The Selling Us column in the Aug. 15 Business section gave an incorrect university affiliation for Douglas A. Gentile, director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family. He is a professor of child psychology at Iowa State University, not Ohio State. (Published 8/17/04)

For many years I've been hearing how much more consumer power kids have these days. Especially during the back-to-school shopping season, report after report gets issued by various marketing and research organizations showing that children directly or indirectly influence so many billions of dollars in retail sales (the number's always different).

I don't doubt this is true, but I do wonder how it got that way. Why are kids such powerful consumers now? Is it the incessant drumbeat of youth-oriented commercials on television (also the subject of numerous research reports)? The pushy retailers? The makers of a growing variety of kid-oriented merchandise?

In fact, it seems, none of these is at the root of this phenomenon. Those marketing machines are merely capitalizing on the power that kids have been granted by their parents, bit by bit, over the years. And the fact that kids now have that purchasing power is a big part of why the back-to-school season has become such a huge marketing phenomenon.

Some retailers argue that children -- those in their teen years, anyway -- have a growing influence on the industry because they have their own money to spend, either through allowances or real jobs. Although kids have been earning extra money for generations, the marketing machinery of the retail world didn't genuflect before them until, say, about 10 years ago. Besides, during the back-to-school shopping season, most of the kids' stuff is actually being paid for by parents, even more so than during the rest of the year.

Yet in July and August, most of the advertising for back-to-school is found on programs and stations that target children, not grownups.

"We try not to put too much of our ad dollars into the media that the kids don't read, so we really heavy up radio and try to find places where it's best for getting to the kids," said Frank Guzzetta, president and chief executive of department store Hecht's. "There is no question that you need to reach that kid and influence that kid, and then they'll influence the parents."

It's not that parents are doormats. It's just that the way they are raising their offspring today creates these superconsumers by age 8. Marketing experts say that children are "involved" in the choosing of items to buy and eat -- for themselves and for the whole family -- an overwhelming percentage of the time. Why? Because it has become a prominent style of parenting to solicit the opinions of our children, starting at a very young age. It's considered relationship-building and good for self esteem.

Market research firm Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., estimates that 76 percent of mothers of 7- to 12-year-olds consult their children about what to have for breakfast or let them choose it outright, while 36 percent involve them in dinner decisions. It's slightly lower for 2- to 6-year-olds, but still significant: Fifty-two percent of such tots have a say in the first meal of the day, while 24 percent get to dictate the menu for supper, the company says.

"We've raised our kids differently, to have opinions. It's a lot more collaborative process than it used to be," said Laurie Klein, vice president at Just Kid. "I don't remember my mother asking me what I wanted for breakfast."

And what starts there moves outside the home. Child psychologists say it's a natural progression for children who are given options at home and who are asked to help make decisions about routine daily life, to take that power and run with it.

"Once the child feels their opinion is valued, then they will work to have opinions," said Douglas A. Gentile, a professor of child psychology at Ohio State University and research director for the National Institute on Media and the Family.

Pretty soon the mother who lets her 2-year-old pick breakfast every day buys an outfit that her young child simply doesn't like and won't wear. That mother learns quickly that it's best to consult the child first to avoid the meltdown and wasted money. So a pattern born at home transitions to the world of consumer goods because busy, stressed-out parents don't want to fight over what their kids are going to put on or what is going into the lunchbox.

Although encouraging children to participate in decision-making is an idea "that has been taken too far" as a style of parenting, Gentile said, it's an especially beneficial situation for marketers because "it's all built on good things."

"Every parent does want to value their children's opinion -- that's a good thing. Every child should be encouraged to value his or her opinions. Parents don't want to waste their money -- that's a good thing. Parents do want to make their kids happy," he said. "It's not that any of this is built on evil. But it is certainly something that can be capitalized on."

Marketers know that kids are uniquely open to suggestion. In the absence of any other good information -- and kids don't have much in that department -- advertisements have a powerful effect on generating opinions. It's comparatively easy to reach children with ads because they are already learning and experiencing new things every day, so they are open to the new ideas and products in a way that older consumers are not. And just in terms of development, Gentile said, younger kids don't even have the cognitive ability to understand the concept of persuasive speech and what ads are trying to do. They only know they have an opinion and their opinion matters to Mom and Dad when it comes to deciding what to buy.

"In today's world, you really have to have kids on your side," Klein said. "It's all about pleasing the kids."

The growth of this family dynamic has created a smorgasbord of marketing, and every back-to-school season it only intensifies as retailers get more desperate to reach consumers, grow sales and edge out the next guy. It's not just retailers, either. Puffs and Kleenex have both come out with tissues this year that feature children's characters, and even shopping centers are marketing hard to kids.

"It's just to help ensure that you get your fair share," said Gary Butcher, vice president of marketing and consumer research for Macerich Co., which owns 62 malls nationwide. "There's so much competition in the retail industry right now, and certainly back-to-school is the second largest retail season of the year, so we definitely market to the back-to-school audience."

Adding to the frenzy is the fact that the back-to-school shopping season is, in fact, not getting any bigger in terms of sales. Retailers report little change over the years, and market research firm NPD Group says the average amount parents plan to spend on back-to-school shopping, $485, has hardly changed in recent years. Without any real growth, retailers are increasingly scratching to get even a one or two percentage point bump in sales over last year, however they can.

That's led to micromarketing strategies that reach out to ever smaller subgroups of kids, such as Target's major ad campaign last year for its dorm room decor products. Five years ago, marketing experts say, that would have been seen as too tiny a submarket to advertise to so widely and aggressively.

"You have to put yourself out there," said Guzzetta of Hecht's. "If you don't do something to stake your position, you're in trouble."

And maybe that's not just true of retailers. Perhaps, as parents, we should also think a little more about staking out our positions -- before this whole thing gets out of hand.

If you have a question, comment or concern about what you see when you shop, send an e-mail to sellingus@washpost.com.