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In a recent classroom discussion I asked my grade seven and eight students what kind of gifts they were hoping to receive this holiday season. Know what their resounding choice was? Gift cards. Why? Because, they said, “the card lets me choose what I want to have.”

Gift cards are hot items this holiday season. Last year, sales of the little plastic rectangles reached $55 billion, making them the top gift item for the first time ever.

Most gift cards are purchased for the 12- to 19-year-old population, which is fast becoming the richest and the smartest consumer group alive. Financial institutions are more than taking notice by offering another type of card marketed directly to teens and children. Both Visa and MasterCard have introduced kids’ debit cards. These cards allow adults to put money in a child’s account and then monitor his or her purchases at the end of each month. Kids can only spend the amount on the card; they cannot go over their spending limit.

Advocates are championing the cards as training tools for prudent financial planning. Teens, of course, love the hassle-free spending the cards afford.

Critics are concerned that the cards are nothing more than “credit card lite.” They say credit card companies are using the product to develop brand loyalty early and that kids are getting the convenience of credit cards without the consequences.

Take a look at and, and you’ll see that big business thinks of kids as consumers in training. “Freedom!” the Hello Kitty card website proclaims for those who want to “shop ’til you drop.” Myplash is “a prepaid MasterCard debit card for fans” with bands like Good Charlotte and Simple Plan pictured on the card. Don’t like them? American Idol champ Clay Aiken’s got a card too. The website promises that the card “connects you to your money and your favorite artist.” Cool slogans like “Rock the Plastic” and “Your Choice, Your Money” hit kids where they live.

My students like the idea of a teen debit card, saying they would look cool in front of their friends if they had one. Evidently the gift and debit card marketers are getting their message out.

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