The Thomas Dilemma


Susan Linn

This is the first post in our new series CCFC Q&A: Commercial Quandaries for Modern Parents.

Q: We made the mistake of letting Thomas into our almost-four-year-old's life and now he is obsessed. I like the wooden track as it encourages creativity and problem solving (and there are plenty of non-Thomas trains for it) but I cringe daily at the requests for ever more characters and so forth to add to his collection. I wish I had looked into it more before exposing him to it—we like trains in our family, that's about all the thinking that went into it. Is there any undoing this? I feel as though Britt Allcroft has a firm grip on our son's soul (and our bank account). :( —Jennifer

A: How great that your whole family loves trains and what a thoughtful parent you are. Your dilemma is not unusual for parents raising young children in our hyper-commercialized world. But it certainly is frustrating. We often hear from parents wishing they could reverse a decision to introduce their young children to media icons. Many of these characters are delightful and incredibly appealing to children—the problem is that they are usually also irresistible springboards for a $10 billion brand-licensing business of toys, tech, food, clothing, and accessories. 

You can’t turn back the clock, but here are some suggestions for taking steps to mitigate the problem. As you read through them, remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all for raising children and how you handle this will depend on your child, your budget, and your values:

  • Remember that it’s okay to say no. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge and validate your son’s feelings for the character. Try saying things like “I know you love Thomas, but we don’t want to buy any more. Let’s play with the ones you already have.” If he’s gets upset about it, validate those feelings, too. “I know you’re upset (or sad, or mad), but we think you have enough.” 
  • Try encouraging your son to mix the other trains you own in with his branded trains. You can encourage your son to pretend that the other trains are distant relatives of the Thomas trains. 
  • Encourage him to expand his play with Thomas characters to include more creativity. How about building buildings along the track out of blocks and pipe cleaners. Or making freight out of clay for the trains to carry—anything that expands his play beyond Thomas story lines. 
  • If he asks for new ones after he watches the program, talk to him about that. You can try saying things like, “It seems like watching the program is hard for you because it makes you want to buy more Thomas trains. Do you think you can have fun watching it even if you’re not going to get any more? If not, maybe you should stop.” If you do this, make sure to follow through. 

As your son’s social world expands, you will have increasingly less control over what popular characters he encounters and so it’s good to think ahead about how you want to respond to his request for them. And you can make conscious decisions at home about whether, if, and when you want to introduce your son to other media programs that promote brand-licensed characters. The less they figure into your lives at home, the less nagging you’ll be subjected to! On the other hand, parents often want to take their young children to the movies or have them watch videos. If you do, think about setting limits ahead of time. You can say things like, “It’s okay to watch this, but we’re not going to buy any of the toys.”

I hope these suggestions help. All the best to you and your family.

This is the first in a series of Q&A’s with CCFC staff. If you have a commercial quandary email


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Thanks for answering my question!

This was my question and I so appreciate the response! (Happy to have helped inspire what will be a very useful new q&a series too.) The first and last bullet points are the most helpful (only because the other two are already in effect here, may be helpful to others) - I like the point to validate his love of the characters while gently explaining that we don't want to buy more toys. I didn't want my negative feelings about the commercialism to spoil his fun and enthusiasm and I appreciate the advice.


buy some non Thomas trains and allow him to paint them himself.

Traumatizing commercial

My six year old has been completely traumatized by the woman in black movie add playing on Nickelodeon during the commercials of his favorite show full house. He has called me in his room to shut the tv and cried he can't watch his show because the commercial keeps coming on. The same night...twice so far in the last few weeks.. He has a complete night terror in which he runs around the screaming crying heard racing, tells me he is going to die and can't snap out of it. Then when he does 10 min at least later he cries why do they have to play that on my favorite show. Is add money this damn important that they have to traumatized kids. I thought it was a fluke the first time,,or maybe he had chanced the channel. But no. Tonight my almost 5 Year old called me in screaming too. Nicks is one of two channels I let them watch. That and disney . Now I don't even feel safe letting him watch that. This is NOT OK. my poor son is afraid to sleep in his room now.

Stop asking or no more watching?

Sorry, but the last bulletpoint comes across as a veiled threat. You're essentially telling the child to stop voicing his desires or he'll lose access to something he enjoys. That's not good if you want an honest child.

The more creative solutions, and additionally promoting role swapping are better solutions. If the child wants a new character is there another train that could be that train so the child can play out the envisioned scenario right away? If the child starts doing this regularly it will actually reduce the desire for new pieces rather than silencing it.

I feel your pain

Thomas was introduced to my oldest child by my parents (whose toy buying habits have been challenging for us since our oldest was born) but our youngest (3.5) has COMPLETELY glommed onto it. We do almost no screen time in our house but it's amazing, and painful frankly, to see how much of an impression is left on him by what he watches at my parents' house when we visit (which is generally for a few days at a time half a dozen times a year because they live a long car ride away). He can recall plot lines and songs that he saw weeks previously. However, most of the trains he has were hand-me-downs from others and this year for Chanukah I purchased one for him for the first time. Limiting how much of the videos he sees - and I have been known to recycle books my parents buy him - seems to have worked in terms of tamping down his desire for more. He plays very independently and creatively with his trains but I also wish that they were generic, and not Thomas. Good Luck.

Or teaching emotional responsibility?

I am under the impression that you are showing your child how to accept a reality, as opposed to a veiled threat. The reality is, Mom and Dad choose not to spend money on more toys. The child has a want for more toys, but will not be receiving more. The bullet point suggests a healthy mindset for the child to choose for himself how to emotionally respond. If the show reminds you over and over again of what you cannot have, then perhaps it is best to stop reminding yourself of things you cannot change and instead focus on what you can.