child beggarMost of us are probably aware of some of the more blatant and visible ways that companies market TO our children. Christian youth pastors have long been fond of critiquing contemporary culture by quoting MTV

We can be suspicious, too, Coca Cola has famously asserted that it doesn’t market to children, knowing that parents are the ones best equipped to make nutritional decisions for their kids.

We have a global Responsible Marketing Policy that covers all our beverages, and we do not market any products directly to children under 12. This means we will not buy advertising directly targeted at audiences that are more than 35% children under 12. Our policy applies to television, radio, and print, and, where data is available, to the Internet and mobile phones.

So these are visible and relatively well-known – and we take steps, or not, toward helping children navigate marketing campaigns, just as we help them navigate other aspects of life.

But how often do we think about the ploys we willing lead our children into, with far less thought? I’m thinking here of school fundraisers. While I hear a fair bit of complaining from parents (myself included) about the relentless fundraisers schools push – selling pretty bad cookie dough, chocolate, candles, wreaths, and so on – in the name of raising money for gym equipment or computers for classrooms or whatever other “sounds good to have” option for our schools – I don’t get the sense that we think much about these fundraisers beyond the fact that they are a drag.

I’ve been thinking about it more, however, ever since my oldest child came home from school earlier this year and excitedly announced that the school was going to do a fundraiser “so that she could earn some toys.” [I will omit the name of both the charity and the specific toy here; I suspect many parents will have encountered this charity, however.]

She had a particular goal (aka: set of toys) in mind, but had no idea at all about the charity, or why the school was trying to raise money. We tried talking to her about these things, but still, the conversation always came back to the toys as the significant thing. These toys, by the way, can be bought off the charity market as well, for the very cheap price of about 0.25 cents a piece. Some of them might be a buck or two. We told her this: that she could contribute to the charity AND that she had enough money left from her birthday fund to buy the toys she wanted so much.

We’re not particularly against this charity, so we enrolled in the online gig they’ve got, and put in a donation. THEN the charity wanted us to advertise on Facebook and Twitter and email all our friends – for which my daughter would receive ANOTHER toy.

But we, knowing that our friends were mostly in our same boat, and knowing also that this would not be the last charity fundraiser we’d be called upon to facilitate this school year, declined. We talked about our reasons. Our daughter was a bit heartbroken at not getting The Toy associated with this kind of social networking fundraising.

By the end of the three weeks in which we were engaging in this fundraiser, she was trying to raid her sister’s money jar, and was constantly trying to come up with some way – any way – to raise more money: bake sale, garage sale, selling some of her art work, and so forth.  “All of her friends” – who tend to come from far wealthier families than we are – had more Toys, darn it! We loved her initiative, but not coercion of her little sister toward getting the Toys, nor the time that initiative was taking away from her time with family, friends, and schoolwork.

So we tried having conversations about budgets and relationships and so on, for all the good it did. She was upset about the Toys. We tried conversations that helped build up some of the “virtues” that well-meaning teachers tell us are part of this kind of fundraising:

  • “Builds confidence and self-esteem” (Presumably because they’re (supposed to) ask complete strangers for money, though that’s not at all something I’ll let my early elementary kid do? Or because they get Toys? I can’t tell the difference here)
  • Gives kids experience in conducting business matters (If requesting parents to solicit friends on Facebook can be properly understood as children conducting business maters….)
  • Teaches professionalism (Unless you’re worried about the Toys instead….)

There is much to think about here. I offer the following two brief comments:

First: Is this all almsgiving means in a consumer culture? This is just a complete succumbing to the idea that peoples’ desires – especially the idea of its inevitability in relation to getting people to give money or “earn” money even for charities. This presumes absolutely no account of altruism. I know that there are economic schools that emphasize a lack of sense of common good and love of others, but common good and love of others – among other things – are in fact key aspects of Catholic teaching.

Would there be any way of rectifying the super hold this kind of fundraiser has on my daughter’s desires? I get – sort of – where the charity is coming from. Fundraisers have been done this way for a long time (at least since I was in elementary school) and they know they’re not going to get kids excited about fundraising for medical treatments or new roofs for schools. Ergo: keep doing what works – give Toys for the kids that have raised the most money. Make it a competition.

Literally, this kind of operation wills out any sense of altruism or sense of common good. The kids Get Toys; the charities Get Money. Everyone Gets Their Desires met.

But they are, alas, only secondary desires. As I mention above, it’s not clear that in participating in this fundraiser my daughter develops any of the senses of character that the fundraising gurus SAY she might develop. It’s especially not clear that she develops any broader character that we’d hope for – such as getting the point of caring about the problems and people associated with the fundraisers.

This also mitigates against years of sustained arguments, habits and practices associated with the difficult task of learning to love others who are not like us – it mitigates exactly against one of the central great commands in Christianity. All for a Toy.

Second: I want to conclude with a story a colleague mentioned when I started declaiming about this situation. She visits Turkey often, and has noted the plight of child beggars who come out to the marketplaces and beg for money. She knows that behind each child (literally, somewhere in that marketplace) are the pimp-types attached to those children, who will punish or bless them according to how much money they get. My kid’s school fundraiser doesn’t at all have the same kind of physical or psychological horrors associated with it.

But it does make me want to ask:

How is that child-beggar situation working out for us these days?