CONSUMERS : How to Just Say No to Kids Who Want It All

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yo, parents. Has back-to-school shopping staggered your spirit and demolished your budget? Or have you managed to just say no to those $75 designer jeans, that $80 sweat suit and the $250 leather jacket only to develop a serious case of the guilts?

Either way, you probably figure you're scoring low on the parent scale--too indulgent of your offspring's material wants or too tough to give in, whether you can afford them or not.

Well, take heart. Some experts have advice to help you deal with materialism--and feelings of self-reproach you suffer for not giving your children everything they want. Others have suggestions to assist in making your children better consumers and money managers.

"Parents everywhere are overloaded on the kids wanting all this designer stuff," said Bobbi Conner, host and executive producer of the National Public Radio series "Parents Journal," where experts discuss family issues and parents call in questions. "It's important for parents to remember their own childhood and how important it (was) to fit in. Listen to what the child is saying, but that doesn't mean you have to give in, if you can't afford it or you don't want to. One of the hardest things about being a parent is that you have to learn to take the heat.

"The theme we hear so much," Conner said, "is that parents want to be their child's friend and every moment be seen as wonderful. But you're going to make unpopular decisions. You have to do the best you can. Learn to be fair and respect the children as individuals, but learn to accept your own decisions and (that) that you won't always be popular with the children."

A cardinal rule for parents, experts say, is don't wait until your children are teen-agers to talk with them about values, family budgets (including proper allotments for clothes and necessities) and peer pressure.

"It's like preventive medicine," Conner added. "Start talking before the peer pressure begins. Teach them that the way people dress is not the way to judge them."

Kenneth Sereno, a Ph.D. and associate professor of communication arts and sciences at USC, observed: "You certainly can't wait until they're ninth-graders to instill what is important to you."

Sereno, who specializes in interpersonal-family communication and persuasion, stressed the importance of discussing values from early childhood on.

In discussing basic values with children, Sereno counseled that when it is time for gift-giving, parents should emphasize that "it's not the cost of the gift that's important. It's the personal-ness, the effort and the care taken choosing the present."

He added: "In my experience it becomes more difficult from intermediate school on up. But parents should talk to their kids--ask the child to understand about the financial situation. Talk price-range options before you get to the store. If it's $100 for the (shoes), and $50 is all you have, ask, 'What's your proposal to do something in exchange (to earn) the extra $50?' That gives them an option to do something to get something they want. . . .But you have to make sure they follow through."

Conner, Sereno and other family experts agree that the designer clothes mania has become a serious issue in schools nationwide. To de-emphasize this controversy, some public schools have taken a page from private institutions and required that students wear uniforms.

Designer clothing is more important at some schools than others, said Jessica Hecht, a sixth-grader at Canterbury Gifted Magnet School in Canoga Park.

"At the more upper middle-class schools, they make fun of kids who don't have the right things," Hecht said last week while shopping for back-to-school clothes at Nordstrom with her mother, Andrea. "They make fun of kids who don't wear Keds. I have a friend who goes to a school like that. She doesn't like Keds, but she glues the Keds sign on her shoes so kids don't laugh at her."

The Hechts have solved the problem of buying "the right stuff," her mom explained, by purchasing only a few items before school starts, then waiting until Jessica sees what her classmates wear.

"The peer pressure is out there at this age," said Andrea Hecht, who runs her own public relations firm. "It's important to feel good about the way you look, whether you're 10 or 37. But it's real important for kids to know there are limits. . . . Jessica's entitled to her own style--that's part of growing up. My job is to give guidance, but to set some parameters."

To help parents cope with parenting problems, many Southern California schools are adding special workshops, said Alice Healy-Sesno, a psychologist and consultant for evaluation, attendance and pupil services for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

"As a parent, never underestimate the power of peer pressure," Healy-Sesno stressed. "Parents are going to have to handle it; schools are going to have to handle it. The workshops during the year in many districts help the parents in dealing with this and not feeling alone. Elementary school is a good place to start.

"Parents want to give their children the best," she added. "There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, the best is to say no. The most important thing for parents is to listen. When the child comes in and says 'everybody's wearing this,' you have to listen and then try to move the child's focus of interest. Clothes give the child a feeling of self-worth. Parents have to offer children self-esteem linked to things other than clothing."

Healy-Sesno advised parents to identify for children "other things in life in which to feel self-worth. . . . If the child, a boy or a girl, has the ability to cook a gourmet meal, he'll feel good about himself. If he gets into giving in the community--recycling projects, bringing food to the elderly, things like that--he'll feel self-worth. The child takes his model from the parent."

The school workshops deal extensively with guilt, Healy-Sesno said, adding: "Parents need to feel comfortable with themselves. They don't need to feel guilty for saying no to things. They need to remember that they are teaching the child to survive in a very harsh world."

Setting up a budget for children is vital to teach them to manage money and realize that if they buy $75 designer jeans, they may have to live with, say, cheaper shoes, said Ann Hoeppner, a San Diego financial planner and member of the Denver-based Institute of Financial Planners.

"This teaches a child that money is not infinite," she said. "With younger children, you should have a narrow scope of what's purchased with their money--comic books, video games and movies. As they get older, give them more to handle--movies, clothing and shoes, school supplies. Parents should oversee purchases and teach them how to weigh quality and price against style and current trend."

Parents can use television, too, to educate their children, advised Zena Polly, an Irvine-based family psychologist: "Recognize that TV is a real powerful medium that you can use to raise their consciousness about marketing. When they're 3 or 4 years old, you can start making them aware consumers. When they're watching TV, ask them when the commercials are on, 'What do you think they're trying to get you to buy?' Then focus on teaching them the meaning of money."

Polly urged parents to set a budget before shopping and give children choices--with guidance. "If they're involved with the choosing, it teaches them responsibility, and gets the parents out of the position of being a gatekeeper," she said.

Saying no "can put on a real guilt trip on parents," Polly added, "but they should look at it as this wonderful, important lesson I'm teaching my child. Even if they have unlimited money, they are teaching values, not forbidding things. If they do that, I don't think the guilt issue would be so prominent."

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