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The commercialization of childhood

No, this isn't one of those rants. This is an argument for the commercialization of childhood. Within reason.

I should preface this all by saying a few cautionary words...I feel very differently about educational commercialization than I do vapid branding. Curious George learning how we get maple syrup from maple trees through a complicated processing is one thing. If it makes my kids want maple syrup, good for them. This is probably why PBS is the most-trusted source for children's media is that, yes, your kid is learning to want Thomas toysets and anything with Elmo on it--but they're also getting a fairly healthy dose of the alphabet, colors, numbers, shapes, social skills, life lessons, and character building of the non-merchandising sort.

I also should say that we're very, very pro-nature and in favor of toys and games that are plain and creative in ways that branded toys are not. My kids play with sticks, rocks, string, paper towel tubes, egg cartons, and non-pointy kitchen utensils.

But I take a pretty moderate approach to the commercialization side. There are certainly those parents who campaign heavily for marketing (and the calories, materialism, and ethical problems that come with it) to be kept away from the very young. And I've certainly complained before about the American Academy of Pediatrics' somewhat hard-to-achieve ban on television and screen media for toddlers. I disagree and here's why.

It kind of hit me when I realized that not only will Cole need a backpack for school, but he'll probably pick one with Thomas or Lightning McQueen or Bob The Builder or who knows. But I realized I'm fine with that. What Cole will pick will most likely not be Spider-Man or Scooby Doo...I don't have a problem with him seeing Bugs Bunny. But I also note that he, by nature, isn't into those things. And I think this gets lost in the conversation about kids and the media. Kids are pretty savvy consumers. My 3 year old knows when he's being lied to, deceived, or otherwise something isn't on the up and up. Maybe he senses my unconscious approval? Maybe kids can sense an attempt to upsell them? Maybe this is more about the savvy of parents who have no defense mechanism to say no?

That's what I've learned more than anything in my journey with Cole is that most of the problems were on my end. It's my brain that needed to change to help guide him, not something wrong with him. I think, deep down, he likes Cars because he senses the meaning of the friendship between Lightning and Mater. Not because he wants a Radiator Springs lunch box. And, if I did sense that was his main focus, it's my job as the parent to put him in the right. If he's using James The Red Engine as some sort of preschool status symbol we're going to put a stop to that real quick.

To the contrary, as I mentioned on Facebook earlier, I think having a universal language of branding across the pop culture spectrum helps kids relate to each other in the same way you give a mental high-five to the guy wearing the Clash t-shirt in the elevator and know instantly that you will have nothing in common with someone wearing an Angry Birds shirt. Culture does matter.

We got into the elevator the other day with a little boy around Cole's age wearing a Thomas shirt and instantly had a conversation item. He likes Thomas, too! Isn't that a cool shirt?! Maybe Cole's entire preschool class will be full of Angry Birds kids. Maybe it will be full of little boys who like Buzz and not Woody. That's life. Sometimes we have to sort it out with people we have nothing in common with, sometimes we all get along without a hitch. Watch Big Brother this summer if you want to see what it's like for adults to try this same exercise.

And, finally, I couldn't leave this topic without mentioning the D word. Disney. Love it or hate it, they're good at getting your dollars and your loyalty. But the question that always fascinates me is why? Why do we love Disney? Certainly, they've veered off into something pirate and princess oriented that is a little too gender-biased for my tastes. Thankfully, my kids have latched onto something more naturalistic, I think. Beyond selling you the questionable tale of Prince Charming, what Disney does best is essence. And packaging and bottling something...I won't say the word magical. Too much. But even the most cynical, bitter parent can surely see the positive in giving our children a safe canvass to bring imagination. It may be pre-packaged and sanitized and a million other hokey things, but the reason Disney does Disney so well is image. Sometimes frighteningly so. Disney has a dark side, for sure. But we're adults and can handle that. The point of childhood is to slowly grow into our bitter, cynical selves.

I always disagree with those who say childhood needs to preserved at all costs. And the same to those who think kids are ready to be treated like tiny adults. Today's branding and commercialization is nothing more than yesterday's Brothers Grimm or Looney Tunes. In the musical The Music Man, the con man comes to town and sells the residents the idea of a boys band. Of course, (spoilers) there are no instruments, no uniforms, and no lessons. But that's the point. Little Winthrop can talk and the townfolk lighten up a bit. (Of course, I always thought it was just an elaborate exercise in why we should hate Iowa. Maybe I missed the point, too!)

Anybody who sits down to play with a toddler for 15 minutes has to see the world through entirely different lenses. Sometimes, I wish I could tell the misbehaving adults of the world to share, not hit, and use their words like we do with the preschool crowd. There's nothing in this world that 15 minutes of pretending to be a firefighter couldn't fix. If you don't learn something from watching your kids play, you're parenting wrong.

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