My Kids Went on a Road Trip and All They Got Were These Marketing Toys!

Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat book has some hilarious content that any parent can relate to. One chapter, “You Win, McDonalds” really struck home. My husband and I have often had discussions around the marketing of companies like McDonald’s and Legos. The marketing is so good it’s hard to fault either company with their success in these areas.

When we go on a road trip we almost always stop into at least one McDonald’s or one Cracker Barrel. We’ve tried other restaurants and McDonald’s wins out because of the happy meal and the cool toy they offer with it, and of course, most have a playground. And while we may not normally let our children go on the playground, mainly for time sake (though knowing they are not picking up any unknown germs is always reassuring) the fact that they have a playground screams “We Like Kids” to kids.  Cracker Barrel is a favorite, because you’ve got cool rocking chairs to hang out in on the porch (assuming you can find a free one) and you have to go through an awesome store in order to get to the restaurant. Everyone can find something they’d like to eat in the Cracker Barrel and can probably find something they wouldn’t mind buying too. To our kids Cracker Barrel screams “We Like Everyone!”

We recently went on a cross-country trip and spent many hours in the car. We inevitably hit a McDonald’s and a Cracker Barrel.  There were Happy Meals and miscellaneous knick-knacks purchased. And while the Happy Meal toy or the Cracker Barrel trinket may be easily forgotten, by our children they were part of good memories for all of us.

We went on a road trip. We drove hundreds of miles and survived with smiles on our faces. Success!

Where did my Money Go? Adventures in Children’s Marketing

When I first had my oldest son, I was struck at how many things are marketed to children and how well it’s all done. It starts slowly. First, you are drawn into the clothes—after all your baby needs them, but you don’t want your baby to wear just anything, you want them to be hip, trendy, look cool or sweet. Then comes the furniture and how you decorate their room. There are so many choices and you want their room to reflect their future personality (mainly it ends up reflecting what you hope their future personality to be). Then comes the toys, development toys start first. They are marketed under terms like Einstein, Genius, and Smart. This marketing is brilliant in my opinion. It’s so simple and tugs at any parent’s primal desire to raise an educated child. Have you ever met someone who wants to have a dumb baby? I certainly haven’t. Of course we want to give our child every advantage so we buy, buy, buy. We can’t help ourselves.

As your child ages, you may become aware of these marketing trappings and may even have some success from getting caught up in the hoopla. If so, you are in the minority (but good for you!). Who hasn’t gone into a Target and thought I just need to buy my son a t-shirt, only to walk out $100+ later with a t-shirt, a couple pairs of shorts, an activity book or two, plus some shoes for the next season and some of the other items you’ve been meaning to buy. I actually avoid going to Target because I seem to fall into this trap almost every time. What just happened to my money? Did I really have to stop at the in-store Starbucks and get myself a drink? Why did I feel the need to buy all the other items now?

Target stores are inviting, they shout welcome, come this way! They are convenient and know who many of their customers are—parents! It’s genius.

Then your child will start to get into certain genres of toys. It will be their obsession. You just don’t know how long it will last. My oldest LOVED airplanes. His obsession started when he was two until we entered kindergarten. He wanted every airplane he could get his hands on, every airplane book or toy. My youngest LOVED (and still loves) all things related to the Pixar movie Cars. He wants any and every car associated with the movie or off-shoot and nothing seems to satiate his appetite for these toys.

My oldest has now moved from airplanes to Legos (as mentioned in previous posts). Lego is different than the Legos my husband and I were familiar with. You have to be a Lego fan or you won’t get caught up in the hype. Lego makes it easy to be a fan. And if you are a fan, you’re a goner. I made the mistake of coming across one their Lego Minifigure Collections when my children were young and we were getting ready to go on a camping trip. For anyone unfamiliar with Lego Minifigure Collections, they come out about once a year with a new series. Each series continues unique minifigures. Each minifigure costs approximately $3, cheap enough that you don’t feel guilty buying it. These minifigures come in packaging doesn’t allow you to know which character you are buying until you open it…it’s a mystery. I picked up four minifigure collection bags and gave two to each of my boys. It cost $12 and for the joy it brought them it was well worth the money, except…your children will want other minifigures in that same collection, or they’ll figure out there are other collections and want minifigures from that, and you didn’t pick those bags so now you have a choice: listen to your child beg, or go buy them more and hope that you find the correct character. I caved the first few times my children asked (after all what’s $3, right?) and bought each child another minifigure or two. Any parent that is honest will admit that you try to decipher what is in the bag before you decide to buy it. Is that a guitar for the rock star minifigure? Is that the helmet to the warrior minifigure? Does this have a gold feeling to it? (Lego enthusiasts familiar with the most recent minifigure collection will get this reference). Once I got repeat characters, I decided no more. It was like playing the lottery and realizing I was gambling away my money. No thank you, I think I may already be doing that at Target! Once I came to this conclusion, my children realized Mom would no longer cave. That doesn’t mean no more minifigures, it just means minifigures in moderation. Lego does make it hard to resist.

Genius. Pure genius.

Every time I feel like I’m starting to get smarter about how things are marketed to children and how I’m drawn in as their parent, I realize many companies still have a jump on me. How can I compete with them when we’re on… a road trip?

To be continued…

Reaching Your Full Potential

My boys are big fans of Cartoon Network’s Ninjago. The story follows four ninja as they train, taught by their master Sensei Wu, in order to defeat the great Lord Garmadon. The Lego minifigures—Cole, Kai, Jay and Zane—was what first drew my sons in.  My husband and I have found there are actually some pretty good lessons Sensei Wu teaches his young apprentices in the series—to appreciate differences, appreciate what you have, and to work hard to reach your full potential.

As a parent, I certainly want my children to appreciate differences, appreciate what they have, and reach their full potential, but often think how do my husband and I do that?  For me, it starts with having a plan that captures what you want to teach your child (e.g., values, morals, beliefs, experiences, etc.). While my husband and I had similar upbringings (two parents, small town upbringing, etc.) we didn’t have identical ones. When I was pregnant we both thought about things we wanted to incorporate from our own upbringings and things we didn’t (I think this is common for many new parents or parents-to-be to do). We took it a step further and wrote down things we wanted to teach our children and things we didn’t independent of each other and then compared notes. That’s how we started our plan.

The plan is dynamic and will change as our children grow and as we grow as parents. It requires inspection—are our children learning appreciation, for example.  If so, how?  If not, what do we need to change?  Our busy lives can leave us a bit drained at the end of each day, and weekends can feel like “catch up” time for all the things we weren’t able to get to during the week.  I find that I have to carve out time to ensure I am able to evaluate, with my husband, how we are doing in our parenting journey. Most nights we find some time after the kids have gone down. It takes work, it takes thought and it takes commitment.

While I want my children to reach their full potential and appreciate their talents whether they come to them naturally or they work hard to gain them. I want to reach my full potential as an individual, and as their parent. It’s hard to conceive that achieving that goal is possible, but I’m not going to stop trying. Thankfully I don’t have to master my skills to defeat an evil dark lord, but I do need to master my skills gain confidence in myself, and in my parenting journey.

How are you helping your child reach their full potential?  How are you reaching yours?