Thursday, November 01, 2007

No characters

The Blog Exchange this month is a bit different. The following is my own post about why I don't (generally) buy character items for my kids. A previous blog exchange hostess of mine, Jodi, is posting her counter-argument on her blog. Go read Jodi's piece and read other point/counter points here.

Several years ago I was charging out of the elevator in a department store with the kids, trying to find whatever it is you look for in the kids’ section of department stores. We walked straight into a display of tote bags for a certain yellow sponge that lives at the bottom of the sea.

“I want that!” yells one boy.

“Me too!” yells his twin brother.

Their little sister in the stroller gurgled as she did during those baby years.

“Who is it?” I asked.

They both stared at me blankly, unable to answer this basic question.

“If you cannot tell me who the character is on the product, you cannot have it. Don’t ask again.” And so my no character rule began.

While my boys were in the neonatal ICU, we became friendly with a family with triplets. We would all go to their kids' birthday party and they would come to ours. It was in many ways our way of celebrating that our children had survived, had made it through another year.

But the triplets’ mother obsessed that each birthday had to have a character theme. Each kid was attributed to a character. Their first birthday it was all about the yellow bear so the son was the bear while one daughter was the tail-less purple thing and the other was the little pig. All the family's gifts centered around those characters. For the second birthday it was that movie about looking for a fish then the third was a tale about toys. By then the kids were asking for different, individual “themes” for their birthday but the mother wouldn’t listen.

What bothered me was that this mom had to “fit” the birthday into a theme. In other instances I listened to parents ask if a girl is a princess like a Disney character. Why can’t she (or he) just be a plain, old princess? Or why can’t a kid be a plain robot? Or even a, shudder, nameless train?

What is worse is this whole concept of a “lifestyle brand”. When did a television show become a lifestyle? I allow my kids to watch some television each day partly for the escapism, partly for the education and partly so I can have some quiet. However, on the rare times I let them watch commercial television they know how to fast forward through commercials. If they start bugging me for something in a commercial then I make them stop the television and we talk about what they like and how the company wants them to buy something. My now three year old daughter yells with perfect timing “Mommy! It is a commercial!”

The following from a co-founder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood sums it up for me:

"The primary lesson [marketers are] teaching [children] is to seek happiness in
brands and commercial products," she said. "As we know, brands don't make us
happy. More ephemeral things, like relationships and job satisfaction, do."

I watched Wonder Woman as a kid. There were no bracelets, ropes or headbands for sale in the 1970’s. I either pretended to have the accessories or created ones. I read The Boxcar Children book series. I acted out the tales or made new ones with my best friend. There was no Boxcar Children wallpaper, cake designs or draperies. I vividly recall the power of my imagination and am grateful I wasn’t dependant on manufactured accessories to make my childhood ideas come to life.

I did though love Barbie dolls and my mother would never buy them for me. Every Christmas I would ask Santa for Barbie and everyone Christmas I wouldn’t get a single one. After one holiday, my mother was shocked at how sadly resigned I was that Santa didn’t care about me. Within days I received a big box in the mail full of my older cousin’s used Barbie dolls. I don’t think a package has given me more joy. I loved those dirty, unclothed, ratty haired dolls. And to this day I have a slight obsession with Barbie. Feel free ask Flower Child about it.

Which means, if one of my kids is really begging for some character toy a call may be made to a grandparent, uncle or godparent. Then the relative comes in with or mails a toy that makes my eyes roll, causes me to exclaim “How COULD they?” and I grumble that the toy is wrong.

And I hug the gift-giver on the side. Or place a grateful phone call.

Because within a week the glow from receiving the character toy is gone and I know the kid got it out of his or her system. I want my kids to remember the power of their imaginations. Not the power of the commercials.

Go read Jodi's counter point.

NaBloPoMo count - Day one done, 29 to go.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I couldn't agree more. Another important aspect is putting together costumes on Halloween - the joy and creativity that brings is wonderful - and none of us sew - so it has to be something we can "put" together.

Great post!

Jodi said...

It's on!

Interesting that we made some of the same points, childhood memories, gifts from family and friends, without seeing each others pst.

Gunfighter said...


You are a smart lady, and as such, are raising smart kids... the occasional character toy or commercial won't hurt or kill them... nor will i make them maniacal consumers, but I see your points.

Flower Child said...

I also posted on Jodifur. I'm not altogether clear on the character ban. Can they have a Fetch! doll/dog? How about a character associated with a book - from the Beatrix Potter series? A Judy Moody doll perhaps? Are there exceptions?

mayberry said...

I think what bugs me more than the toys are the clothes -- there are certain stores I just won't shop at because I don't want my kids begging for those cheap, ugly t-shirts that turn them into walking ads.

I loved the Boxcar Children too, BTW.

Jerseygirl89 said...

I mentioned on Jodifur about my selective character policy - that some are okay and some are not- but I do see your points. And my kids, when faced with a commercial (which pretty much only happens when I watch one of my shows while we play), yell out, "Yucky commercial!" That makes me proud.

Thalia's Child said...

I completely agree. When I was pregnant, I made it very clear that I didn't want Punkin suffering from gifts that were branded to death. Winnie the Pooh became the target for all my rage because honestly? You can't go into a baby section without being inundated.

I wish there was a way to say 'please don't give us branded or character items' because so help me god, if there is ever any kind of Elmo toy given to my child, I will commit a murder.

Heather said...

I can see your points in some ways. My kids have a lot of character stuff. We don't have cable so they don't see a lot of the characters, but I don't see anything wrong with them having stuff with characters on it.

I had a Snoopy lunch box as a kid. I clearly remember a Smurf t-shirt or two and a bunch of Barbies...

Jenn said...

I understand your points and agree with a lot of them.

But I grew up with all sorts of character toys. I was Barbie for Halloween with a plastic dress and a Barbie mask with my brown hair sticking out all over the place behind it. And now my nephews have movies and toys. My Mom was never vigilant about what we could and couldn't have or could and couldn't watch. And now my nephews have character toys and a movie of some sort always running the background.

But most of the time those things are not really important to them. They have a lot more fun picking grass and throwing it at each other. Or making forts out of boxes. Or transforming their toys into other things. Or destroying them.

I think the negative impact that character toys and television can have on children is a result of how their parents utilize them and what their parents teach them to do with them. Do their parents promote creative thinking? Or do they just buy them toys to shut them up? And so on.

chelle said...

I totally started to feel insecure when my preschooler showed no obsessive attachment to a "character" like so many of her friends.

Then I realized that we were unaffected by lead, commercials and the like because we only watch dvds, or the rare tv. Usually PBS. She does love pooh bear but does not need to live it.

Great post!

Amy Barry said...

Hey there! Just chiming in.

Well, I am somewhere in between on this debate. I am thankful I don't have a girl *yet* because the girly characters annoy me a heluva lot more than the boy ones (other than superheroes >:P)

Our "tv" is never on but movies abound and Jaxon is a Movie Buff. Thankfully this lets us avoid the commercials! John and I have always loved Disney too. We have most of the movies on VHS from days before we were even married much less with kids and many more on DVD.

I like some characters more than others, and as far as branding at home, Thomas and Cars and a little bit of Elmo are about the extent of it. A few t-shirts and jammies with those characters, and a couple of backpacks and that's about it. Other than a couple of cars that are the Cars characters, and Thomas engines and wooden tracks, I can't think of any actual branded toys that we have. When playing, Jaxon prefers big trucks to push around outside, digging, moving rocks, playing with sticks, etc. Just starting to think about indoor play again, hauling out the playdough, pens, scissors (he LOVES to cut stuff) and paints.

Always interesting to hear other parents thoughts on this kind of stuff.

painted maypole said...

I don't take a hard line about this, but I do try to shy away from too much character driven stuff. It was a bit hard for me to throw the Cinderella Bday party this year, etc. I've tried to not make it a huge battle, but also not emphasize it too much. It's so hard to avoid! Kudos to you. Oh... and no commercial television for my kid, either, and she's 5! i'm holding out with PBS and Sprout as long as I can!

Alex Elliot said...

We Tivo everything so my kids rarely see a commercial. They also don't have a lot of character type toys. However, my son really likes Elmo and he loves his Elmo shirt. I like that he has his own interest that is different from mine. After all, you don't see me wearing an Elmo shirt, but he loves it and I love that he likes to talk about it. I love that it's his own. Most of his toys and clothes are not character theme. We've never stuck to one theme for a birthday party, character or not. However, as I wrote on Jodi's post all of the toys we own have been heavily marketed through commercials, magazines, and fancy displays at the store; not to mention that if my son somehow avoids all of this, he sees them at other kids homes.

Jenn in Holland said...

Commercial television not being here what it is over there, I haven't felt the need to be as vigilant about avoiding it with my youngest as I was with my eldest kids. And let's be honest, he's my youngest kid, and youngest by a long shot at that, so I am not as vigilant in a lot of things with him as I was with the others. That lead in down though, I have never taken a hard line about the character thing with them and have certainly "allowed" them those gifts as well, even if I didn't purchase them myself. But your point about imaginative play is most meaningful to me and I wholeheartedly agree with the fun that it is to create your own something rather than have a chintzy ready made/manufactured accessory to play with. I think I have done well in striking that balance with my kids, playing with them and stressing to them the importance of free play and using their own imaginations for things. So, yeah, while we have more than a single kids fair share of Cars paraphanalia around here currently we are also fully capable of an afternoon of fun making Leaf and sand cakes and examining snail trails in the garden.
It works for us.

Goofball said...

I never got a real barby either as a child and I always regretted it. I did get a very popular character sticker book after weeks of bargaining and negotiating in which my parents told me I'd soon lose intrest in it.... and they were right and I felt shocked when I realised it.

But I agree that we have to protect our children in this commercial world and make them aware of the weapons the advertising industry. Yet I don't believe in a total ban either. They don't have to be left out of all toys?

In Belgium it is as a matter of fact forbidden to have toy or childrens advertisement before and after children's tv programs...but advertisement reaches the children in other ways though.
It doesn't make parenting any easier does it?