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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 08/08/2011

How to avoid back-to-school branding

I am not looking forward to back-to-school shopping this week. As my daughters have gotten older, the merchandise geared to them has gone from cute to disturbing. It’s drenched with movie and television characters. Lunch boxes, backpacks, pencil cases, even the pencils themselves, seem to be canvases for brands. Delivering my girls to school is hard enough without also giving them up to Madison Avenue.

Now, I realize there are differences of opinion on whether it’s harmful for children to embrace certain characters and where that loyalty will lead them. An attachment to Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Tank Engine can be a wonderful way to introduce children to important lessons and help establish bonds between them and their peers.

The real dilemma comes when those attachments graduate to older and more problematic role models. It’s difficult to know when to assert parental controls and at what point that’s no longer possible.

“I think at the end of the day, you don’t want your kids’ self-worth to be determined by what they own,” Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor at Common Sense Media, told me when we had a recent conversation on the subject.

Common Sense is a national media watchdog groups that, among other things, tracks media manipulation of children. Knorr said the marketing push kicks in for children’s merchandise at about age three (that’s about the time Disney Princesses invaded our home despite what I thought were strong defenses) and intensifies from there.

Common Sense last week published online one mother’s account of trying to find a plain backpack for her daughter along with some more tips on how to fend off marketers. For those parents like me who are hoping to fend off the logo onslaught, I am sharing the tips here:

• Have a game plan. Expect to encounter lots of kid-targeted advertising, and figure out your stance before you get to the store. My backpack mantra was “no characters,” but you could also use “no words or logos,” “no violent images,” or any simple phrase that you won’t mind repeating a hundred times but that clearly articulates your limits.

• Seize the teaching moment. Discuss the tools marketers use to influence kids to buy or beg for something. Turn it into a game where kids try to figure out what product an ad is representing or what symbol marketers decided was popular with kids this year (rainbows! skulls! owls!).

• Look for alternatives to big box stores. Online stores, mom and pops, thrift stores, Etsy — any of these choices offers the chance to find something unique, creative, or even personalized.

• Talk to other parents. Ask for tips on where to find certain goods and which stores to avoid. (After an early encounter with Bratz panties, I became a willing dispenser of underwear-shopping advice to parents at my daughter’s preschool.)

• Prepare for disappointment (or at least compromise). Some kids may be so focused on a Barbie backpack or a LEGO lunchbox that they’re willing to throw the mother of all tantrums to get it. Only you can decide which battles are worth waging. Remember that kids move on quickly — almost as quickly as they lose backpacks.

— From “In Search of a Backpack, Minus the Brand,” by Sierra Filucci.

Where do you come down on branding? Do you try to avoid it? Or is it a battle not worth fighting?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 08/08/2011

 
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