Last month, I was asked to a contribute an article for a local magazine. Not Code Red which I still regularly write for (yah, yah, yah — I never left print media) but another magazine which has published an article of mine in the past. Guess all you like — I’ve written articles for so many magazines, you’ll be guessing for a long time.
Anyway, I was told that the article couldn’t be published because I was practically attacking some of the magazine’s advertisers. Oh la la. It wasn’t totally unexpected but me being me, there was no other way I could write that article. My first rule in writing is to always be honest about what I think and how I feel. So, I am publishing the article in my blog. The full text follows.
There was a time when watching TV shows on local channels was banned in our house. I was still working in the office at the time, my meetings would last until way past midnight and I often didn’t get home until after the girls had gone to bed. As a result, my then tween daughters spent a lot of their after-school hours with the house helper. I was very much aware that, without adult supervision, the house helper, being older, would assert some kind of moral ascendancy over the children.
I was also very much aware that house helpers were often addicted to the television – from the noontime game shows to the afternoon and early evening telenovelas. So, I had a rule. The girls could watch the cartoon channels but no local shows. I had two reasons. First, I did not want the girls imbibing the TV culture of half-naked dancing girls and the ridiculous slapping and bitching that were the staple of telenovelas. Second, I did not want them to be deluged with advertising (there were no ads on cable channels at the time).
Fortunately, I quit working soon after and I had all the time to supervise my children. Twenty four seven. We’d watch TV together and, every time an ad was shown, I would make casual comments about why the ads weren’t exactly telling the truth. I started with the most obvious and the most familiar to them – hamburgers in fast food chains. I would point out how much fatter and larger the burgers in the ads were. And when we went for burgers in those fast food chains, I would remind them of the ads hoping that they’d have a mental image of the ad-burger while holding the real burger in their hands.
I used a similar approach with shampoo ads, soap ads and, most especially, cosmetic ads. I taught them Photoshop and explained that the skinny girls on magazine covers with the perfect skins and silk-like hair were not exactly faithful replicas of their models but, rather, manipulated images.
Still, I was not totally successful in immunizing my daughters from the effects of advertising. Britney Spears was a big star, girls adored her – including my older girl, Sam. When Britney became an endorser for Sketchers, Sam wanted that brand and she wouldn’t even look at any other. I wasn’t too happy about it but the Britney-endorsed brand was not low-quality, yet the price was a bit lower than a lot of other brands so I capitulated. And she would only ask to buy one pair at a time anyway.
It was a different story with the younger one, Alex. The cable cartoon channels started airing advertisements between and during shows, and she was introduced to a magazine called Kids Zone. While the magazine appeared to be nothing but a lot of colored photos of young celebrities (most of them the regulars of Disney and Nickelodeon) and games, in truth, it contained highly targeted ads – and the target market was tweens.
It was hard to say no to buying a reading material being the kind of parent that encouraged reading. I pored through the issues of the magazine to find some redeeming value and a reason to allow Alex to continue buying them. I discovered that, occasionally, contests were announced. Art contests, mostly – drawing and painting. Alex was very much into art so I tried to shift her focus. Whenever she’d talk about the ads she saw, I’d point out the contests. She joined a few of them and her work was even shown on the Nickelodeon channel.
But everyday brought something new. A new toy, a new brand, a new something… anything. Deflecting and criticizing ads was turning me into a mommy was had nothing good to say about anything. It became a struggle. Not giving in without antagonizing them. I needed a new tactic –- no trips to the mall. I had quit working and we were, at the time, a one-income family, so it was easier to justify why trips to the mall had to be minimized –- no malling unless there was something specific that they needed to buy with emphasis on the word “need” in contradistinction with “want.” That way, it was easier to instill the message that mindless shopping was not an intelligent hobby.
It was also around that time when we started a Saturday night ritual. We would meet with three other couples -– all with children -– for dinner and after dinner chat. The get-togethers rotated among the houses of all four families, including ours and they would last until way past midnight. It was great for the kids who spent all those after dinner hours playing, writing scripts and mounting presentations. It also meant that we all overslept on Sunday and no one demanded going to the mall. If we went out on Sunday at all, it was to the U.P. Sunken Garden to fly kites.
My daughters are now 18 and 16, both in college, and as a mother, I’m happy with how they have turned out. Not that it’s been smooth sailing all the way especially when they entered the age when cell phones and iPods were all the rage among their peers. But I’d like to think that their father and I have been accommodating to their occasional wants – including the few preferred brands – without being the kind of parents who can’t say no to all of their demands. And there have been no serious scenes (serious being a relative term) about being deprived. Perhaps, Speedy and I have an easier time than others because we started talking to the girls –- without lying to them -– at a very early age. They key -– teach them to be discerning. How? Okay, I won’t lie to you. I don’t believe in expert advise. I can only share what I know based on my experiences as a mother of tweens who are now teens.
Be a good example. If your children see you as a profligate parent who can’t resist buying every pretty blouse or pair of shoes even when your closet and shoe rack are already bulging, they’re likely to behave in a similar way.
Tell them the truth about celebrity endorsers. Tweens and teens often idolize celebrities. Instead of being starry-eyed yourself, tell them, in terms they’d understand, how the endorsing business goes – that these celebrities do not necessarily endorse products because they actually like and use them but because they get paid millions to do it. These are documented, anyway, and the data are widely available on the internet. Show them the evidence.
Don’t tell them that there are things that they cannot have simply because of their age. If you have to say no, tell the real reason. For instance, when Sam first took an interest in photography, she wanted a DSLR camera. She was about 14 at the time, I had already given her my point-and-shoot camera but she wanted a DSLR, a rather expensive gadget, and there were endless discussions about it. One time, we were in the car and she was nagging us about it. Her father said, “You know, you should be happy that you have your own camera. When I was your age, I didn’t own a digital camera.” To which Sam retorted, “When you were my age, they hadn’t invented digital cameras!” But the real reason why we wouldn’t give her a DSLR then was because we weren’t sure if her interest in photography was a serious one. And spending over fifty thousand pesos for a passing fancy did seem ridiculous. It took some months to assess that she was serious. But after we were sure, we gave her a DSLR. Less than two years later, she went off to college to pursue a degree in photography. She is now in her second year.
If you have to go to the mall, identify the activities that you intend to accomplish there and set a limitation. Malls don’t exist to make our lives convenient. They are there to make us spend money even when we don’t need to. Every shop window, every flyer that is pushed into your hands, every banner that says 50% to 70% off… they are all ads convincing you of irresistible deals and egging you to spend money. And this is a generation when malling has become the past time of the average family. We do go malling. Mostly, to see a movie and eat out. But that’s the limit. Malling doesn’t mean an occasion to buy everything that catches our fancy. I know, it’s easier said than done. Even I have a hard time following that rule the moment I step inside a bookstore – books are my weakness. There may be occasions when you’ll feel it’s okay to buy a few things but you know best what your limit is, so, know when to stop swiping that plastic card.
Introduce your children to activities that do not involve buying anything. Whether you have tweens or teens, honestly, there are a lot of other and more productive activities that they can engage in other than mindless shopping. Introduce them to art, buy sketch pads, watercolor and colored pencils. Buy board games and spend all of Saturday night playing as a family (trust me, it’s fun!). Go to the park, fly kites and bring a picnic basket. Discover new places. It was during one of those weekends when we were looking for a nice place to spend a Sunday afternoon other than the mall that we discovered an aviary a mere 15 minutes away from our house.
Trust your children enough to make decisions about which ads to believe. Bottom line, as your children grow up, they will develop their own taste and preferences for everything which will not necessarily be the same as yours. Don’t insist that they follow your standards – they deserve their own identity. Rather, arm them with the right intellectual tools to learn how to tell the good products from the bad, no matter what all the ads in the world say. More importantly, teach them how to make a distinction between bad and good reasoning. I’ve already given an example above with the burger ads. Calling ads stupid is no longer something I do on a regular basis these days. But it’s heartening to listen to my kids do it on their own. For instance, an anti-aging cream ad came out on TV a couple of months ago and the model said, “It’s okay to be 40 so long as you look 30.” My 16-year-old daughter, Alex, exclaimed, “How stupid! Why do you have to pretend about your age?” See what I mean?