The following post was written by guest bloggerBrandy King. After spending the last eight years working with research on children and media, Brandy now faces the challenge of raising two young boys in a media-saturated and commercialized world. This is the first in a series of posts about attempting to maintain a commercial-free childhood for her sons. If you've faced similar challenges, we invite you to comment below about your struggles and successes.
"Cameron, look! This is the backpack you're going to take to preschool!" I said with genuine excitement as I pointed to the catalog picture. The primary-colored backpack with the embroidered dumptruck was just perfect for my little guy.
"No!" he yelled in that charming way two-year-olds have. "I want to take my Thomas backpack!"
I was puzzled. "Cameron, you don't have a Thomas backpack..."
"But Mama, just buy one at the store."
This was Cameron's first "consumer moment;" the first time he had asked me to purchase anything. I wasn't quite sure what to say, so I responded with the classic "We'll see" and surprisingly, he let it go.
I never ordered that dumptruck backpack. And when his grandmother heard this story and immediately purchased a Thomas backpack for him, I kept it hidden in the basement. I needed time to think about this. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to set a precedent for how I would respond to this kind of request. How did he know it was an option to have Thomas on a backpack? When did he start to understand that I could purchase things? I needed to think back to why my immediate reaction was "No" and I needed to consider why I hadn't just responded that way in the first place.
When Cameron was born, I was in my fifth year of work as a research librarian at The Center on Media and Child Health. After everything I had read about marketing to children, I had decided to make a conscious effort to limit his exposure to media in general and to licensed characters in particular. (Brand new research confirms my instinct: The more familiar kids are with commercial characters, the more they nag their parents for purchases).
Cameron first learned about Thomas from a puzzle at someone's house. He had not watched the TV show and did not own any items with Thomas on them. I really have no idea what prompted him to proclaim his need for Thomas to be on his backpack that particular day, but my first thought was "Half the kids in his class will probably have a Thomas backpack" and I didn't want him to be one of them.
So why hadn't I said no right there? I realize now that my line of thought was "I want him to be excited about preschool and if a Thomas backpack stirs up excitement, then maybe I should get him one." But after some serious thinking, I came to the conclusion that what I want him to be excited about is learning, playing, and meeting other kids. And those have nothing to do with Thomas.
So I have spent the last two months psyching him up for all the new friends he'll make and for all the painting, building, and dress-up he'll be able to do. All the descriptions have worked; he is eager for the first day of school. And when he arrives, he'll be wearing an adorable backpack patterned with regular old run-of-the-mill trains, trucks and cars.