To Buy In or Not to Buy In

By: 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.