How my kids taught me to be a better consumer advocate

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By Christopher Elliott

How good are your reading comprehension skills? How patient are you? How willing are you to forgive other people’s shortcomings? How good are your advocacy skills. If you’re not sure, you can borrow one of my kids for the day. They’ll help.

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a long time — at least 14 years. That’s how long I’ve had kids. I’ve learned that children can teach you as much as you can teach them, and perhaps more. Specifically, how to pay attention, be slow to anger and quick to forgive.

These are all lessons we need, now more than ever, as consumers. Too often, we as advocates see customers take the easy route, act entitled and then burn with a hot rage when they don’t get what they want. Those reactions will not serve you well in Consumerland.

Do you get it?

I credit my son, Iden, for helping me comprehend the importance of reading comprehension. Iden loves to watch YouTube but strongly dislikes reading. At the age of 12, that’s pretty normal. But as his homeschool teacher, I’ve realized the dangers of glossing over a textbook, as he’s prone to do. On his last series of tests, he missed almost as many reading comprehension questions as he got right.

“Why do I have to read the book?” he asked. “Why can’t I just watch the movie.”

Hasn’t every parent had a similar conversation with their child? And what do you say? Sure, the information may be delivered in a more palatable way when you watch the film adaptation of a classic book. But you miss out on a lot of important details that no film can convey.

You might be able to gloss over your middle school textbooks and get a passing grade, I explained. But every day as a consumer advocate, I work with people who lack basic reading comprehension skills, who are duped by the fine print in a contract. They either didn’t read, or they read and failed to understand.

Lesson learned? Develop reading comprehension skills early in life. They will serve you well. (Related: A few very important comments about your comments.)

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Wait for it!

I surely can’t be the first person to tell you that kids teach you how to be patient. So let me add my voice to the chorus. They do — and how! My daughter, Erysse, seems to know the exact moment I’ll transition between impatience and fury, and she finds it with ease. For example, today she waited until the last minute to finish her homework assignment, just as I was about to reach the point of exasperation. How nice of her!

But I’m thankful, because her persistence is the emotional equivalent of weight training. The constant resistance builds your endurance until you can outlast any opponent — even a 10-year-old girl.

Consumers are so impatient, particularly when it comes to having their concerns addressed. They want everything done now. Companies exploit our impatience, offering stingy resolutions if only you will sign on the dotted line. Too often, we don’t hold out for the right resolution. As a consumer advocate I had to learn that early in life.

“I forgive you”

Kids can also test your capacity for forgiveness. When they misbehave or fall short of your expectations, your first instinct may be to hold them accountable. But the right instinct is often to forgive. My middle son, Iden, has made me keenly aware of that fact. He’s the family prankster, and I have been accused more than once of not having a sense of humor. By kids, mostly. You can probably see where this is going.

Anyway, I see a lot of parallels in the consumer world. People who have been wronged by a company hold onto their anger, promising to tell all their friends about their experience and to never darken the door of that company’s stores.

Perhaps the business deserves their wrath, but being angry takes a lot of energy. Wouldn’t it be better to find a different company and to get on with your life?

I’m thankful for the lessons my kids teach me. They not only help me be a better consumer, but also a better consumer advocate. I know that my time with them is limited, and I value every day that I can spend with them.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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