10/24/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Use Your Kids' TV Time for Money Lessons

There is a credit card advertisement currently airing on TV that you may have seen. Two men are standing in a park, chatting, when the young daughter of one of them comes running, all excited because a famous performer is coming to town. She asks her father if he can buy her concert tickets and he asks how many. The girl proceeds to ramble off a list of about seven names and the dad laughs and reminds her to include her sister.

Now we're up to approximately nine tickets, plus, presumably a ticket for a parent to chaperone. A performer, with the popularity of a Justin Bieber, commands an average ticket price of just under $77 per ticket. Let's do quick math for a total purchase of $770 -- not including service fees and taxes.

The dad turns to his friend and says that he is happy to buy the tickets (spend the money) because he gets bonus reward points on his purchase. Everyone is happy. The end.

There are a couple of bad lessons promulgated by this 30-second spot. In real life, the child should be using her medium-term savings to buy her own ticket if this is how she wants to spend her money -- not indulged by a parent. Regarding the parent's rationale for impulse spending -- are the points really worth spending an unplanned $770? Paying with a credit or debit card without explaining how they are used leads to the Magic Piece of Plastic Syndrome.

There is no point bemoaning the fact that TV exists -- on average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV -- or that your kids are subject to an inescapable bombardment of commercials on it. We know it does. We know they are. So make use of it. Talk to your kids about what they see on TV.

We are the largest consumer nation -- at least until China surpasses us. As consumers, we have an incredible amount of choice, which is both an advantage and a challenge. It means we have to make intelligent decisions about those choices, based on all the data we have. TV commercials are part of that data, but they are not always the most reliable source -- the information you get from them has to be evaluated carefully. You know that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. This is a valuable lesson to impart early because the same thing will be true later in life when your kids start looking at investments.

For young children, you have to teach the difference between programs and commercials. This distinction is not always obvious, especially during children's shows, where the line between programming and salesmanship is blurred. Marketing experts are working on your child very early, trying to develop the habits of consumer loyalty. You should be working, equally as hard, to develop the habits of consumer selectivity.

Watch programs with them and explain the difference: "This is the part where they are telling you a story," and "This is the part where they are trying to talk you into going to the store and buying something." You can give them their first lessons about being an informed consumer.

  • As your children get older, have discussions with them so they can continue to develop and refine their skills of commercial watching.
  • What are the advertisers trying to make you think about when you watch an ad for this product?
  • What are they trying to make you not think about?
  • How are they trying to make you feel?
  • What should you be thinking about when you evaluate the quality and value of the product?
  • Is this product something you need or want?

It seems like every other commercial is for fast food chains, sugary snacks, sugar-laden beverages or junk food. Use this opportunity to impart healthy food choices and nutrition to your kids. This is another instance of need versus want. Of course, we all need food, but what kinds of food really satisfy our nutritional needs? What kinds of food do we buy and eat just because we want them? Let kids make the comparisons between the foods they like: "fruit flavored beverages" compared to 100 percent juice; sweetened and unsweetened cereals; home-popped popcorn and the packaged type; puffed cheese snacks and real cheese and crackers.

The classroom -- at home or at school -- is designed to prepare your kids for the real world, but you can also use the world itself as your classroom. It's out there, and it has so many lessons to offer. You don't even need to step outside your front door to encounter them. The world comes into your home every day, perhaps more than you realize, thanks to TV. Monitor TV viewing and have a continuing dialogue with your kids in order to ensure that they are getting the lessons you want them to have.

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