Guiding Children's Consumerism, 1945-2000: Expanding Parental Responsibility

Holly Moir

Advisor: Peter N. Stearns, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Jennifer Ritterhouse, Kelly Schrum

Johnson Center, #333-D
April 26, 2017, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM


The expansion in children’s consumerism in the U.S. across 1945-2000 presented a significant new set of challenges for middle-class parents, including the necessity to regulate, limit, and guide children’s consumerism.  This new factor became integral to parenting by 2000 in a way which was not foreseen in 1945.  Exploring the ways parents assimilated or rejected expert advice about children’s consumerism and interacted with children’s own demands forms a major facet of contemporary family history.

A number of elements contributed to parental behaviors toward consumerism: the increase in the scope and scale of available consumer goods, the rise in pressures from peers, the ways in which the advertising and marketing industry expanded and became more aggressive at targeting the youth market, and the trend in which money spent by or on children soared as 1945-1990 unfolded.  By the 1990s, however, parental perceptions shifted in several areas, reflecting growing disillusionment with seemingly unbridled consumerism.  New interactions with expert advice played a role in shaping behaviors as well.

There were progressive changes to TV content over the years, which directly affected parental views, including the proliferation of the number of programs, ads, and channels, plus key shifts in FCC regulations.  Most parents were relatively laissez-faire in their reactions to TV for several decades, yet by the 1980s-1990s, it was clear that mainstream parents had become alarmed about their children’s TV watching, and many became more interventionist in their approach.

Allowances were not adopted as a regular phenomenon for the vast majority of middle-class households nationwide until the U.S. economy boomed after 1945.  Once regularized, they also began to expand, in some cases even faster than family incomes--especially in the early 1970s and early 1990s, when many families continued to increase allowance amounts despite stagnating family incomes.  Across 1945-2000, most parents began to re-think the purpose of the allowance, as it shifted from payment for chores to providing a chance for children to engage with consumerism and the consumer culture.  These changing patterns in allowances became crucial to parental enablement of children’s consumerism.

Parents increasingly relied upon gifts to attempt to assuage the guilt they felt, which increased over the years as parents spent more hours at work and commuting.  Parents spent much of 1945-1990 ignoring or rejecting expert advice not to feel guilty and not to tie gifts to guilt.  However, beginning about 1990, many parents began to modify this approach, because they felt the “pocketbook pinch” and because of growing concerns that their children seemed “spoiled.”

Copies of the dissertation are on reserve in the Johnson Center Library.  The doctoral project will not be read at the meeting, but should be read in advance.

All members of the George Mason University community are invited to attend.