There was no way to avoid it. I needed two replacement smoke alarms, nonfat nondairy creamer, and sidewalk chalk. The bizarre and unrelated nature of my shopping list forced me into the fluorescent-green glow of the one-stop big-box superstore.
I'm ambling from hardware through housewares and past the toy department just across the aisle from beach towels and a display of discount videos when I hear the unmistakable wailing of a preschooler in distress.
I round the corner on the Lego aisle, and there, holding what appears to be a set of SpongeBob SquarePants action figures, is a boy of about 4 years old. He is crying no, make that bawling and begging his father, “Please, Daddy, pleeeeeease can I have it?”
Dad glances quickly in my direction, though our eyes don't meet. I keep my pace toward electronics as I hear him say, “Maybe for your birthday.”
His little son piles it on: “Please, please, please Daddy.” The child is relentless.
The boy's begging causes some sort of chemical reaction in my brain. I nearly stop in my tracks and head back to the toy department to buy the action figures for him myself. Then I overhear his dad's tone of voice change sharply. “No,” he says.
That's all I hear because the sound of his fatherly retort is muffled by racks of exercise clothes.
Immediately, I'm proud of this father and baffled by the readiness of my sympathy for his little boy. Children who cry for what they want usually repel me.
I think it was the begging as if the action figures were the little boy's lifeline, his last, best hope for happiness. The boy was convincing I have to give it to him.
So what makes a 4-year-old boy so intent on owning rubber replicas of SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, and Mr. Krebs?
As long as I'm pondering this question, here's another: Why does my 7-year-old daughter think our dog would look cute in a Prada dog collar (assuming there is such a thing, which she swears there must be “for Paris Hilton's dog”)?
The quick answer is television, of course. According to TV-Turnoff Network, a nonprofit organization that encourages children and adults to watch much less television in order to promote healthier lives and communities (www.tvturnoff.org), children view roughly 40,000 television commercials per year, developing brand loyalty by age 2. Ninety-seven percent of American children younger than 6 own products based on TV shows or movies, which means the relationship between viewing and purchasing goes well beyond traditional advertising.
The dad at the superstore could confirm the strength of this marketing tactic.
Yet television alone can't explain why middle school lockers from coast to coast house purses made by designers, Downey & Bourke or Louis Vuitton, or why those handbags are holding IPods and MAC makeup and Coach wallets and Motorola flip phones with built-in cameras.
Not all middle school lockers are full of such pricey products not my daughter's, anyway. Nevertheless, there is enough consumerism in children to convince me we're raising a generation of people who think they are what they own.
Case in point: My youngest daughter needed sneakers. She loves the color pink, so I picked out the only pair of pink-and-white shoes I could find that looked sturdy and comfortable. She tried them on, hopped across the shoe department, claimed they made her jump higher than the old shoes and pronounced them suitable.
I paid for the shoes and as is our custom she wore them out of the store, the old pair having been tossed into the trash bin under the cash register.
It turned out the shoes I bought for my second-grader were made by Phat Farm, a company that says its products are “born out of the hip-hop lifestyle.” According to one of my older daughter's friends, those sneakers “make a statement,” though what that statement might be, I can't say.
I know this for certain: If my children are on the cutting edge of hip, it's probably by accident.
On the other hand, my eighth-grade daughter would love to own an IPod. “Everybody” has one, while she still uses a personal CD player that requires her to carry a stash of compact discs. An IPod would hold 5,000 songs (read “which you, Mom, could buy for me on ITunes”). This is an item I'm not likely to purchase accidentally.
It's not that I think she's exaggerating. There do seem to be an awful lot of children walking around with $300 worth of digital music players in their pockets. In fact, after a recent school function, I stayed behind to help clean up and found someone's IPod left carelessly on the floor of a classroom. “Who leaves an IPod player on the floor and walks away?” I asked.
“Someone who didn't pay for it,” another mom said. And there's the rub.
It's hard to say “no” when children ask for things, but it's the only way to teach them to delay gratification, earn what they own, and be responsible. Of course, it's easier if you start in the toy department when they're little.
That superstore dad may have had lots of reasons for saying “no” to the SpongeBob set. Perhaps he didn't have the money to buy it; perhaps his son already has a toy box full of rubber figurines; perhaps he just loathes the idea of a talking sponge wearing trousers.
Whatever the reason, his decision reflected a belief it was better to say “no” than to give in to the urgent desire of a child's frenzied consumerism. You go, Dad.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)