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Book offers parents tips to avoid commercialization of kids’ world

Samantha Critchell Associated Press Writer

Today’s children are tomorrow’s consumers — and in the years in between they have an awful lot to say about their parents’ purchases — so is it any wonder that they are an attractive demographic for marketers?

Youngsters are faced with a bombardment of brands, advertising and labels, which can teach them to equate success and happiness with what they own instead of who they are, says Laura Buddenberg, co-author of “Who’s Raising Your Child: Battling the Marketers for Your Child’s Heart and Soul” (BT Press).

Beginning with the radio they turn on first thing in the morning, to the soda machines at school and all the pop-up ads they see on the Internet after school, children have no noncommercial space, she says.

“Twenty-five years ago, you didn’t want the label on your clothing to be seen. It couldn’t be more different now,” she says.

Buddenberg, 43, is the mother of two teenage girls, while co-author Kathleen M. McGee, also 43, has a 3-year-old son. They both work for Girls and Boys Town, the original Flanagan’s Boy’s Home in Villages of Boys Town, Neb.

Their book is the book they wanted to read as they sought guidance on how to deal with the commercialization of their children’s world, Buddenberg says during a phone interview. It examines sex, violence and why companies spend so much of their time courting people who might not have an income for years to come.

Buddenberg and McGee, though, don’t take the approach of condemning marketers. Instead, they offer advice to parents on how to help guide their children through a world where sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s hype, what’s not and what’s really important.

“Our view is marketers have every right to be out there and sell their stuff. The issue to me is that what gets sold to kids is the idea that happiness is based on what you own. I think kids are more valuable than the sum of their belongings,” Buddenberg says.

Also, she adds, all the marketing surrounding the prom or the first day of school inflate the importance of these events, stressing out children even more. “I spent less time preparing to get married than girls today do for the prom!” Buddenberg says.

Parents need to step in and help children differentiate between reality and perceived reality, she says.

Youth is known as a time in life for creativity, expression and individuality. Buddenberg says if kids are convinced by big businesses that they need to dress alike, play with the same toys and read the same books, they are cheated of important lessons in self-discovery.

But neither government censorship nor parental censorship — the non-negotiable “You can’t do that or have that because I said so” — is the answer, according to Buddenberg, who instead advocates “media literacy.”

She urges parents to set time limits for mass media exposure and set aside dedicated family time — a sit-down meal, a game night, an outdoor outing.

And, she adds, it’s never too early to start.

In a chapter called “Tykes and Television,” Buddenberg and McGee write that, unfortunately, marketing has become “the tail that wags the dog” of what used to be commercial-free educational television on the Public Broadcasting System.

Because of funding cuts, PBS shows such as “Sesame Street” use their licensing deals to raise the money to keep their positive programs on.

“Studies have proven that kids who regularly watch ‘Sesame Street’ do better in school, especially in math and science. But the program has also spawned a huge merchandising empire, with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Grover beckoning kids from toys, lunch boxes, books, movies and more,” they write.

They also note that some commercial children’s shows are now being developed around products instead of the more palatable PBS model.

“I’ll confess that some of that ‘Sesame Street’ stuff is a lot of fun. The Limbo Elmo toy is a blast, but you want to develop a good, balanced media diet,” Buddenberg urges.

Aren’t the Elmos and Dora the Explorers of 2004, the same as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny of yesteryear? asks Robin Corey, executive vice president and publisher of novelty, media tie-in and teen books for Simon & Schuster.

Simon & Schuster publishes books featuring SpongeBob Squarepants, Blue’s Clues, Dora, Bob the Builder and The Rugrats, among others.

Children gravitating to favorite characters is nothing new, she says, and sometimes their fondness for these familiar faces can coax them into learning activities.

“(Licensed) character books absolutely, positively get kids to read,” Corey says.

“If it’s more appealing to have a book with Dora than a generic illustration, then why not? This will spur interest in other books and reading in general,” she adds.

Corey argues that reading anything — magazines, comic books, and, yes, books starring TV characters — is better than children not reading at all.

“When I was a kid, I read comic books until they came out of my ears, and I turned out just fine in terms of my reading ability and literacy,” Corey says.

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