It started innocently enough. For his second birthday, my son
received a Thomas the Tank Engine train from a well-intentioned
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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