For those of you with young children, think back over the media aimed at families that you’ve seen in the past week. Television, magazines, ads placed next to your Facebook feed, and so forth.
How many ads can you recall promote a product for children? Toys, clothing, vitamins, sports equipment….
How many ads or even plain images can you recall promote just being a kid? Running, jumping, making up stories, dancing to no music, making swords out of sticks, singing nursery rhymes?
There’s an overwhelming message in our society that children’s culture is consumer culture.
Somewhere in the timeline of families becoming more child-centered and the advent of family social time being focused on watching a television show together, companies started researching marketing tactics that hooked consumers at an earlier age. Companies like Disney have spent huge sums of money finding ways to create “cradle to grave” brand loyalty. Studies show that infants as young as 6 months can recognize brand logos, and splashing a nursery with corporate characters just reinforces those connections in developing brains.
Food with cartoon characters featured on the packaging is placed at a child’s eye level, and before we know it, a toddler has to have a Frozen dress and lunchbox and listens to the soundtrack in the car and eats Frozen-themed chicken nuggets and gets Frozen toys in the drive-through. As busy parents we think we are making choices for our kids, but in reality the corporations behind child marketing are making the choice for us if we are mindless consumers ourselves.
The first step in minimizing the effect of childhood marketing is to minimize the exposure.
In 2011, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90% of parents said their children under 2 watched some form of electronic media one to two hours per day. At the time the academy recommended no screen time for children under two years of age. Even with the AAP’s recommendation changing in 2016 to allow for families’ habits changing over the years, multiple studies show that sleep patterns and language development are disrupted in children who do have media exposure before age two.
When I was pregnant with my son (nearly 20 years ago) I found myself reading numerous journal and research articles in the neuroscience section of my university library, specifically on then-current studies of infant brain development and the importance of free play and parent interaction.
For me and my son’s father it was easy to choose not to let our baby watch TV – even without my readings and our pediatrician’s recommendation, in our new parent bliss we didn’t want or need our baby in front of a screen. We wanted to play with him, read to him, and cuddle and bathe and sleep. Sure, we recorded new episodes of X-Files to watch on the rare night we weren’t exhausted and the baby was sleeping, and we loved movies, but we were also active, outdoorsy types and were living in a town where it was easy to find like-minded people and things to do.
We mostly had second-hand clothing and selected items that were free of logos or characters. We limited toys and asked that gifts from grandparents were books, or free-building Lego sets when age appropriate. We cooked at home and made baby food by mashing up what we were eating.
For us, then, limiting exposure was the easy part. Or so I smugly thought. I vividly remember a day driving with my baby strapped in his rear-facing car seat, and seeing his little arm excitedly pointing out the window. “Do you see an airplane?” “Unh, unh!” “A car?” “Unh!” What in the world was he looking at?? And then it dawned on me: “Are you pointing at that yellow sign?” “Gai!” (which meant “yes” in his made-up language). He was pointing at the sign of a place he had never been to, never seen a commercial for, and never heard a word about: McDonald’s. Even though we were positive he didn’t actually recognize the logo, he responded to it just as enthusiastically as if we’d gone there the day before.
From that point on we became much more proactive with our anti-consumer endeavors. It was no longer good enough to keep our kiddo in our little bubble until he was walking and speaking actual English instead of a mishmash of sign and his own language, because he already understood way more about the world around him that we’d expected.
Like many issues we as parents face with our children, it’s important to talk. Repeatedly. At different ages and throughout our children’s lives.
We started calling out various marketing ploys we saw wherever we went. At the grocery store, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? See how easy it is for you to reach the toys? That’s because the store wants you to like that toy.” “But I do like that toy!” “And we can visit it next time we come here to get food.”
Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? The store wants you to think that you need that toy.” “But what if I do need that toy?” “Do you have a toy at home?” “Yes!” “Then you want that toy, you don’t need it, and that’s okay, we’ll visit this toy the next time we come here to get food.”
Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? You know how the store wants you to like that toy so you will buy it? Let’s try to find how many other places you can find that same character in the store. How many times does this store try to make you buy that toy?”
Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display? Remember when you were little and really wanted that toy? Would you still play with it today?”
It’s also important to talk about the different types of messages used in marketing – and not just marketing directed at kids.
It’s simple to spot toy product placement, but messages about what we as humans need in order to be happy is force fed all of us every day. Any media we exposed our son to we did very deliberately and talked through the entire thing – every radio commercial, every videotaped children’s movie, even books.
We talked about how these things made us feel. We talked about what the intent might be (of the author, or the commercial writer, or the movie character that just said something worth discussing). We talked about the things our family valued (always being able to talk to each other, honesty, being kind, being true to ourselves and standing up for what we believe is right). We talked about how the message in whatever we were passively interacting with fit into our family’s idea of a healthy world.
The first time I realized that all my ramblings did in fact have meaning to our son, we were once again driving, listening to the radio, when suddenly after a truck commercial a little voice announced, “Oh MAN! That one GOT me! That GM vehicle really got me! I really want a GM vehicle now!”
Realize that it’s not just messages about stuff that reinforce the idea we need to buy in to a certain way of living to be happy.
Here’s where you might think I’m a nut, and as with all things parenting, take the pieces that work for your family and leave the rest 🙂
As a toddler my son loved purple and glitter, loved trucks and construction equipment, loved his toenails painted like his friends, loved playing with sticks as if they were swords, and loved his weekly dance class. Every week I overheard other moms speaking in hushed horror that they’d never let their son wear nail polish and a sparkly shirt. Sometimes other kids would ask if he was a girl, and he’d cheerfully say, “Nope, I like this shirt when I dance, it’s fun!”
When we went clothes shopping, we talked about how the stores decide what is for boys and what is for girls when it comes to t-shirt colors. I remember more than once uttering, “Target is trying to tell you girls don’t like football and boys don’t like purple. I think that should be your decision about your body.”
We also discussed that most families didn’t think the same way as we did, so other kids might say “boy” colors or “girl” colors, and that’s okay for them if that is what makes them feel happy. Because these were concepts we’d talked about for years, our kiddo had no problem being confident in his choices and explaining them to anyone who asked. His wardrobe changed quite a bit over the years, but his ability to find his own way without worrying about what society expected of him remained steady.
Don’t get me wrong, our son was still a material-driven kid — he’s collected things over the years from Legos to Hot Wheel cars to Yu-Gi-Oh playing cards to video games to computer parts to bicycles, in roughly that order. But he can tell me exactly why he chose to let every single one of those items into his life. He also has no trouble letting those things leave his life once he’s moved on (um… I’m the one that still has a tote full of cars and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and I hope he never outgrows his Legos!).
It’s not just what we buy, but why that makes us mindless spenders.
I readily admit my parenting experiment was conducted with just one child, but our choices as parents have hopefully helped shaped a discerning consumer. I’m sure he’ll have things happen in his life that shape his relationship with money, just as we all do. I’m hopeful that being able to identify his impulses and how they are affected by his surroundings will be a solid enough foundation to avoid the mindless spending traps so many of us have spent years trying to reverse.