To Buy In or Not to Buy In


Susan Linn

As kids get older, can they and their friends enjoy commercial-free fun at home?

This is the third post in CCFC's series: Commercial Quandaries for Modern Parents. Click here to read the rest of the series. 

Q: My 3 sons, ages 11, 8, and 4 are starting to spend a lot more time with friends lately. We have limits on screen time at our house and spend most of our toy money on building and thinking toys. But my boys don't seem to want play with their friends at our house and their friends would rather not play here as well. How can we make our house more "fun" for friends without giving in to the hyped up toys, video games, and especially toys from movies that are inappropriate for my children to see?
-Melissa in Utah

A: How frustrating! It is increasingly difficult to shield children from commercialism, even for families making a concerted effort. That’s why CCFC continues to work hard to hold corporations accountable for how they target children. It’s particularly hard when you have children ranging from preschool to preadolescence. While it’s relatively easy to limit commercialism in the life of a single four-year-old, it becomes harder when his adored older siblings are lobbying hard for branded toys, games, and media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions about “how to make your house more ‘fun’” for your children and their friends while staying true to your values about the importance of screen-free, commercial-free time and space. 

  • Engage your kids, particularly the older ones, in solving this problem. Explain your reasoning for keeping your home free from the toys & electronics that trouble you. Encourage your sons to express their opinions and feelings about your decision—and validate their perspective. Children don’t need to get everything they want but it’s always important for them to feel heard and understood. Ask them for suggestions about how to make your house more fun within the parameters of your family values, budget, and space constraints. Then try to accommodate them. 

  • Have some ideas of your own. What are your children’s interests and passions? If they enjoy sports, and you have the space and budget, think about equipment like basketball hoops, skateboards, a trampoline, ping pong, or air hockey. Are your kids mechanically inclined? Invest in blocks, complex building or robotics sets, and give them chances to tinker with old appliances. Are they artistic? Make sure lots of art materials are available. 

  • Seek out families who share your values. Making counter-cultural choices about child-rearing is easier with friends. Adults can share strategies and children know they’re not alone. As kids get older, however, they naturally develop independent friendships, which make controlling what they’re exposed to increasingly difficult. Whether you have community support or not, talk with your sons about the similarities and differences between your family’s choices and the choices that other families make and share your reasons with them. Be prepared for debate. 

  • Remember that children’s interests, concerns, and responses to family values evolve over time. Before the advent of tablets and smart phones, researcher Marina Krcmar wrote a book called Living Without the Screen, in which she interviewed children and adults who had no television in their homes. She found that in early adolescence kids in no-TV homes had a hard time because they believed that watching television was integral to their social life. By the time they reached late adolescence, however, they stopped missing television and embraced their family’s stance. 

Of course, it’s possible you’ve already tried all of these strategies and still find that your children don’t want to spend time in your home. If that’s the case, you have some challenging decisions to make about if, when, whether, and how to allow commercial media, toys, and gadgets into your home. There’s no right answer, nor is there a “one size fits all” resolution to this dilemma. So much of what ends up being best for each of your sons will depend on who they are. Are they leaders or followers? Do they care deeply about what others think of them? Are they extroverts or introverts? Do they enjoy being different or want to blend in? 

Birth order also makes a difference. While it’s possible to limit screen time and content for younger children while allowing older kids to have more choices, many parents find it hard to do. And as children get older choices become more complicated. For instance, if your oldest sons start earning their own money or save their allowance, can they purchase devices that you won’t buy? Your decision will have ramifications not just for them but for your youngest son as well. 

There’s no question that you’re in a challenging situation. What’s most important is that you’re striving to be mindful of the choices you make as a parent. Remember that whatever you decide, your children are benefiting from your thoughtful approach to commercial culture. 


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Imagination is key

I went through this when my four children were young. (They are all adults now.) I tried many things but what finally worked was when I let them start gathering junk and gave them their own half of the yard to do whatever they wanted with. They weren't enthusiastic at first, but after I started tossing unwanted items into a box along with some tools, their curiosity got the better of them and they started taking things apart. Then they began to build things with those parts. They had a blast and the neighborhood kids eventually joined in. It became THE hangout for kids! They asked neighbors and family members to give them items they were going to get rid of, and offered to help clean out sheds and garages in return for unwanted stuff. They collected mountains of junk and used it to build all kinds of things. They designed and built an airport and made "airplanes" from an old picnic table, bikes, and lawnmowers they had dragged home. They made a circus tent from old sheets and blankets, then learned to juggle and tightrope walk so they could put on performances in the tent. It was so much fun! Their half of the yard was a complete mess almost all of the time. I confess - that part was hard. I am very neat and tidy and the mess was somewhat embarrassing. But it was well worth it. And now when my kids talk about all the fun they had in that yard and how they learned to be resourceful, make and carry out plans, connect with neighbors, and learn how things work, I realize that was a much better use of the space than my flowerbeds had ever been. And now that the kids are grown, the mess is gone and the flowers are least until I have grandkids! :-)

Screen free friends

We love our neighbors but have a growing displeasure with get togethers. The older kids in the neighborhood will sit on their iPads during get togethers- even during meal time! Meanwhile my younger child is being exposed to this. I don't feel I can tell her to go into another room away from it but I feel sad and a little angry that she is being exposed to what these older kids are watching and also sad at how really zapped of creativity and fun these get togethers are for the kids. I would never feel comfortable to tell my neighbors that I don't like this but wish I could. I've started thinking that I should try to form a screen free family group so we could have a circle that believes in commercial free childhood. Anyone had success with doing that?

The problem of friends and the un-fun house

This is such a hard one. Honestly, important though I think the values the CCFC promotes are--and they've been very important to our family--it's also important to be able to compromise. Our family started out with no TV, video, or computer games at all, and both my husband and I think that keeping our son's pre-school years was absolutely the best thing we ever did. But it would have been sad to teach him that we cared more about an ideal than we did about his happiness, so when we reached that point where friends no longer wanted to play at our house or with him because he didn't have the "right" toys, we backed off a little. So he had a Nintendo, and at one point spent time playing Minecraft, on his own and with friends. Fitting in is so important to adolescents--you don't want to isolate them, or make them feel like complete weirdos. Our feeling, by the time we started to let screens in, was that we could trust him to understand why we didn't want him to overdo it. We were right. The electronics never became a serious distraction, and at sixteen he now uses them to read about physics and linguistics and history and math. . . .

Commercial Quandries

Hi Melissa, I understand your dilemma! I have a 12 yr old boy and a 9 yr old girl and we also have strict limits on screen time and commercialized toys etc. My daughter has been told a number of times that she 'plays funny', as her preferred way of play is to engage her imagination... eg. 'do you want to pretend we're foals and our mother is sick'. So she has (sadly!) learnt to with withhold her full imagination if certain friends are over. She is at the age now however where if a friend keeps pushing to watch a movie or play video games, even after she's told them they're not allowed, she isn't actually interested in inviting them over again. She's become much more selective and is ok with that!

My son, who has to deal with more requests for game time is getting good at saying 'sorry i'm not allowed to do that when friends are over, do you want to do something else?' He has a tonne of lego, including some second hand robotic lego, that he finds most of his friends really enjoy. Plus they always spend time with a soccer ball and on the trampoline. I've found that they can tend to keep pretty occupied with those things for about 4-5 hrs. What i've also noticed is that because both my kids have developed many ways of entertaining themselves without screens that some of their friends actually really enjoy their company as they do really different things. They've made arcades in their bedrooms for instance, out of lego, slot car etc. The last time they did it they made popcorn and drinks etc and charged the rest of the family to have a go! It was extremely creative and even their friends had an 'awesome' time. I've also found that the more we talk to our kids about the opportunities that open up to them when they're not obsessed by screen time and commercialised products, and the more they see other kids who are obsessed, the more they seem to come up with their own solutions for dealing with the differences. They're already starting to realise that there are real benefits to NOT going down this path. The confidence they get from this seems, at the moment, to be offsetting the negative side of feeling different from certain friends. This is an ongoing dilemma tho and the solutions for one week may not be the same as the following week! I wish you luck in finding a happy balance!


Find a corner in your yard (even if you have to remove landscaping), give them a shovel and a hose and a stack of wood. Every boy in the neighborhood will come running just so they can dig a hole, get muddy and build something.

Just give up on planting there until your boys become teenagers or adults - then you'll have a finely plowed piece of land so you can grow something beautiful (after you've grown beautiful children).