Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center For Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene


Make Cookies, Not War: TV- related toys and the "I want that" syndrome

Author: Gloria DeGaetano

Whether it's a toy in a commercial or one based on their favorite cartoon character, what children see on television can easily lead to "I want that." Toddlers and preschoolers are especially vulnerable to TV's temptations, because they gravitate more to the right-brain world of color, images, and emotion than to the left-brain world of thinking and analysis. When they play with TV-related toys, all too often they simply imitate what they've seen on TV, unthinkingly mimicking the seducing visual images.

It is never too early for parents to address this issue with their youngsters. Parents can help kids spot merchandising "tricks," steer children to toys based on educational or pro-social TV shows, and direct creative play away from Madison Avenue imitation. Here are a few simple strategies to help guide little ones from mindless consumerism to mindful ways to think for themselves.

Help children distinguish the commercial from the program. When programs and commercials show the same beloved characters, youngsters hardly notice the change from telling to selling. Research shows that without adult guidance, children under the age of six won't understand the selling in tent of commercials, nor will they easily distinguish commercials from programs. When you are watching TV with your child, have him or her jump up when commercials come on and sit back down when the program resumes. Ask children what they think the ad is selling. Point out commercials that are selling toys based on favorite programs by saying, "This isn't the Power Rangers show, is it? It's a commercial that wants us to buy toys that look like the Power Rangers."

Encourage children to think about why they want a toy. Before deciding to get the toy, have your child draw a picture of what he or she will do with it. Then discuss the picture with your child. By developing a visual cue to start from, kids can better articulate what they anticipate from the toy. Then you can discuss the important questions: "Do you want it just because you saw it on TV? Or do you want it because it looks like fun?" This can be an important first step for building resistance and thinking skills for the next popular TV/toy tie-in your child encounters.

Have your child pretend to be a toy manufacturer. After explaining that all the toys are made by someone, let your child pretend to be a toy manufacturer and interview him or her for an important magazine article. Ask questions such as: Why did you decide to make cartoons out of these cartoon figures? When children see the cartoon, does that make them want the toy? Do you have toy ideas for other kids' shows?

Give your child a reality check. Take your child to see the real toy. When they get to the store, youngsters are often disappointed--"It looked a lot bigger on TV." If you can, tape the commercial and play it back after your toy-store excursion. Then discuss the difference together. Ask "Why do you think it looked so different on the commercial?" or "Do you think the story is still worth spending that much money on?"

Help children consider what they value. Frequently what children value is not something they saw advertised on a toy commercial. An old wagon bought at a garage sale, a stuffed bunny Daddy won at a fair, a worn, well-used bedtime storybook, are precious because of the memories associated with them. Have your child sort through their toys and decide which of them are special. Yes, some media toys might be labeled "special" and that's okay. The point is that the children, not the marketing experts, ascribe specialness to their toys.

Limit your children's viewing of TV shows linked to toys you find objectionable. The theory here, of course, is if they don't see it, they won't want it. If your children watch only nonviolent, imaginative, and/or educational television, then toys based on those shows will likely inspire the same sort of play. If you decide to buy one of these TV toys, explain why this one meets your standards. "Beauty and the Beast teaches us that what's inside a person is more important than how he or she looks. Isn't that a nice thing to think about when you play with these toys?"

If you can't beat 'em, use 'em. Even if you limit their viewing at home, children will be enticed to buy all kinds of toys when they watch TV at a friend's house, when you take them to the mall, or when they go out for fast-food. It's difficult for parents not to buy at least some TV toys. We can do plenty to enhance children's creativity and problem-solving abilities using these toys. If you do buy the action figure you're child thinks he can't live without, try not to buy the props, and especially not weapons. Drawing the line here enables you to use other, nonviolent props to guide your child toward socially acceptable behaviors.

Encourage your child to use toys in different contexts. Let toy soldiers help make cookies. See if the Power Rangers want to help plant flowers. Fashion dolls could operate a grocery store using packages and cans from the kitchen pantry; with a desk, paper, and pens stuffed animals could become novelists or artists. Put the action figures with the stuffed animals--the animals are the zoo, the figures, the zoo keepers. Put the figures with other media -related toys, such as Barney or Disney characters. Each character can tell the other why their show (or movie) is the best!

Engage in creative play with your child. Research shows that when parents play 10 to 20 minutes daily with their preschoolers, the children are more cooperative and advanced in social skills. I learned this firsthand when my sons were young and were "into" Star Wars. I became Princess Leia. They told me which dress to wear and not to forget my shiny back-patent shoes! (They made sure I looked the part.) As we played, the boys, then ages 3 and 5, directed what I said and to whom. Yet, I could question their motives and they responded well. Two basic things go on when little ones play: the actual fantasy itself and the stage-whispered directions. When youngsters control both while a parent is present, they learn good leadership and group interaction skills. Plus, when parents give up control for only a few minutes a day, children are more willing for them to take back control for the rest of the day!

Read nonviolent, fun books and have your child role-play the story as you read. When your child play acts what the book character is doing, it gives them a chance to use their own imaginations within the security of a predictable story structure. By doing this on a regular basis, parents give their children a supply of non-violent ideas and characters to infuse into their creative play experiences.

Point out other places that can give children play ideas. A trip to the zoo, a walk in the park, time spent with grandparents--a child's life experiences--are rich sources of ideas for self-expression through creative play. For instance, after a visit with Grandma, encourage your children to use toys, dolls, and props to reenact their favorite parts of the visit. When children realize that their play need not always imitate the narrow scripts of television programs, a vast world opens up to them based on their own experiences and imaginations!

Copyright. Gloria DeGaetano, 1996. All rights reserved.

Gloria DeGaetano, a national speaker and consultant on issues related to children and media, is the author of Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy, Houghton Mifflin, 1996. For ways to raise children optimally in a media age, visit her website:

For reprint permissions contact Gloria DeGaetano, phone: 425-883-1544

This article was first published in Better Viewing Magazine, November/December 1996. Parents can subscribe to Better Viewing with a credit card by calling 1-800-216-2225 (Six issues per year, $9.97)