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How to break the brand-name grip on your kids

Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

The question

We've raised our two young children on second-hand clothing, but now they're feeling intense peer pressure to conform to expensive name-brand everything. How do I encourage them to stay true to our family's values without getting them ostracized by their friends?

The answer

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Aeropostale, Hollister or Goodwill. A teen's wardrobe is the most immediate and outward expression of their evolving identity. So telling your kids they shouldn't worry about their peers' fashion preferences may seem like the right call, but it's not very helpful.

Kevin Murphy, a child psychologist in Vernon, B.C., and author of the trilogy The Jendorra Boxes, says there is a marked decrease in self-esteem during the formative pre-teen years that corresponds with a sharp increase in materialism.

Building a tween's self esteem should help reduce their need for expensive name brands. But "it's the ability to be successful at something of value that makes self-confidence robust in later life," says Dr. Murphy, who recommends helping teens develop a multi-faceted identity through sports, music, volunteerism, faith or other activities that they are good at and that include them in a community. This reduces the tendency to anchor their self-esteem to a single dimension, such as the clothing they wear or the gadgets they own.

It's not easy when you're fighting against a commercial culture that feeds on kids' insecurities in order to sell the latest fashions and trends. A good preventive strategy is to build consumer literacy by teaching your kids to "ad bust" from a young age. Discuss the ads your kids see on TV and elsewhere, and encourage them to ask, "What is this ad selling? What are they saying it will do for me? Is it true? Do I really need it or just want it? Will I be a better person if I own this or wear that?"

Consumer literacy also includes talking to your kids about the issues around consumer goods – where they come from, how they're made, and how they affect the environment and the workers who make them – encouraging a lifetime of shopping with their eyes wide open to the impact of their choices.

And of course, there's also the irrefutable parental stand-by to teach the real cost of the things: "If you really want that hoodie, you could get a job to pay for it."

Instead of fighting the weight of peer pressure, bring your kids' chums into the fold by showing them that second-hand clothes can be cool, too. One mom we know used to take her daughter and her friends into the big city for a full day of shopping at a second-hand superstore. They bonded over bargains.

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There's no magic bullet to slaying teen materialism, but good communication about budgets, bargains and brands is key. And sometimes, it's also okay to let your child indulge in one or two special items.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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