The image on the cover of Ed Mayo’s influential “Consumer Kids” (2009) (see Fig. 1) draws our attention to the controversial child consumer identity, which has formed the focus of a flurry of popular critical publications about children and consumerism in recent years (Klein 2001, Linn 2004, Schor 2004). The visual depiction of the child fulfilling and detained in his consumerist role captures the common concern that children have been trapped in compulsive consumerism. Cook’s (2008) study of children and childhood as constitutive elements of consumption theory, however, challenges this traditional view. Critically evaluating children’s access to the world of commodities, the meanings and significance of parents’ consumption on behalf of children, he argues that “the child consumer is made well before it is born” (2008, p. 232). Rather than sentencing children to consumption for life, this acknowledgement places under question the dominant construction of children as “adult-in waiting” and suggests reconsiderations of notions of consumption, childhood and motherhood. Aspiring to a more critical view on children’s consumption, in this essay, I seek to offer an analysis of Cook’s observation and illustrate with examples from children’s consumption of clothing.
Fig.1. Consumer Kids (2009)
Aiming to define the nature of the child consumer, Cook’s (2008) observation approaches a fundamental question in the study of children’s consumption: “When does a child become a consumer?”. Research into children’s consumption of clothing has yet to address intensively this question, but writings on children of conspicuous consumption, consumer culture and the commercialisation of childhood have identified the early consumption experience of children growing up in consumer society. In the study of cultural reproduction, it is observed that social class distinctions of 'taste' are embodied in individuals mostly during childhood (James, Jenks and Prout 1998); this embodiment is either through child rearing, where children “inherit” the consumer tastes of their parents (Bourdieu 1979), or through parents’ conspicuous consumption of designer childrenwears, whereby investment in children as ‘trophies’ is made to symbolise parental material capital (Brusdal 2008, Crewe and Collins 2006). Conceptualising children’s consumption of clothing as the display or reproduction of their families’ social status allows us to acknowledge children’s early involvement in consumption activities, but hardly can we give those trophy children the “consumer” status. In fact, children do not consume clothes in this case, for meaning making is not made by and for them. More specifically, by wearing outfits or using other products which express their parents’ material wealth, children only function as “props in a game of social positioning, the inclusion of which does not change the terms of the game” (Cooks 2008,...