Parents' careful ways with money can produce a bounty of benefits for their kids.
For those of you keeping score at home, here's what parents are spending less on these days:
Back-to-school stuff: About 65 percent spent the same or less than last year on supplies, etc., according to America's Research Group, a retail industry analyst.
Baby gear: The "play and discover" market -- toys and goods for children younger than 1 has dropped by a third since the recession hit in 2008, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer research firm.
College: The average amount that families spent on higher education fell by 5 percent in the 2011-12 school year, according to student loan provider Sallie Mae.
Cars: An Allstate survey says 60 percent of parents with driving-age children are allocating less for kids' wheels.
This is, no doubt, just the beginning. We all know families that are cutting back on youth sports, slapping a fresh pair of tires on the neighbor's hand-me-down bike, and turning down tearful requests for McKenna, the latest, greatest American Girl doll.
Wealth of imagination
This is not all bad. It's not even mostly bad, say experts.
"If you don't have to imagine anything, you don't have to create anything," said Harvard Medical School psychiatry instructor Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial- Free Childhood. "When it comes to creative play, the foundation for learning and critical thinking, the capacity to delay gratification, constructive problem-solving, empathy, all of those things: Less is more."
Which isn't to downplay the very real struggles many families face as the economy continues to limp wearily along.
"Total deprivation is not good for anybody, clearly," Linn said. "Stress about not being able to pay your bills or feed your children is terrible. But for many of us, it's more about taking a long, hard look at our consumption and our values."
When money's rolling in relatively seamlessly, it's easy to make hasty spending decisions without an eye toward what they'll mean down the road. The result, Linn said, is not just 16 sparkly headbands when three would suffice, but a slow erosion of your kids' ability to create happiness.
"The fact is there's plenty of research showing things we buy do not make us happy," Linn said. "But if you believe things will make you happy, it perpetuates consumption. You believe that buying this one thing didn't make you happy, but if you just buy the bigger thing or the better thing, that will be the thing that makes you happy."
Parents may not have the power to disabuse their children of this notion completely, but we can avoid perpetuating it.
"We can help our children consume less by raising them in an environment where pleasure is to be had from nature and from relationships and from experiences," Linn said. "And not just from things that money can buy."
Put away the checkbook
When parents allow cost -- financial and emotional -- to dissuade them from overpurchasing, they may find themselves getting more creative, too, said Vicki Hoefle, author of "Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible and Resilient Kids" (Bibliomotion).
Toys don't have to be plentiful or pricey to be fun.
"Kids' play is often about mimicking what they see their parents doing," Hoefle said. "That's where the engagement and curiosity and interest comes from."
Drawing kids into the kitchen, garage or home office with some tools of their own is a relatively inexpensive, fun way to kick their creative energy into high gear.
"It's practical and playful," Hoefle said. "And it's less about sending kids away to a pile of stuff they may or may not be interested in 24 hours after they had to have it, 'Please, please get it for me or I'll die.' "
Often we're talked into overspending not by our persistent offspring, Hoefle said, but by external pressure to prove our parental devotion and financial well-being. To arm against those forces, she urged parents to think long-term.
"You're raising thinking children who need to find creative ways to engage themselves and deal with boredom. The simpler you make life for them when they're 4, the more difficulty they'll have dealing with boredom at 13.
"And you get kids who are more grateful when you're not overpurchasing," she added. "Carry that knowledge with you when you're being assaulted by a society that judges good parents by the amount of stuff their kids have."
Hopefully, your college student didn't hit campus with loot worth thousands of dollars.
"A parent who can't buy a child every single thing they want is really helping them in a very profound way," said Harlan Cohen, author of "The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College" (Sourcebooks). "The college years should be uncomfortable at times. The uncomfortable moments are the moments where we learn about ourselves and other people. A student who is too comfortable is a student who's never forced to deal with real-life situations and become a self-advocate."
When you're helping your child shop -- and pack -- for college, better to err on the conservative side, Cohen said, than to saddle him or her with too much stuff for too little space. (Cohen addresses packing in his "Naked Roommate" follow-up, "The Naked Roommate for Parents Only: A Parent's Guide to the New College Experience.")
If your child is paired with a roommate of wildly different means, fear not. Even that can be a learning experience.
"This happens all the time," Cohen said. "You can't be embarrassed about not having as much as your roommate. That's why you're going to school -- so you get an education and gain job security so you can always take care of yourself.
"Being a poor college student is cool. It's part of life. It's a badge."
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