Why I ...

December 25, 1998

I think children should learn economics well before Christmas

There is a link between the toys children pester their parents for at Christmas, how the economy works and how it can manipulate us. Children should be taught economics to equip them to make choices in the real world.They cannot be taught too young.

Toy-makers want to capitalise on characters made popular in films. The supply of toys is restricted in the Christmas run-up, just as children, fuelled by peer-group pressure and advertising, are pestering parents for this year's "must-have" toy. This cynical process creates a captive market hungry for the product.

In economics, we describe this situation as inelastic demand. Christmas is also an opportunity for discriminating monopoly, where different prices can be charged because products control the market.

If a child is clamouring for a must-have toy, knowing the mechanics of market manipulation might not make much difference in the short term. But if we were able to teach basic economics to children as part of the national curriculum - that would start to make a difference. Would you prefer to have this toy or go to a theme park? Both cost money, and you must choose. If you buy one thing, it means you cannot have something else.Children do not have to spend their money - or their parents' money - on a particular toy that is being hyped and in short supply. There are other choices.

The economic awareness programme at the Institute of Education in London seeks to spread such ideas in the classroom. It is about helping children understand the effects of advertising and equipping them to make informed choices. I think the national curriculum should foster economic awareness as a fundamental part of citizenship.

There is very good work being done to encourage understanding. Christian Aid markets The World Trade Game - which shows how the world's rich nations manage to get all the resources. There are imaginative materials available. Every year there is a craze for a must-have Christmas toy, and I think we owe it to children to explain how their strings are being pulled.

Linda Thomas

Pro vice-chancellor at Brunel University and co-founder of the Economic Awareness Teacher Training Programme at the Institute of Education, London

* Interview by Helen Hague

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