Children's Purchase Requests and Parental Yielding: a Cross-National Study

Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania
Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania
Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania
Hubert Gatignon, University of Pennsylvania
ABSTRACT - This study explores patterns of children's purchase requests and parental responses to those requests across three cultures. These patterns are found to vary by culture, child's age and amount of television viewing.
[ to cite ]:
Scott Ward, Thomas S. Robertson, Donna M. Klees, and Hubert Gatignon (1986) ,"Children's Purchase Requests and Parental Yielding: a Cross-National Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 629-632.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 629-632


Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania

Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania

Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania

Hubert Gatignon, University of Pennsylvania


This study explores patterns of children's purchase requests and parental responses to those requests across three cultures. These patterns are found to vary by culture, child's age and amount of television viewing.


The purpose of this study is to examine patterns of children's requests for products, and parental reactions to those requests, in three cultures: the United States, Japan, and Great Britain. The topic is an important one, since regulations have been proposed in many countries to affect television advertising targeted at child audiences. These proposals are based, in part, on concerns voiced by critics and activists that television advertising stimulates children to ask their parents to buy things for them, and that such requests may be dysfunctional for parent-child relations. The basic issue seems to be that, since children have relatively little disposable income, they usually must ask parents to buy things. Television advertising may stimulate children to make more requests than they would absent television advertising, and advertising-engendered requests may be more "intense" than requests which do not result from a child's exposure to advertised products. The frequency and intensity of such requests is thought to lead to a corresponding increase in family tensions when parents--especially those in lower socioeconomic brackets--deny the requests.

In addition to regulatory issues, patterns of children's purchase requests and parental responses would seem to be an important part of children's consumer socialization processes. These processes generally refer to the development of consumption-related knowledge, attitudes and skills, and they are influenced by many factors, including advertising, peers, children's experiences, and parental behavior.

Consumer socialization processes will vary depending on the children's experiences resulting from the pattern of reinforcements as children request products and parents respond to these requests. For example, parents who agree to buy most things their children request probably encourage their children to be attentive to advertising and to request things frequently. On the other hand, parents who routinely discuss children's requests with them may encourage children to develop particular skills in selecting and interpreting product information, and in defining product needs carefully. We also expect consumer socialization processes to differ markedly across cultures, due to differences in the marketing environments, broadcast systems, and most importantly, differences in basic patterns of parent-child interaction.


Research in two areas is pertinent to this study: research on patterns of children's product requests and parental responses, and cross-national research comparing aspects of parent-child interaction which may be related to these request-response patterns. Research in the first area has been conducted in the United States. One diary study found that 3-12 year-olds request an average of 14 products a month, and that mothers most often agree to buy what their children request, although they are more likely to buy less expensive items (such as snack foots) than more expensive items (bicycles, games, etc.) (Isler, Popper and Ward 1979). Other studies (summarized in Adler et al. 1980) have found that the frequency of children's purchase requests varies with age, product category, and, to a lesser extent, social class. Generally, explicit purchase requests decrease when children approach teenage years. This finding has been attributed to a number of factors, including the increased independent spending power of children as they grow older, and to the fact that older children do not need to make many explicit requests, since their parents know favorite products and brands.

Findings also suggest age-related differences in the kinds of products children request. Food products are requested across age groups, but younger children are more likely to request toys and games, while older children request clothing, records and tapes, and the like (Adler et al. 1980). Some evidence of a link between television viewing and purchase requests has been reported. In one study, heavy viewers of Saturday morning television were more likely than light viewers to report asking their parents to make purchases of both breakfast cereals and toys (Atkin 1975). The correlations between frequency of requests and viewing dropped, but remained significant, when age, sex, race, and scholastic performance were controlled. The same study reported that this effect was especially marked among younger children.

Parental agreement to purchase requested products has been found to depend on the knowledge levels and attitudes of parents, the type of product and its expected use, and seasonal factors. Children of mothers who have a good understanding of nutrition have been found to express fewer preferences and request fewer food products than those whose mothers lack this understanding. This finding could be attributable to the children's feeling that such requests would go unheeded, given their mothers' concern for nutritional factors. Studies have found high levels of yielding (about 70: of the time) for inexpensive products children consume (snacks, cereals), but there is some evidence which suggests that mothers act as gatekeepers for children's cereal requests by limiting choices to a few acceptable brands (Robertson 1979).

Parent-child interaction concerning products is especially high around holidays, particularly Christmas. Yielding levels for relatively expensive products are high--about 40%--during holiday seasons. Research on parental responses to children's requests shows that very few parents simply deny their children requests without an explanation. The most frequently-offered explanations for denial were "expense" and "poor value" in one study.

Research among American families has not explicitly examined more general patterns of parent-child interaction which may underlie patterns of purchase requests and parental responses. Socialization researchers agree that the family unit is the primary agent for socialization among pre-adolescent children. Moreover, evidence suggests that family orientations and behaviors differ markedly across cultures. We believe that three particular aspects of parent-child interaction should be strongly related to patterns of children's requests and parental responses: the degree and nature of affect linking parents and children; patterns of dependence; and types of control mechanisms.

Based on various studies, the primary differences in these three areas of socialization across countries are summarized in Exhibit 1. Regarding affective relations, American families are more likely to be verbal and expressive, while Japanese families are less likely to express affect verbally, despite the fact that Japanese children are more indulged than children in other cultures (Caudill and Schodler 1973, Conroy et al. 1980). Harmony is stressed in Japanese families (Shigaki 1983), while conflict is expected in American families (Conroy et al. 1980). In contrast, relatively low levels of affect characterize British families, which score lowest on nuturance and warmth.



Regarding dependence, American families seek to encourage children to be independent and to "stand out" from the crowd; in contrast, Japanese children are encouraged to "stand in" with culturally-defined groups and lifelong emotional dependence on the family is encouraged (Weisz et al. 1984). Among British families, independence is stressed, and British children come to identify with peer groups at an earlier age than children in the other cultures (Devereux et al. 1969. Devereux 1970).

Finally, families in the three cultures differ in the extent and nature of control exerted. American families are more likely to use psychological rewards and punishments, and to employ guilt-inducing methods (Devereux et al. 1969). Japanese families are least likely to employ direct physical punishments and guilt-inducement. Rather, Japanese parents rely on persuasion and reasoning (Conroy et al. 1980). One author notes that American children are often punished by forced realignment with the family (being "grounded"), while an extreme punishment in a Japanese family might be to lock the child outside the house (Weisz et al. 1984). British families are unlikely to use guilt-inducing mechanisms, but most likely to employ physical punishments (Devereux et al. 1969).


Based on these streams of research, and using past U.S. research as a benchmark, we Pose the following hypotheses:

H1: Japanese children should make fewer requests of their parents, but their parents should most often agree to buy requested products, compared to children in the U.S. or in Britain.

More than American or British children, Japanese children are encouraged to be respectful and harmonious in the family, and purchase requests may be viewed as "pushy"; however, since Japanese parents are highly indulgent of their children, they should most often agree to buy requested items. (It may be that there is a threshold effect, in that too many requests by Japanese children may be viewed as disrespectful, and threatening to parental authority and family harmony.)

H2: Parental agreement to buy requested products will increase with age.

Children become more skillful in their asking behavior with age: they more clearly define products they want, and probably become more adept at asking for things they want. We expect this skill to develop with age among all children, regardless of culture.

H3: Heavy-viewing Japanese and British children should request more products than heavy-viewing American children.

American children are more likely to be exposed to television advertising than their Japanese or British counterparts, since commercial broadcast is far more prevalent in the U.S. than in Japan or Britain. Heavy television viewing has been related to frequency of requests (Atkin 1975). However, American children should be satiated with television commercials, compared to children in the other countries. Television advertising may still be relatively novel to Japanese and British children. Consequently, we expect heavy-viewing children in these countries to be more affected by television advertising, and to make more requests than heavy-viewing American children.

H4: Parental responses of "discussion" and "negotiation" should decrease with age.

Research among American children suggests that parents of young children - up to about age seven--are more likely to discuss consumption issues with their children than are parents o f older children. For older children, parents most often expect direct and indirect modelling to affect children's consumer socialization. Although there may be some differences in the degree of "expressiveness" among families in the three cultures studied here, we do not expect differences by country in the relative incidence of negotiation and discussion as children mature.

Research Design and Measures

Mothers kept diaries to record one child's purchase request behavior and parental responses over a two-week period in the spring and summer of 1984. A separate diary was maintained to record the focal child's TV watching behavior, and a separate questionnaire was administered at the end of the two-week period to collect demographic information and other data relating to parent and child attitudes and behaviors.

The sample consisted of 267 families in three countries: the U.S. (n=84), Japan (n=118) and Great Britain (n=65). All were two-parent, middle- to upper-middle class households with 2-4 children present. In each family, one child's behavior was observed. The age ranges were 3-4, 5-7 and 8-10 years old, roughly corresponding to preoperational and concrete operational stages of cognitive development.

Measures and procedures were based on an earlier diary study among American children (Isler, Popper and Ward 1979). Japanese and British colleagues served as study coordinators in their own countries. The diaries were translated into Japanese, and selected portions backtranslated; the British questionnaire was adapted slightly. Mothers were asked to record each purchase request made by the child, and to indicate the nature of responses via closed-end items. Measures included how children asked, and, of interest in this study, how parents responded: positive yielding includes "unqualified yes," "yes with discussion," and "yes, with negotiation." Negative responses include "absolute no," "no with discussion," "no with negotiation," and "deferment." Children's television viewing was measured in terms of total minutes of commercial broadcasting recorded over the two-week period by the parent completing the diary.


We hypothesized that Japanese children should make the fewest requests of their parents, but their parents should most often agree to buy requested products, compared to children in other countries.

Purchase request levels in the three countries were compared by a one-way analysis of variance, which revealed a significant main effect by country (p<.05). Mean requests for the total sample were 8.81 requests over the study period in Japan, 19.17 in the U.S. and 14.66 in Great Britain.

Regarding parental agreement to buy requested products, results were as hypothesized: Japanese parents agreed to their children's purchase requests more than U.S. or British parents. This relationship holds when total number of requests is controlled by assessing agreement to buy as a percentage of total requests (see Table 1). The data indicate that Japanese parents are particularly likely simply to agree to buy ("unqualified yes") compared to parents in other countries, while the incidence of discussion and negotiation are roughly comparable across the three countries.



The second hypothesis was that parental agreement to buy would increase with age, and this relationship would hold across cultures. Data in Table 1 show results in the expected direction. Differences between agreement to buy products requested by youngest children (3-4 years old) and oldest children (8-10 years old) are as hypothesized, and significant in each country (p<.05).

Greater parental agreement to buy products which older children request may reflect the fact that they make fewer, and perhaps more selective requests. Also operating may be the "passive dictation" phenomenon (Wells 1966), i.e., that parents come to know children's favorite products and brands, so that older children do not have to make requests as frequently.

The third hypothesis was for differential effects of "heavy viewership," since American children may be satiated with commercials, while British and Japanese children may find them more novel, and consequently, may be more sensitive to increased exposure to commercials.

In Japan, only 3-4 year-olds show significant differences in frequency of requests as a function of amount of commercial viewing, and in Great Britain, only 5-7 year-olds show such effects. It may be that, in Japan, the higher levels of requests among youngest children reflect the greater propensity of Japanese parents to yield to young children's product desires, while in Great Britain, the failure to find differential effects may simply reflect the tendency for British children to become more peer-centered, and less family-centered, than children in other countries (Devereux 1969).



The final hypothesis was that parental responses involving "discussion" and "negotiation" should decrease with age. Previous research among American children has shown that verbal interaction is more prevalent with younger children, while older children should be expected to understand parental reasoning, and to be responsive to more indirect cues, viz., modeling parental consumer behaviors (Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1972).

Results are shown in Table.3. Whine ANOVA results indicate age-related differences in the uses of discussion (p=.006) and negotiation (p=.02), significant differences were found only between 3-4 and 8-10 year-olds in Japan for discussion (O=.03) and for negotiation (p<.01).



Although we did not hypothesize differences between countries in the use of "discussion" and "negotiation", results in Table 3 suggest that Japanese parents are less likely than American and British parents to use these verbal responses.


Previous research among U.S. children has shown that many aspects of consumer socialization vary strongly by age. The present findings indicate that these age differences hold across cultures. and that culture itself is an important variable determining differences in parent-child interaction regarding consumption. Literature contrasting parent-child relationships in different countries suggests that Japanese parents are more indulgent of their children, and our data support this notion, and suggest that one form of indulgence is to agree to buy things which children request. Another age-country interaction is seen in the incidence of negotiation and discussion. While the trend across countries is for less negotiation and discussion among older children, American parents are more likely to use these responses than are British and Japanese parents.

On the other hand, some aspects of parent-child interaction involving consumption appear to hold across cultures: our data indicate that parents of older children are more likely to agree to buy requested products, and this holds for all countries in our study.

In future research, we plan to analyze some further determinants of patterns of parent-child interaction within and across cultures. We gathered data concerning general aspects of parent-child interaction, and these measures should add to our understanding of the determinants of children's request behavior and parental responses in different country settings.


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