If you've been exposed to any media at all this week, you've probably seen advertisements for deals and discounts enticing you to get the mall this weekend (or sooner!) for "door busting deals," or go online RIGHT NOW to take advantage of short windows of bargain pricing. We are hyped into a sense of urgent action. Shop now. Shop now! Shop NOW! SHOP NOW!
Before you rush out to the mall today, stop and take stock of the messages you may be sending to your children when you do. Your children may be hollering for the latest game or toy that's been marketed to them, but it's not what they need or, truly, what they want most. Your children want your eye contact and your attention. They want to spend time with you, engaged in "fun, adventurous play." They don't want to be monetized. They want to be connected.
We understand that our children are inundated with commercial messages, from the media, from entertainment, from walking down the street and seeing the window displays. And most of us agree that the commercialization is not helpful: it makes our children demand products that may not be healthy or appropriate for them, it leads to endless arguments and disappointments between parents and their children, it influences our bank accounts and clutters our homes, and it drives us, individually and collectively, to measure ourselves based on our stuff instead of our character. It's a lot to counteract as a parent, but it's not impossible.
Our children are watching us, closely. If we want to decrease the influence of marketers on our families and our homes, we need to take intentional action to protect ourselves.
- Audit your child's exposure to commercialism and branding, and adjust it. Look around your home and think about your schedule. How much of what your child plays with is connected to particular characters or brands? How much time does your child spend exposed to those branding efforts? Can you carve out space for family experiences that don't include those products? Be careful with how you explain it to your child. Avoid language that makes the branded play more attractive. So, welcome your child to open play by saying things like, "I'm so happy that we're going to be able to meet our friends at the park this afternoon," or "Our whole family is going to get to go on a hike together!" instead of "You've spent too much time on that screen. Turn it off."
- Audit your child's screen time and create a plan for how you'll decrease it. Remember, the American Academy of Pediatricts recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of 2 (including your smartphones and iPads,) no more than an hour a day for children between 2 and 5 years old, and careful, child-centered parameters for children 6 and older. Create spaces in your home that are screen-free and model it for your children in your screen use. Put away the phones during mealtimes. If you have a TV, enclose it in a cabinet with doors so it's not always visible, or keep it in a separate space from the areas in which your children regularly play. Let screen use be an occasional experience for children rather than a part of their daily entertainment. Avoid using screens as babysitters: bring out the crayons, books or Lego for your children to entertain themselves if you're not able to give them your attention. If you find that you rely on screens when you're running errands with your child, think about ways to include them in the errand or, if that's not possible, offer simple, low cost manipulatives that can keep their focus while you check out at the grocery store or finish your transactions at the bank. A small bag of pipe cleaners can go a long way in occupying your child during chaotic, adult-focused errands.
- Choose commercial-free gifts for your child and for others. Your child will delight in his or her own set of kitchen tools and a recipe book of meals you can make together. Instead of that new computer game, compile a camping backpack for your child and schedule a time to camp or hike together. Choose events and outings you can do together rather than products that will be discarded when the next-best-thing comes along. Look for retailers that don't market to children, and select beautifully crafted products that capture your child's attention and imagination.
- This weekend: STAY HOME. Teach your children about reducing waste and valuing our consumption by creating delicious meals together from your leftovers. Teach your children the card games your grandparents taught you. Have a thankfulness hunt, asking your child to find something wooden for which he or she is grateful, something red, something breathing. Make a pillow fort together and spend some time reading by flashlight under the blankets. Paint gratitude stones and go for a walk in your neighborhood hiding them for others to find. The screens and the computers and the beeps and buzzing and battery-driven activities will be there when you get back.
Take this time this irreplaceable, precious time, to be present with your children. That's the best gift they'll ever receive.