You always hear how marketing departments spend billions of dollars selling to kids and stocking shelves with recognizable characters, from Elsa to Spiderman. These tactics have led some parents to avoid commercial toys for kids and advertising whenever possible, fearing the repercussions, from obesity to lack of creative play.
Yet here I was, actively selecting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles water bottle for my five-year-old.
I wasn’t always like this. I was the opposite, eschewing commercial toys, clothes and books in favor of their generic counterparts.
Any characters that made its way into our home via gifts from family and friends were given general descriptions, so that Elmo was simply the red monster and Winnie the Pooh the bear.
You see, I was one of those parents doing all I could to avoid commercialization with my kids. I know how early it can start and just how lucrative brand loyalty can be.
Not buying the characters had its benefits, too. Avoiding character-based play encourages imagination, so that my kids can play with a generic stuffed animal and assign it a gender, a name, and his or her own traits, free from the predetermined ones found in the likes of Elmo or Mickey Mouse. I didn’t want them to whine and insist on buying a certain cereal because Jake and the Never Land Pirates are on the cover. And I didn’t want to raise materialistic kids, the ones whose identity would feel so rooted to brand names and the latest “it” thing.
My husband and I knew we wouldn’t avoid commercial characters forever—we just didn’t want to encourage it. I assumed eventually, every kid is going to whine about wanting bedsheets with favorite characters—I simply didn’t want to start it any time soon.
But instead, a curious thing happened. In preschool, my eldest would come home with stories about Spiderman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or singing “Let It Go” without ever having seen Frozen or even knowing what the movie was about.
I could see how he must have pieced these bits of information together as best he could, having no idea what his classmates were talking about. I imagined him trying to follow the conversations along with his classmates or playing games about Batman, maybe even pretending he knew what they were talking about when he actually didn’t.
I wanted my son to feel more included in these conversations with his friends. And so I borrowed Frozen and watched it with him. I bought band-aids featuring Jake and the Never Land Pirates (which he loves showing his friends and teachers), and yes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles water bottle.
We haven’t filled our home with every imaginable television or movie character, nor do we plan to, and we’re still strict about what he’s able to watch (no way on TMNT or even The Lego Movie). Just enough to ‘name drop’ with his friends, but not so much that he starts whining for particular toys and forgoes all the benefits of avoiding branded characters.
And you know what? He hasn’t whined at the grocery store. Not once has he insisted on buying the shirt with familiar characters or thrown a tantrum because we didn’t buy him enough of a particular character or show.
He is still the same inquisitive boy who would rather play with a pretend television made out of old cardboard boxes than actually watch hours of it on the real thing.
And this is when I realized that commercial toys aren’t all bad. It’s not the end of the world that my kids recognize Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank Engine. Cute, even. Buying commercial characters or watching a few shows isn’t going to turn them into fanatics or spoiled kids who have suddenly forgotten how to play with generic toys.
With boundaries, parental guidance and a variety of toys and activities to play with, he can feel included among his friends and play ninja turtles while still watching his pretend television constructed out of cardboard and markers.
Your turn: How much do commercial toys play into your child’s life? Let me know in the comments!
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