It started innocently enough. For his second birthday, my son received a Thomas the Tank Engine train from a well-intentioned friend.
Within minutes, my boy discovered the cleverly packaged "Collect Them All!" leaflet that came with the train. His eyes popped wide as he scanned the photos to find dozens of Thomas' friends, available for purchase. Seconds later, his little pointer figure touched train after train, while repeating this phrase: "I want that one, and that one, and that one ..."
Suddenly, my son was hooked. He whined for Percy and James and
Emily. He spotted the Thomas logo every time we shopped, from bed
sheets to toothpaste. I quickly had to figure out a balance between
his newfound urge to collect and my long-standing need to balance
I'm not alone. Parents raising children of all ages grapple with this topic every day. From Dora to Barbie, from Playmobil to Pokemon, the marketing industry spends billions of dollars annually marketing to children and babies. Much of that money is spent promoting toys and merchandise as "collectibles."
The urge to amass as many objects on the same theme as possible is quite natural, say veteran parents and development experts. Plus, kids can benefit by becoming experts on their passion.
But that doesn't mean we can relax. Parents today must be vigilant about their values and rein in the more damaging aspects of marketing's influence on children.
"You've got to be a cautious consumer," says author and child psychologist Stevanne Auerbach. "You've got to be clear about your objectives and be able to say no."
So much to learn
"Collecting is a developmental part of childhood," says mom of three Angela Allyn. "You read Mark Twain and there's a collection of things in the pockets, like rocks. There's some natural imperative to collect."
Auerbach, also known as "Dr. Toy," says collecting can greatly enhance a child's learning. Collecting can improve language skills as children learn words specific to their passion, like caboose or conductor.
Children can also pick up math concepts by sorting and organizing their treasures. They gain social skills as they create games and imaginative play with other children who share their same interest.
Even branded products can excite children about learning, Auerbach says. "It sometimes helps to have a character they like. They can see it on TV, read a book about it, hold the character in their hands and use their imaginations."
Kim Moldofsky, mother to two boys, appreciates how collections of toys benefit her kids' physical and emotional growth.
"With the Thomas toys, my boys worked on their fine motor skills, manipulating the trains and the track," she recalls. "And there's so much creative play with Pokemon-they have this incredible mental map" about the characters and their strengths.
The problem is how most collectible toys are marketed, says
Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and
director of the Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood. Toy
manufacturers market products so heavily to
children that the message becomes less about fun and learning, she argues, and more about consumption and materialism.
Today's marketing "preys on children's natural tendency to want to collect things, to want to become experts.
Mention Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards to Allyn and she groans. Her 12-year-old son, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, struggled tremendously to control his need to have the entire collection of cards.
"You've got to buy the whole package even if you only need one card," she says. "If your kid is a hoarder, it's never enough to have just one. You have to have all five."
All children-whether they have a diagnosed disorder or not-are the world's most vulnerable consumers, Linn says. Studies have shown that children can't comprehend how marketing works until they're about 8. Even then, she says, it takes years for them to remember to think critically about what's being advertised to them as a must-have item.
Consumption of all these toys may have an impact beyond cluttering your house.
Linn says research is revealing that children who believe that materialism is a good value to have engage less with their peers, are less generous and may experience depression.
Need vs. want
So what's a parent to do? First, look in the mirror.
"You can't help your children grapple with consumerism unless you've grappled with it yourself," Linn says. "You need to look at your expectations around consumption and what's important to you."
In her book, Smart Play Smart Toys: How to raise a child with a high PQ, Auerbach suggests thinking back to your own childhood. What toys or collections did you treasure? What memories had less to do with purchased items and more to do with creative play or bonding with family?
Start, if possible, when your children are babies or toddlers by avoiding television or computer time. Linn suggests staying away from branded products, too, though she concedes it can be hard to find affordable toys, clothes and even diapers without a brand attached.
Eventually, through friends, books or their own curiosity, your child will likely want to collect something. Help your child find friends with the same passion and encourage them to share toys, rather than each having a full set.
Keep your common sense, using your budget as a guide. Collecting should be incremental, says Auerbach, and toys should fit together to support a theme kids are really passionate about.
Try not to just say "no" to buying yet another toy in the collection, without offering an alternative toy or way to play, she says.
Establishing a small allowance can help an older child learn how to save for what they really want and pick up some math skills. Alternatively, dedicate several birthday or holiday gifts to the special something.
For Allyn's two daughters, who longed for American Girl or Kathe Kruse dolls, waiting and saving for an addition to their collection made them more careful once they received it. "They learn not to leave these things around for the dog to chew up."
Help children organize their collections, both for their learning and your sanity. For flat or small objects, buy inexpensive three ring notebooks with plastic sheets. Larger objects require boxes, so get kids involved in deciding how to organize each box. If you can do it without causing distress, try to put away some of the collection.
Take advantage of your child's passion by exposing kids to other forms of creative play, advises Moldofsky, whose older son has about 1,200 Pokemon cards.
"My son is getting quite good at drawing the Pokemon characters," she says. "If I took out the sculpy or clay and said, 'Let's make a snake' he wouldn't be interested. But if we work on Pokemon, then he's excited."
Linn, who recently authored the book The Case for Make Believe, advises parents to remember that it's not only OK to say no, it's helpful. Small disappointments now will prepare children for the inevitable big disappointments later in life.
Before they even start collections, she says, make sure kids have non-branded, open-ended toys, like art supplies or building blocks. Reflect your values and find ways to play without spending money.
Allyn now advises family and friends to give her son experiences-like a trip to a water park-rather than objects.
"The activities we can do with kids-singing, playing dress up, playing with sticks and stones-these are things that children really do remember," Auerbach says. "They are more long lasting than all of the money you can spend on all the stuff."
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.