Never before have children been marketed to more aggressively than they are now, so in order to avoid consumer influence (and save money) we must say no
Children are, quite frankly, terrifying.
I realised this when my daughter was still in the womb. She dealt out random bouts of morning sickness six months into pregnancy, kicks to the bladder at the most inopportune moments, and a C-section when I, like a true hippy, envisioned giving birth in a pool in my living room, surrounded by candles.
The three years since have been more of the same. Once, as a 10-month-old, she dropped a piece of sweet potato from her high chair. When I bent over to pick it up, she kicked me in the face and laughed. The disturbing part? I laughed too. One moment your kid is stroking your face and telling you they love you, the next they’re pitching an apple at your head because it’s “too round”.
Stockholm syndrome, my friends. It’s a real thing.
It’s precisely this unpredictability that makes it so tempting to acquiesce to their demands. The problem is, these days, kids have more demands than ever.
Never before have children been marketed to more aggressively than they are now. Never before have parents allowed marketers so many direct routes of access to their kids – social media, TV, the internet, even schools and extracurricular activities. We are increasingly unwilling to pay for content, so advertisers are stepping up to foot the bill – and in return, we allow them to turn our kids into consumers.
As an environmentalist, this maddens me. As a parent, it breaks my heart.
Our kids are more than consumers. Tiny dictators wearing diapers? Yes. Bewilderingly angry tyrants waging all-out war over the colour of their water glass? Yes. Sleeping angels in dinosaur-print footsie pajamas? Yes.
My daughter has been all of these things. And she will be a consumer too, one day.
But not yet.
I don’t like the idea of multimillion dollar advertising campaigns aimed at manipulating her desires. I don’t like companies using cartoon characters to sell unhealthy food, or trotting out tired gender tropes to sell toys. I especially don’t like not being able to go a single day without the advertising world teaching children to want things so deeply that they fall, spaghetti-legged, to the floor in full-on tantrums when these things are denied.
The solution has to come from you. In order to delay the inevitable influence of our consumer economy, we require a two-pronged approach.
First, cut off the advertising at its source – especially important as we head into the holiday season. Be a crazy parent and sequester your child away from as many ads as you can. If you don’t want to go in guns blazing and ban TV altogether, no problem, but consider switching to something like Netflix where kids can watch most of the same demented shows without ad breaks.
For older kids, install an ad blocker on your web browser and then encourage them to financially support the sites, artists and media they value. The goal isn’t to isolate them from pop culture or media altogether – that would be tragic – but to allow them to be aware of what they’re ingesting. Prevent the passive selling of stuff to your kids when they’re not paying attention.
Second, do not give in to tantrums in stores or at the checkout counter. I know this is far easier said than done, especially when many stores now require customers to walk past racks of eye-level toddler bait before ever even reaching the cash registers.
The best way to defuse this situation is to prevent it altogether. Before you enter a store, explain what you are there to buy. Tell your kids they can look at things, and even touch things (if they’re not the search-and-destroy type), but that they will not be taking anything home. Ask if they understand, and solicit their agreement. They’ll probably be lying to your face, but it’s a nice gesture anyway.
Now, the hard part. Stick to it. You must be strong, firm and resolute. How? I don’t know, coffee? Or pick a role model and play their character (I alternate between Mary Poppins and the Khaleesi). The key is just not to give in. Ever.
This doesn’t mean you can’t buy things for your kids or even bribe them (what parent isn’t above a well-timed bribe?) The key is that they know what to expect. If they can choose one toy, explain that to them. If they can pick a reward after finishing shopping, explain that to them. If the rule is, as it is for my daughter, that she can play with whatever she wants in the store, but when it’s time to go she must put it back and say goodbye, explain it. Eliminate uncertainty.
I think that, more than a weird plastic wand or bucket of food colouring and refined sugar, kids want limits. They want predictability. They want to trust that you can make good decisions for them until they’re able to make them for themselves. And of course, occasionally they want some ridiculous thing they saw on TV or in a movie or at a friend’s house. They’ll helpfully communicate this to you by asking politely, or whining, or screaming incessantly at eardrum-shattering pitches.
Choosing to swim against the tide of a consumer economy isn’t easy. It’s even less so when you’re still learning to communicate, moderate your emotions and nurture a budding sense of self in a culture which tells you: “You are what you own.”
Parents, it’s OK to say no. It’s also OK to say: not yet.
This article was written by Madeleine Somerville, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 24th November 2015 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010