Children’S Influence on Family Purchase Behavior: the Role of Family Structure

ABSTRACT - The impact of new family structures (single versus one parent, two versus one income, high versus low working hours, small versus large size) on children’s influence on family purchase decision-making is measured in a sample of 186 parents of children between 9 and 13. Children’s influence is conceptualized as relative influence, choice and consumption autonomy, parent yielding behavior, and socio- and concept-orientation of parents. The results show that contemporary family structures have a minor impact on the influence of children in various decision-making processes, except in some cases for products such as candy, snacks, CD’s and children’s wear.


Maggie Geuens, Gitte Mast, and Patrick De Pelsmacker (2002) ,"Children’S Influence on Family Purchase Behavior: the Role of Family Structure", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 130-135.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 130-135


Maggie Geuens, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Ghent University, Belgium

Gitte Mast, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Belgium

Patrick De Pelsmacker, Universiteit Antwerpen Management School, Belgium


The impact of new family structures (single versus one parent, two versus one income, high versus low working hours, small versus large size) on children’s influence on family purchase decision-making is measured in a sample of 186 parents of children between 9 and 13. Children’s influence is conceptualized as relative influence, choice and consumption autonomy, parent yielding behavior, and socio- and concept-orientation of parents. The results show that contemporary family structures have a minor impact on the influence of children in various decision-making processes, except in some cases for products such as candy, snacks, CD’s and children’s wear.


Children constitute three different markets: a primary, an influencer and a future market (McNeal, 1992, Zollo, 1995). The primary market concerns the direct purchases of a child. Belgian children and teenagers (9-18 ears old) dispose of a weekly allowance of 7.9 EUR (De Pelsmacker, Van den Bergh, and Verhaegen, 1998). Children in Germany spend about DM 4 billion on a yearly basis (Villwock, 1997), while American children aged between four and twelve spend about $ 24 billion directly (McNeal, 1998). Besides an important primary and future market, youngsters also form a huge secondary market by influencing family purchases (McNeal, 1998). As soon as they have developed the necessary communication skills, children try to influence family purchase decisions (Gunter and Furnham, 1998). Often these attempts are successful. For example, children’s brand requests for children’s wear prove to have more influence on mothers than advertising (Anonymous, 2000). The American indirect market of children between four and twelve is estimated to amount to $ 188 billion (McNeal, 1998). Children not only co-decide on products for themselves, but also on where to go on holiday, which restaurant to visit and which car to buy (Valkenburg, 1999). On average children ask their parents for about 17 products per month (Ward, Robertson, Klees and Gatignon, 1985), a practice labeled "pester power" (Zollo, 1995).

The objective of the current study is to tap further into this influencer-market phenomenon. More specifically, we would like to investigate if current changes in family structure (one-parent families, two out-working parents, more busy parents, and less children) impact the degree of influence children have on family decision making. Indeed, although in recent years family structures have changed considerably, this factor is usually ignored. Most marketing activities and studies focus on the traditional family (Pillot de Chenecy, 2000) and do not pose the question if family composition matters. Therefore, children’s degree of co-decision making in traditional families (two parents, two children, father out-working and mother taking care of the household) will be compared to the decision making in newer family structures. First, the concept of children’s influence will be outlined. Next, the changing family structure in contemporary society will be discussed, followed by research hypotheses, research methodology, presentation and discussion of the results.


When studying the influencer-market phenomenon, a first question is how to conceptualize the word 'influence’. Rossiter (1978) distinguishes between active and passive influence. Active influence means that the child wants to influence purchase decisions in a direct way by recommending, hinting and/or asking for things (McNeal, 1999). Passive dictation, on the other hand, means that parents are influenced by what they experience their children prefer or need (Wells, 1965). A mother experiencing that her toddler enjoys a specific meal will be more increased to buy or cook this particular food again (Mehrotra and Torges, 1977). Passive influence is mostly unconscious and as a consequence difficult to observe and measure. Therefore, the current study focuses exclusively on active influence.

Active influence can be measured in different ways. A first possibility is to compare preferences of different family members with actual family purchases (Ekstrom, Tansujah and Foxman; 1986). However, this requires either a long-term observation or a good memory and honesty of the different family members. Therefore, it is more common to have children and/or parents evaluate on a scale to what extent different family members exert influence on the buying decision of different types of products. Ward, Wackman and Wartella (1977), for example, developed a scale to measure the consumption autonomy of children, consisting of three different constructs: the degree of children’s independence of product choice, the degree of children’s independence of product purchase and the degree to which parents yield to product requests. Also for this method it has to be added that honesty cn be a problem. Children as compared to parents, for example, usually seem to overestimate their influence (Foxman and Tansujah, 1988).

Besides probing directly for which product categories children co-decide, the impact of children could also be measured indirectly. The degree of socio- and concept-orientation of parents can be considered as a proxy for children’s influence on family purchase decisions. A high socio-orientation means that parents think children should respect them, should avoid disagreements, and should suppress their opinions on matters that are not of their concern (Moschis and Moore, 1978). Parents with a high concept-orientation encourage their children to evaluate different alternatives before taking a decision and confront them with disagreement on a certain decision. Originally developed to measure political socialization (McLeod and O’Keefe, 1972), the socio- and concept-orientation scales have been adapted to and are extensively used in marketing contexts (Moschis, Moore and Smith, 1984, Carlson, Grossbart and Tripp, 1990, Palan, 1998, etc.). The adapted scales measure, for example, the extent to which parents tell their children what to buy or not to buy (socio-orientation) and the extent to which children’s opinions are taken into account when making a purchase decision (concept-orientation). To conclude, the higher the concept-orientation and the lower the socio-orientation, the more influence children exert on family decision-making.

On the basis of the foregoing, we decided to conceptualize a child’s active influence in a very broad way, including the three dimensions of Ward et al. (1977) (the degree of children’s independence of product choice, the degree of children’s independence of product purchase and the degree to which parents yield to product requests) as well as the indirect proxies socio- and concept-orientation.

The extent to which a child influences family purchase decisions depends on several factors, the most important of which are product type and family characteristics. Children have a lot of influence on purchase decisions for children products such as snacks (Ahuja, 1993: B÷cker, 1986), toys (Frideres, 1973), children’s wear (Foxman and Tansujah, 1988) and cereals (Belch et al., 1985). However, children not only co-decide on children products, but also have an influence on holiday decisions and which restaurant to visit (Valkenburg, 1999). It has to be added, though, that children do not have a large impact on instrumental decisions (how much to spend, where and when to buy, etc), but rather on expressive decisions such as color, model and brand (Belch et al., 1985; Darley and Lim, 1986). With respect to the impact of social class and family size on family decision-making, research findings are inconclusive. Some researchers find an increasing influence of children the higher the social class of the parents (Mehrotra and Torges, 1977), while others do not observe a significant relation (Atkins, 1978, Jenkins, 1979). With regard to family size, several researchers (Dunne, 1999, Mehrotra and Torges, 1977) claim that children’s influence increases with family size, although Ward et al. (1977) do not confirm this.


Several shifts in family structure can be witnessed. First of all, divorces occur more and more frequently. Secondly, the number of one-income families diminishes to the advantage of two-income families affecting amongst other the number of hours a week parents work. Finally, birth rate has fallen, leading to smaller families.

Divorces. Almost half of Western European marriages result in a divorce, leading to an increase of families with single parents, mostly women. Notwithstanding the foregoing, weddings remain popular and many people marry again and become stepparents (Raad van Europa, 1997). For the U.S, the situation is very similar. Almost 41% of American children grown up in the eighties and nineties have witnessed te divorce of their parents (Bengston, 2001). These data also hold for Canada (Gouvernement du Quebec, 2000) and the U.K. For the latter, the two-parent family almost has become an endangered species (Handel, 1999). It goes without saying that a divorce has important consequences for every member of the family, including the children. Children of single parents often have to take over or assist with adult tasks (Hahlo, 1999). Darley and Lim (1986) found that single parents allow more influence for certain leisure activities, while Ahuja (1993) claims that adolescents from single parent families more often take part in consumption activities and decisions.

Two income families and number of working hours. Another important change in traditional family structure is the shift from the one- to the two-income model (Van Wichelen, 2000). In Flanders (Belgium), the latter (with 60% of the households) is the dominant model (Merckx et al., 1997). The most important consequence of the shift towards more two-income families is an increase in workload. For instance, in Flanders, in almost 20% of the two-income families with at least one child, both partners together work on average 74 hours a week (Merckx et al., 1997). Especially for women the combination of household tasks and a professional job leads to an increase in working hours (Bracke, 1997). In two-income families, as is the case with single-parent families, it can be expected that children become responsible for adult tasks, such as taking care of their younger siblings (Hahlo, 1999).

Number of children per family. In Belgium, the birth rate declined from 2.4 in 1990 to 1.14 children per family in 1999, families with no children included (Wegnez, 2000). The fewer children per family, the more money can be spent on each child, leading to an increase in purchase power for each. Although the results of Ward et al. (1977) point in this direction, not all research results are equivocal on this matter. Dunne (1999) and Mehrotra and Torges (1977), for example, found that the influence of children on the purchase decision of cereals, chips, and holidays increases the more siblings they have.


The objective of the current study is to find out whether changes in family structure (one versus two parents, one versus two out-working parents, more or less than 74 combined working hours per week, and more or less than two children per family) have an impact on the influence of children on the consumption behavior of their parents. Research on this subject is scarce, and the few studies that have been carried out usually focused either on adolescents and not on children, or on only one or a few product categories (holidays, cereals). Since both the age of children and the product category seem to be important factors for the impact children have on family decisions, the current study is confined to children aged 9 to 13, while several product categories are taken into account.


Based on the fact that children seem to have more influence on the buying process for products for children than for adults (Ahuja, 1993, Belch et al., 1985, B÷cker, 1986, Darley and Lim, 1986, Foxman and Tansujah, 1988) and that older children have more influence than younger children (Dunne, 1999, Rust, 1993, Sherry et al. 1999), we assume that especially for children aged between 9 and 13 influence on family decisions will be limited to children’s products. Concerning family structure, it can be expected that children have to take over adult tasks and gain more influence in one- as compared to two-parent families (Hahlo, 1999), in two- versus one-income families and in families with a stronger workload (Hahlo, 1999, Merckx, 1997). For one-parent families it has aready been confirmed that children (mainly adolescents) gain in decision influence for some products (Ahuja, 1993, Darley and Lim, 1986). We expect the same to happen in two-income and heavy workload families. Finally, for smaller families less influence of children is expected since the results of previous studies point to more influence the more siblings are in the family (Dunne, 1999, Mehrotra and Torges, 1977). Based on the foregoing, following hypotheses are advanced:

The relative influence of the child for specific products (especially children’s products), the consumption autonomy of children and the concept-orientation of parents are higher while the socio-orientation of parents is lower

H1: in two-income families as compared to one-income families

H2: in one-parent as compared to two-parent families

H3: in large families as compared to small families

H4: the more hours per week parents work


Respondents. Questionnaires are handed out in Flemish schools to 186 children aged between 9 and 13 and collected again the day after. Each questionnaire consisted of two parts: one to be filled in by the child and another to be filled in by one of the parents. In total, 134 valid pairs of questionnaires are collected, of which 88.3% are completed by the mother. The mean age of the parents is 40 years. Since the correlation between the answers of the children and their parents typically exceeded .90 (p<.001), the analyses described in this paper only deal with the questionnaire filled out by the parents.

Independent variables. As independent variables, the number of children, one-parent versus two-parent families, one-income versus two-income families and working hours of the parents were measured. 8.2% of the parents have one child, 43.3% have two children, 32.1% three and 16.4% four or more. On the basis of this, we distinguish small and large families depending on whether they have one or two versus more than two children. Of the 134 participating families 11 are one-parent and 123 are two-parent families. Of the 123 two-parent families 20 are one-income and 102 two-income families. The average joint workload for parents in the two-parent families amounts to 78 hours a week. Therefore, a distinction is made in parents with a heavy workload or not depending on whether they work more or less than 78 hours a week.

Dependent measures. A child’s active influence is conceptualized as the relative influence of the child versus the parents for different product categories, the consumption autonomy of a child, and the concept- and socio-orientation of the parents. The scale to measure the Relative Influence is based on Foxman and Tansujah (1988) who probed the relative influence for decisions concerning 14 different products. Of these 14 products six pertain to family products (computer, groceries, furniture, tooth paste, car and cable television subscription). Since in Belgium cable television is not really applicable (almost everyone has a subscription), this item was replaced by 'restaurant’. Moreover, six children products are enlisted (records, computer, tooth paste, bicycle, magazine subscription). Records are updated into CD’s and also cereals are included in the present study. Finally, two products can be classified as adult products (men’s and women’s wear, and magazine subscription). For each product the relative influence is measured by means of a 5-point Likert type scale (1=decision only influenced by parents, 5=decision only influenced by children). Consumption Autonomy is measured using the three scales developed by Ward et al. (1977): (a) the degree of children’s independence of product choice (5 items measured on a 4-point scale: my child chooses, my child chooses but talks it over with me, I choose but talk it over with my child, I choose), (b) the degree of children’s independence of product purchase (10 items e.g.: 'if my child asks for one of the following products and uses its own money to buy it, I agree’, measured on a 7-point scale going from 1=never, to 7=always), and (c) the degree to which parents yield to product requests (5 items e.g.: 'If my child asks for one of the following products, I give in’, measured on a 7-point scale going from 1=never to 7=always). Each scale taps into five different product categories: candy, toys/games, comic strips/magazines, snacks, and sportswear. Coefficient Alpha’s for the three scales are .65, .88 and .71 respectively. An average score across the scale items is calculated. Socio- and Concept-Orientation are measured by means of the scales developed by Moschis, Moore and Smith (1984) and adapted by Carlson et al. (1990). The socio-orientation scale consists of six items; the concept-orientation scale is composed of seven items. Both scales are measured on a five point Likert type scale (for example, 'I tell my child what to buy’, 1=I always do this, 5=I never do this). Coefficient Alpha for both scales is sufficiently high (.71 and .67 respectively). A mean score across the scale items is calculated to measure socio- and concept-orientation.


To test the hypotheses, independent samples t-tests were carried out with family structure (one versus two-parents, one versus two-income, more or less than 78 hours workload and two children or less and three or more children) as independent variables and relative influence, consumption autonomy (independence of purchase and indulgence) and concept- and socio-orientation as dependent variables. For the variable 'choice independence’ chi square analyses were carried out. The results for product categories for which at least one significant result was found, are summarized in Table 1.

On the basis of the results, the hypotheses have to be largely rejected. As far as the number of parents in a family is concerned, only the socio- and concept-orientation of the two groups of families differ. Single parents have a significantly higher average on both orientations (3.62 vs. 3.34, p=.051, 3.23 vs. 2.90, p=.057, respectively). This is partially contradictory to the hypothesis, as only a higher concept-orientation was expected for single parents. No differences in the relative influence of children on the purchase decision or the yielding behavior of parents could be found between the two groups of families.

For one- versus two-income families, a difference in relative influence of children could only be found for one product. One-income families more often allow their children to co-decide which toothpaste to buy for the family (2.18 vs. 1.78, p=.044). Generally speaking, this is in line with expectations. For other products, no impact could be found. Neither concept- or socio-orientation, nor yielding behavior differs between the two categories of families.

Maybe it is not so much the income differences (resulting from both parents working) that count, but rather the extent to which parents are busy. The results only very partially confirm this hypothesis. The more the parents work, the more influence their children have on the purchase of some children’s products. For the purchase of CD’s, children of parents working less than 78 hours per week have less influence than parents working over 78 hours (3.49 vs. 3.90, p=.027). A similar result can be found for the purchase of children’s wear (3.00 vs. 3.33, p=.056). Again, socio- and concept-orientation and yielding behavior are not influenced by the workload of the parents. Clearly, the latter variables are not so much influenced by the time or money parents have, but rather by the fact whether parents face their children alone or with two.

As far as the number of children in a family is concerned, most results are contradictoryto expectations. Although in larger families, children seem to exert a greater influence on the toothpaste purchase decision (2.00 vs. 1.72, p=.063), their relative influence on cereals, a typical children’s product, is lower (3.44 vs. 3.85, p=.015). Also the inclination of parents to yield to their children’s preferences is lower in larger families than in smaller ones (3.69 vs. 4.13, p=.042). As to the influence of family size on independence of choice, two significant effects are found that are again contradictory to expectations. For candy, children of small families have more independence of choice. In 67.6% of families with two children or less, kids can choose themselves which candy they want after discussing it with their parents, compared to 50.8% in larger families (p=.032).

Only in 8.8% of small families, the parents make the final decision. In large families, parents are the decision-makers in 27% of the cases. The same can be concluded for the independence of choice for snacks. According to the parents of a small family, children can more often choose their snack themselves than is stated by parents of a large family (75% vs. 49,2%, p=.016). Parents more often choose the snack for their children in large families compared to small families (39.7% vs. 17,6%).




On the basis of the findings it can be concluded that in this sample family structure variables only have a minor impact on the role of children in purchase decision-making. As hypothesized, single parents more often try to reach a consensus compared with the traditional two-parent family, who is more protective in its approach. The unexpected higher socio-orientation of single parent families can perhaps be explained by the fact that single parents more often search for consensus, encouraging their children to be interested in many things (high concept-orientation) without allowing them to disturb the internal harmony and hierarchy in the family (high socio-orientation). In contrast, when two parents discuss something with their child, they often feel supported by each other, and will thus allow less input to their child and expect more obedience. There is hardly any significant influence of the income level on children’s influence on buying decisions. Maybe it is not so much the income that is important, but rather the lack of time resulting from the fact that, to earn this income, parents both have to work more hours. Indeed, in families in which the parents work more hours, children have more impact on the buying decision of CD’s and children’s wear. Maybe parents working longer want to compensate their absence by giving more influence power to their children when buying cool, desirable and not so cheap products like CD’s and clothes. Finally, and contrary to expectations, children in smaller families seem to have more impact on buying decisions, especially for children’s products like candy and snacks. Also parents more easily yield to the desires of their children. Maybe these results can be explained by the fact that parents of a small family can more easily buy various things to satisfy the desire of the single kid or each of the two kids for sweets, a snack or cereals. With three children or more, this becomes more difficult.

Although the study was conducted for a broad range of product categories, it has a number of limitations. The study was only conducted in a small sample of young children and mainly their mothers in a part of Belgium. Moreover, only a very small sample of single parent (11 versus 123 two-parent families) and single income families (20 as opposed to 102 double income families) was obtained. The results could be confirmed by replicating the study in larger samples and in different cultural settings. Furthermore, a number of variables may moderate the influence of family structures, such as socio-demographic factors of the family (gender age, level of education, social class, life style, age of parents, see e.g. Jenkins, 1979, B÷cker, 1986), and characteristics of the child, such as its personality, gender and age (see e.g. Dunne, 1999; Rust, 1993; Sherry, Greenberg and Tokinoya, 1999). Reliable implications for marketing managers can only be formulated after more extensive research in these directions.


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Maggie Geuens, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Ghent University, Belgium
Gitte Mast, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Belgium
Patrick De Pelsmacker, Universiteit Antwerpen Management School, Belgium


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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