They're everywhere. Dora, Thomas, Lightning McQueen, Tinkerbell… There is a ridiculous glut of “licensed characters”, a tsunami wave of appealing individuals that tempt our kids with this back pack and that sticker sheet.
As a parent, you can't avoid them.
A friend recently expressed surprise that one of my kids has shoes that feature a Disney character. I shrugged. What's a mom to do?
Brother-Bug knew so few of these characters, in his pristine first-child environment. Sister-Bug could identify the Pixar pantheon before she turned two. And don't think that characters are limited to Disney and conglomerates. Books and PBS get into the racket too – with Very Hungry Caterpillar toys and Fancy Nancy dress-up ensembles and Max & Ruby t-shirts. But there are some things we do to control the amount of characters that invade our world.
Limit the Cast
We choose who we invite to grace their lunch boxes or t-shirts. There are only so many hours in the day, and so much space in our brains so we don't go in for every single character. We are picky.
At the heart of the choice is what I am willing to deal with. We choose characters who don't make Papa-Bug and me insane – after all, we have to live with these individuals too. I loathe and despise Elmo's infantile yammering. We don't do Elmo. We think the overall message of “Cars” is great, and the Tinkerbell movies are watchable, so we give those players more traction in our home.
We research into the messages behind the characters and their stories, looking for themes of peace and respect, love and community, because these things matter to us. We try to bring in characters whose stories mesh well with our family story. “Cars” is a good example – Lightning discovers that it is the love and support of your community that really makes life awesome. I've seen that movie. A lot.
Expand The Story
We try to bring the liscensed characters out of their written story and into our own. When kids get into a story, sometimes it is hard to play any other story, any other way. So we make up new characters to use in our own bedtime tale, and sometimes work Tinkerbell or Luke Skywalker into that tale.
We introduced the Little-Bugs to the idea of “mash-ups” so that Sister-Bug could play a Princess game as Cimorene (from the book Dealing with Dragons) while Brother-Bug was Han Solo. This has led to some wonderful play I have overheard:
“Okay Cimorene! Jump into the Starship Enterprise. I'm Luke Skywalker and we are flying to see Yoda and Tinkerbell at the hot springs!”
Our effort is to support imaginative play and not get too hung up on who those players are or from what corporation they came. So far it seems to be working.
Supporting Certain Characters
When they find someone they really love, like Lightning McQueen, we support that new friend and bring him into our world. A ball cap, a pair of shoes, a sleeping bag. When we buy character items I try to buy things I would buy anyway – like shoes or a t-shirt – instead of more extraneous items that we don't need.
The thrift store is a great place to get character stuff, because kids go through their favorite characters as fast as they go through shoe sizes…so there is usually lots to choose from. And I am happy knowing that I put my money toward a thrift store I like instead of directly into the Disney Machine.
Forbidden Fruit vs. Just Say No
For good or ill, characters exist. I can't keep my kids blindfolded in public, nor would I want to. I have my favorite charters too – Mr. Darcy doesn't have his own line of merchandise, but I'd probably get a t-shirt if I could find one.
I'm not going to forbid liscensed characters because that only increases their allure. I am going to be clear about my limits on these characters and why. I'm comfortable telling the kids “No, I won't read that Dora book. Dora makes me crazy. Let's read something else that we both like.” I don't tell them they can't check out Dora books from the library – but I do tell them I won't read them. I don't limit what they can buy with their own money – but I won't spend my money on Dora or Sponge Bob.
As Brother-Bug has gotten older I have explained more in-depth, and found that he retains the general ideas of annoying characters and making choices for quality. He understands that there is a limited amount of time and energy we have for reading and playing and that I want to spend that time with books and movies and toys that are actually enjoyable to me, that feed me in someway.
Balance – As Always
Like anything, it is an act of balance that we keep refining as we grow and change. Ultimately, I'm trying to teach the Little-Bugs how to navigate advertising, how to find their own real interests, and how to keep each brain for their own personal use instead of a tabla rasa for the advertisers to write on. I may be adding to the list they someday share with a therapist… But my hope is that they remember fun times and toys, fondly recalling Fancy Nancy or Bob the Builder and that they learn to look for quality in their media and merchandise decisions as they grow older. Here's to hoping!
And of course, I am interested… How do you deal with liscensed characters in your household?