But I have to say that my snobbish, "Oh no, my children don't watch commercial television" attitude was in for a rude awakening the first time I walked into a store with the aforementioned toddler and experienced the barrage of "Thomas!" "Elmo!" "Dinosaur Train!" Oops. It would appear that even PBS is out to ensnare parents trying to protect our kids from materialism.*
Kids are great business. According to Simplicity Parenting, marketers spend $16 billion per year to target kids directly. My most recent experience of this phenomenon pertains to children's underpants, that symbolic graduation from babyhood into bigness (and apparently, into consumer culture). My search for said intimate apparel has turned up Superman, Thomas the Train, Sesame Street, Angry Birds, and the Avengers (which is a PG-13 movie anyway, so theoretically 2-year-olds should not have even seen it).
And this is for my son. I dread the orgy of Disney princesses that will be available when my daughter is learned in the potty arts. Plain colored underpants with non-branded trains, cars, and dinosaurs required a special order online.
So what's the big deal, after all? I've had to ask myself why Avengers undies bother me so much. I'm not convinced that superhero underpants will turn my son into a sociopath (or a superhero, for that matter). My reasoning comes down to a few concerns:
- Kids are gullible. It hardly seems fair to trick them into buying something when they don't have the critical thinking skills to combat marketing tactics. It's just too easy.
- Manipulation should be reserved for adults. In the same vein, if someone should be manipulated into buying stuff, it should be adults. At least they have (ideally) developed the ability to say "no" to something, even if they've seen it on TV. Adults are better able to assess whether a product is really better quality, or if it just has a character on it that they happen to recognize.
- For my own children, I hope to instill in them the principle that buying things does not equal happiness. Hey, don't get me wrong: I like buying new clothes as much as the next person. But clothes for kids are not an end in and of themselves. The same is true for toys. The stuff of underwear and T-shirts and toys should fade away as the real substance of childhood - play and mess and learning and friends and brothers and sisters and more play and more mess - takes center stage.
In many cases, this means that the simpler choice is often the best - even if it requires a bit of extra research.
*To be fair to PBS, I believe that proceeds from their merchandise go back to support PBS programming. Did I mention that I love PBS? Please don't stop supporting PBS.