

Pugh’s examination of pathway consumption—spending on opportunities that shape children’s future trajectory—throws the costs and consequences of racialized class inequality into sharper relief.  Affluent parents, for example, spend money on music lessons, private school tuition, and homes located in neighborhoods with excellent public schools.  For low-income parents, such goods and services are not only out of financial reach, but racism and poverty and racial discrimination induce parents to keep their children in inner-city schools.  Parents want to protect children from racial prejudice, which might stifle their motivation to learn, and they also want to remain close to other kin who might be called upon to pick up a sick child from school should a mother’s employment prevent her from doing so.  While the affluent can afford to buy both opportunities and dignity for their children, low-income parents are forced to choose one over the other.  

Most parents in Pugh’s study found it nearly impossible to ignore children’s pleas to spend so they could belong.  Pugh suggests that recent demographic and cultural trends—rising divorce rates, increasing numbers of dual income households and single-parent households, and the erosion of community bonds—help explain why parents find limit setting so difficult.  As symbols of the “last vestige of intimacy,” children, she argues, have become ever more central to the family’s emotional life (p. 20).  As a result, the pressure to cater to their desires for goods and social belonging has intensified.  Those rare few who do resist children’s consumer demands, Pugh found, upheld other values as more important than fitting in or making children happy.  Some parents were less sensitive to matters of belonging because they did not experience such exclusion themselves.  Others viewed difference as a good thing and cultivated a sense of themselves and their families as outsiders with superior values and parenting practices.  Such was especially true of immigrant families, in which children had little input in family decision making and adult wisdom overruled children’s desires.  

By shifting our attention from manipulative corporate marketing to how children make meaning from consumption, Pugh’s study revises standard narratives about children’s consumer culture.  Instead of seeing children’s consumer desires as a reflection of children’s limited self-control and vulnerability to marketing messages, Pugh connects them to “the social conditions that imbue commercialized goods with powerful meanings like belonging and care” (p. 218).  If, as Pugh suggests, corporate marketing is only one of many culprits driving consumption-oriented childrearing, then the oft-heard calls to toughen corporate regulations and parental resolve will only address part of the problem.  Pugh suggests that we look for ways to reduce consumer culture’s salience as the “arbiter of belonging” (p. 221).  Instituting school uniforms, mandatory school lunches, and reduced vacation time might make school “a safe environment for children’s difference,” while a teaching tolerance curriculum might “help children understand and manage their feelings and interactions about … differences” (p. 221).  Parents might also work together to limit spending (for example, by agreeing to abolish party bags and extravagant birthday parties), or to “establish community-wide limits on television” (pp. 223-224).

Longing and Belonging is a refreshing and strikingly original contribution to studies of children’s consumer culture.  Especially valuable are the author’s insights about how consumer culture reinforces and perpetuates racialized class inequality, even as it provides temporary relief from the emotional pains of poverty.  Pugh’s analysis of parents’ vulnerability to children’s consumer demands is also spot on.  Few parents, I suspect, can read the book without experiencing a few moments of embarrassing or enlightening self-recognition.  Pugh has identified something crucial, too, about children’s culture, but is a tad reductionist in linking children’s consumer desires inexorably to their yearnings for belonging.  “Belonging” is not a capacious enough concept to fully capture the range of delights that come from playing with particular games and toys.  Children, especially as they mature, also seem capable of developing communities of belonging that revolve around noncommodified forms of scrip, such as shared interests in nature, history, scouting, or the cultivation of particular skills and talents.  Did Pugh’s intense focus on how consumer goods circulate in the social worlds of children obscure signs of these other kinds of belonging?  If we want to limit the social salience of consumer culture, then we should also work to identify and then nurture these emerging alternative communities of belonging.  These, however, are minor quibbles with splendid scholarship. Pugh’s accessible and often eloquent writing make the book suitable for classroom adoption and her important insights deserve a broad readership in academia and beyond.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 22, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15809, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:36:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Jacobson
    University of California, Santa Barbara
    E-mail Author
    LISA JACOBSON is an Associate Professor in the History Department at University of California, Santa Barbara. She authored Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Twentieth Century (2004) and edited Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: Historical Essays and Documents (2008). She is currently working on a book about alcohol promotion and consumption after the repeal of Prohibition in the United States.
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