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Thursday, March 30, 2006


My nine-year-old daughter likes to listen to B101, the soft rock station that advertises “five songs in a row.” Of course, whenever you turn the station on, they always seem to be on a commercial, a point I made this morning on the car ride to school. Megan defended the station and said you only get two or three commercials in a row, but her brother Luke disagreed. “Whenever they say, ‘Five songs in a row,’ or ‘Fewer commercials’ that’s actually a commercial because they are advertising themselves. So they have a commercial saying they don’t have many commercials,” he noted triumphantly.

That’s pretty astute for a six-year-old, if I must say so myself. For all I complain about Luke’s obsession with all things Star Wars, he does have a sense of how commercialism works. In early November, for example, when B101 started playing Christmas music, Luke complained, “They’re just getting us excited about Christmas too early so we’ll go out and buy presents.”

Even though my children and I discuss commercialism, it’s still hard to fight it. Being aware of the seductiveness of Christmas music didn’t keep Luke from talking about the toys he wanted from early November until December 25. After Christmas, when he noticed there was one thing on his list that he didn’t get, he started talking about his birthday, which isn’t until April.

Now Megan is begging for a Tamagotchi, a small electronic toy that has to be fed and cared for like a pet. All her friends have them, I’ve been told, and they’re only $15. When I balked at getting her a Tamagotchi, she upped the ante and asked for an iPod.

Evidently, Tamagotchis have been lurking under the desks of her classroom for weeks, but they’ve only recently been discovered and banned by the teacher, to Megan’s great dismay. In protest, she wrote a letter to the teacher and brought it to school for her classmates to sign, an act of spunky political organizing I admire, though I’m secretly hoping she fails. I suppose that’s the danger of teaching our children to think critically and express their opinions: they’re bound to disagree with us sometimes.

I’ve tried to explain that my objections to the Tamagotchi and the iPod are not just financial. I don’t want them getting distracted at school, as I’m sure the teacher doesn’t. I also don’t want them to be isolated from their classmates at recess because they’re focused on an electronic devise, though Megan would argue that being the only kid without one is more isolating. This is the challenge of the age we’re entering, I think: how to resist peer pressure and commercialism in a way that builds community rather than isolating ourselves from community.

Finally my husband and I struck a deal with her. Since Megan has been fighting with her brother a lot lately, we suggested we’d get her a Tamagotchi—to be used only under strict guidelines—if she goes two whole weeks without hitting Luke or saying “shut up” to him. It’s amazing how effective a little bribery can be, though I’m nervous we will be opening our doors to a whole array of products we don’t really need. What will be the next gadget that all the nine-year-olds will cry they need in order to fit in? Getting Megan and Luke both iPods would probably keep them out of each other’s hair, but I’d rather have them engaging each other, and the world around them, even if it’s not always easy.


Anonymous Laura S. said...

Believe it or not, I know another little girl in Megan's class who doesn't have a Tamagotchi either. Not yet anyway! As her (mean) mommy, I agree with you about all of it: distraction, isolation, commercialism.

I also believe in the judicious use of bribery (if that's not an oxymoron!) and have resorted to it as a parenting strategy a few times myself.

7:24 PM  
Blogger david said...

as someone with cats not kids i might point out that bribes lead to addiction not compliance. but mind you cats are manipulative as kids but without the abstract reasoning to make negotiation possible.

have you checked out the unclimber yet? no, not mine. but a homeschooler who checks out my blog periodically.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Let me just say that while I am ambivalent about bribary as a parenting strategy, I have seen it break bad patterns. For example, Megan used to always say that she was unable to stop herself from hitting Luke when she got mad. The "I just can't stop myself" defence. Now we know that's not true. She can stop herself when she wants to. I think sometimes realizing that they can act better helps children to actually do it on a regular basis. That's my reasoning, anyway.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

I'm with you on the bribery, Eileen. Used judiciously, for stuff that matters--or as a rare treat where it's clear that's what it is--I think it works. I had to get my 8-year-old up early for five days in a row so we could get his older sister to his school bus while their dad was out of town, and the promise of Krispy Kreme drive-thru did it for him. He knew it was a big treat, and didn't keep begging for it, but did get out of bed on time...

And then, you're right, there's an easy come-back to the "I can't stop myself" claim.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Joe G. said...

I'm not a parent, but I teach courses on human development for social workers. I can tell you that children, particularly younger children, need other ways to being convinced to so or see something they haven't considered. Typically, even given their abstract abilities (rudimentary abilities), something concrete works to help to motivate. Even when discussing spiritual things, the topics have to be put into basic, "black and white" terms (i.e. "good", "bad") so that they can have some beginning grasp of it. Anyway, I don't see this as a bribe; I see this as a consequence - if you do "X,Y,Z", then this will occur. It's called positive reinforcement. As long as the adults do it purposefully and thoughtfully it can work wonders. Good luck!

9:59 AM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

Eileen, your kids are a bit older than mine (who are 3 and 5) but this issue is looming large on my horizon. Thankfully, they are still young enough to have almost no access to child-directed TV advertizing, and homeschooling helps cut down on the peer-induced wish list (so far anyway...) Nevertheless, the materialism seeps in. I worry about walking the right line of communicating and upholding my values without driving the kids to the opposite extreme of rampent consumerism in reaction to feeling deprived. It can be a tough issue.

As for the bribery: in theory, I'm not in favor, but I'm in no position to cast stones! The reality of day to day parenting lead us to do whatever works sometimes. Just today, I told the kids that we were going to clean the playroom together (a disaster area ) and everyone was expected to keep working until it was done. I then threatened an unpleasant consequence for anyone who didn't help. I didn't say what the consequence would be, since I wasn't sure myself. This prompted them to spend several minutes thinking up their own consequences. They settled on "no candy for a year". I thought that harsh and impossible to enforce, but I said nothing. It worked like a charm! :o)


12:41 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

I am ashamed to say that when my 21-month-old is getting bored in the cart on a grocery expedition and is beginning to contemplate plans of mayhem, she now looks at me and says "treat?" as though she is willing to consider controlling herself for some play-dough. Sigh.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Wow! Who knew bribery was such a hot topic? Thanks for sharing your stories. You all had me laughing before coffee this morning.

7:15 AM  

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