Armed against Consumerism

>> Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I tend to be more of a media education type of person than a media abstinence type. I admit that I let my kids watch TV and play on the computer, and I don't feel guilty about it (most of the time). I restrict how much they can watch, I monitor what they are watching, I try to balance outside play with couch potato time. I enjoy the media, so why shouldn't I have kids who also enjoy the media?

The problem is that we live in a commercial culture, and Big Business has their eye on our children. And as we head into the holiday season, it becomes more important that our kids are armed with the resources to resist the consumer frenzy. I believe in teaching our kids to have a healthy skepticism about advertisements they see on TV, or on the computer, or on a billboard, or a bus...(they're everywhere!) And I thought I was doing pretty good at teaching this to my kids.

But then my First Son, who is almost five, says to me, "We need to buy some Motts applesauce."

"Hmmm," I say. "Did you see a commercial for Mott's applesauce?"

"Yes," he replies. "But you say commercials are trying to get us to buy things we don't need, and I think we need applesauce."

"You're right, we do need applesauce. But we buy whatever kind is cheapest, and Mott's is not the cheapest," I say, and then explain, "Commercials play with your emotions to try to get you to buy what they're selling, and sometimes they lie to you. I like to make my own decisions, and that's why I don't listen to commercials, even if they're selling something like applesauce that I usually buy."

I thought I got the point across, but the next time we were at the store, he brought it up again. "Can we get Mott's applesauce?"

I decided I needed a book that could teach my son about advertising strategies. My first stop was my local library's website, but after an hour of trying out various search terms, the only book I could find was The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials, which my library does not yet have but has ordered. I put it on reserve, and I'll let you know how it is once I get it.

My next stop was two of my favorite organizations, Common Sense Media and The New American Dream. Common Sense Media is a non-profit organization that rates movies, books, TV shows, and websites based on their age-appropriateness and provides tips and guides for managing media in the home. These are great resources, but not exactly what I was looking for.

Next stop, New American Dream. This is where I hit the jackpot. They have a terrific brochure called "Parenting in a Commercial Culture," which includes a list of books and websites to use when teaching your kids about commercialism. My library happened to have two of the books, so I picked them up this afternoon, and also spent some time perusing a few of the websites.

1. The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
This is a fantastic book about Mooch the cat, who wants to give his best friend Earl a gift. What do you get for the dog who has everything? Nothing! Mooch's gift of "nothing" reminds us that the best gift to give a friend is time spent together.

2. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson
Based on a passage from Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, this book tells the story of Henry and a friend, who both agree to meet in Fitchburg at the end of the day. The friend says he will work until he has enough money to take a train to Fitchburg, and Henry says he will walk. The friend spends the whole day working, while Henry enjoys a long leisurely walk exploring nature and picking blackberries. In the end, the friend gets to Ficthburg faster, but who had the better day?

This is a great website, even if it was made by PBS kids, which seems to be one of the big marketers to children these days. (I think my son probably saw the Mott's commercial on PBS). This site is targeted at upper elementary to middle school age kids, but I played a few of the games with my son, and I think he got the gist. I also learned some fun (but sad) facts. For example, how much of the cost of a $50 pair of jeans goes to the Eastern European worker who made it? Answer: $0.50

This website includes a game where you can test your skills as a consumer. It doesn't have the best graphics, but my son enjoyed guessing which was the best object to buy, and it was fun to see how we're doing as conscious consumers.

All of these are great resources for arming our children against the media, but none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Anyone know of a good children's book about advertising? I need some help if I'm going to win the battle against Mott's applesauce.


Emily September 24, 2008 at 11:18 PM  

I love this post!! Awesome! I am going to get those books for myself!
My mom never let us watch anything with commercials because of the ones where the Barbie skates around the room, and in tinnnnyyy print at the bottom it says something like "dramatization for television" (which, of course, children can't read or understand). It really irritated her.
Unfortunately, I don't have any good books for you, but Jeanne and I are big fans of series/shows on DVDs, (and I imagine that will apply to kids shows as well), primarily because they don't have the commercials. We put tons of stuff on hold at the library, and always have some series good to go. It isn't so practical when you are watching PBS.

But love the thoughts.

Conscious Shopper,  September 26, 2008 at 9:09 AM  

Emily - The "Henry Hikes to Fitchburg" book is part of a series of children's books based on Henry David Thoreau. Thought you might be interested in that!

We used to watch mostly videos, but we got into a bad habit after the move of letting the kids watch a lot of PBS On Demand shows (it just took us forever to get the DVD player set up for some reason). There's only one commercial per show, but I guess that's enough.

LeGrand October 1, 2008 at 1:39 AM  

I think this is one of my favorite things that you do with your kids. I didn't realize until recently how much this concerned you, and I like how much you try to fight it. With clothing I've always been extremely annoyed by the fact that I pay a company to wear their brand so that I can essentially be a walking billboard for them. It's a joke.

Anyhow, the problem with all your blog posts, is that Jaime keeps comparing me to your kids. After reading this one and discussing the Motts applesauce incident, she claimed that whenever a new candy comes out and I see an advertisement for it, I exclaim: "We're going to the grocery store RIGHT NOW!!!"

Green Bean October 3, 2008 at 6:21 PM  

Great resources. I'll have to see if our library has the Bernstein Bears book. The other younger ones look great too!

Please make sure to check out your post and the others on the same topic at the Green Moms Carnival on Monday, Oct 6th at

Mindful Momma October 9, 2008 at 11:20 AM  

I'm glad to know about the PBS kids 'don't buy it' link. It's important to teach kids that most advertisements are not exactly in their best interest. Great post!

Heidi October 9, 2008 at 10:27 PM  

Thank you! We'll be exploring those links and finding those books. Our children are still young (six years down to 2 months) and we're hoping to get this message across to them starting early!

Lynn October 11, 2008 at 10:02 PM  

Excellent resources. Books are SUCH a help with all of these issues that challenge us in fighting our culture. Now if they would just print every book on 100% recycled or FSC paper, that would make them even better!

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