This article appears in the 2017 October Family magazine.

Of all the skills parents teach children, being a smart consumer is often overlooked.

“We teach kids how to tie their shoes, how to cross the street safely. We pay less attention to teaching them how to buy things safely,” said Sean B. Cash, associate professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Parents should think of kids as young as 8 as consumers-in-training, said Cash, who is co-leader of a new study that examines how branding and pricing influence children’s decisions about snack purchases.

“A big part of what we (as parents) miss is what they do with their own money. Children have billions of dollars in spending power and most of the spending is on energy-dense foods or junk food,” said Cash, an economist who focuses on how food, nutrition and environmental factors influence producers and consumers.

About the study

In the study researchers presented a limited series of snack options to the children — cookies, apple slices and squeezable yogurt. Each child, age 8 to 12, was presented 10 times with pairs of photographs of two snack items that differed by product type, price and brand. Each time children could select one of the two products or decide to make no choice.

The child was told that at the end of the experiment, one choice would be drawn at random from the 10 decisions the child made, and the child would be obligated to purchase the chosen snack. To make the choice more realistic, the child had to pay for the snack with real money, which ranged between 30 and 70 cents, and they received the designated snack. The money was earned by the children earlier in the study. One group of snacks was from McDonald’s in order to test the importance of branding on children’s choices.

A goal of the study, published in the journal Appetite, was to find out what motivates kids to make healthier food choices. There were two main findings. First, kids who have experience with handling money paid more attention to prices. Some children who have financial literacy are able to make better choices, and higher prices for unhealthy snacks might motivate healthier choices, Cash said.

“This speaks to the importance of educating kids to be good consumers and having kids get some experience with money, possibly through allowance,” Cash said.

The second big takeaway was that brand awareness was not a key factor in purchasing snacks, “which is great news for parents who are worried their kids find certain brand irresistible,” Cash said. It’s not enough for kids to just know of a brand to influence their purchasing choice, Cash said. They had to like the brand.

Price and brand were less important than if a child preferred a certain snack. If a child wants the cookie, they will buy the cookie regardless of how much the yogurt or apple costs or what brand it is, Cash said.

Create teaching moments

How can parents get kids to make smarter, healthier snack purchases?

“The single most important thing is to talk to kids about how and what they spend their money on. Ask they how they make their decisions,” Cash said.

Kids learn by doing.

“They get better (at being consumers) as they have more experience. Educate them to be good consumers,” Cash said.

Manufacturers are marketing to kids.

“Parents should pretend it doesn’t exist. You’re not doing them any favors,” he said. Instead, help them navigate the environment. “Talk to them about what they see on commercials, what they do with their own money and how they make their choices,” Cash said.