Raising kids is expensive. Just paying for the bare necessities can strain a budget to the max. And that’s before the insidious invasion of the “merch.” What am I talking about? I’m talking about all the branded stuff, most of it derived from licensed intellectual properties (IP’s), that seems to infiltrate every aspect of a child’s life. Take Paw Patrol as a current example. If your kid gets into the show, there are plenty of books, toys, clothing, school supplies, decor items, and even food products for you to buy to go along with it.
And you will pay. Generally speaking, items based on movies, TV shows, or sports teams are more expensive than their generic counterparts. Not only are you paying for the toy, shirt, or trash can, you’re paying for that license. It’s basically an invisible tax applied to the product that goes back to the movie studio or franchise. Worse than the hit to your wallet, a fixation on licensed stuff teaches kids to value brand identity and consumerism.
Once a kid is sucked in by the merch monster, a parent is generally faced with two choices: Buy the items and pay the inflated prices, or deal with the child’s meltdown. So how can you raise a kid without all the merch? Is it even possible to avoid inviting that monster into your home? Here are some ideas.
Limit Screen Time Altogether
This is probably the single biggest way to avoid merch. Kids want what they see, so the key is to keep the licensed stuff invisible. TV and the internet are full of advertising designed to lure your kids into the merch monster’s lair. It’s also the home of the TV and movies that spawn the products. Keeping kids off screens as much as possible will go a long way toward keeping the merch out of your home. But if you must give them TV…
If you must give TV to your kids, subscribe to streaming services without ads, or choose public broadcasting. At least then you’ll be reducing the relentless advertising. Choose shows that aren’t licensed, or at least aren’t as popular. Instead of Disney shows, for example, choose shows from public broadcasting, older properties that no longer have much merchandise tied to them, or independently produced shows on services like Kanopy. As a bonus, sometimes these independent shows are more educational and enriching than their big studio brethren.
Get Buy-In From Others
You can only control so much to resist the tide of consumerism, so you need to get help from the other people in your life. Tell grandparents and other gift-givers what you’re trying to accomplish. Let them know your preference for toys or items not tied to intellectual properties. One Paw Patrol gift might be all it takes to unleash the monster in your kid.
Avoid Licensed Books
Walking through the kid’s aisle at Barnes and Noble isn’t much different from walking through the toy aisle at Target. So many of the books feature licensed characters (and some include toys, to boot). Yet there are tons of books that aren’t tied in to various franchises. You might have to dig a little deeper on the shelves, but there are plenty of good choices, both classics and modern stories.
Avoid Licensed Toys
Choose non-licensed toys and games. Not only are these things gateways to ever more merch, most of them don’t encourage creativity or free play. Kids are led to reenact the scenes from the movies and play along with the already-created narrative. Instead, choose items that encourage open-ended play. Examples: Lego (the original boxes of bricks, not the licensed sets), blocks, non-licensed craft kits or coloring books, any board game not tied to a popular IP, art supplies that encourage the child to make their own stuff, generic stuffed animals, sporting goods, etc.
Choose Real-Life Experiences
Any sort of experience or time spent together is always going to be superior to any kind of store-bought item, licensed or not. Trips to the park, zoos, local beach or mountain, museums, camping in the backyard, etc. often cost less than some toys and (usually) offer a non-branded experience. There’s also the thrill of making up your own games at home, making cookies, reading together, playing board games together, or playing outside as a family. Find ways to spend time with your kids instead of pacifying them with merch.
Be careful with real life, though. Licensing can creep into your real life experiences/vacations/staycations, as well. Avoiding Disney is obvious, but a lot of local theme parks have ties to various IP’s. So do some play spaces and water parks. Also beware of licensed family entertainment like plays, ice shows, concerts, and “____ on Tour!” type shows. Beaches, mountains, and other natural vacations are usually safe, and stick to non-branded entertainment and local theater productions.
It’s Not Just Toys and Media
Beyond toys and books, avoid licensed clothes, school supplies, household items, decor, fast food giveaways, wrapping paper etc. This stuff is everywhere! You don’t realize just how ubiquitous it is until you see licensed tissue and paper towels.
Be A Model
Don’t go crazy over an IP and buy all the products and expect your kids not to want it, too. If you go nuts for every Star Wars action figure, for example, you can’t expect your kids not to do the same. One of my favorite TV shows was The Middle and there’s an episode that illustrates this perfectly. The youngest son is into “Planet Nowhere,” a fictional riff on the Harry Potter fandom. At a fan convention, he desperately wants the souvenirs. They’re super expensive, so the father won’t buy them. Son complains, dad stand his ground, until finally they both end up angry at each other. Back at home, dad is still griping about how much all this stuff costs. The son disappears for awhile and reappears clad head to toe in all of the father’s Colts memorabilia, even drinking from a Colts cup. Cut to them back at the convention and the dad is buying the souvenirs for the kid. Moral of the story: You can’t win the battle if you’re modeling the very behavior you’re trying to stop.
If you do decide to allow licensed merchandise into your home, set firm limits and stick to them. For example, you might allow only one IP into your home at a time. If the kid is into Star Wars but then also wants to get into Marvel, tell the kid to make a choice. Or you can set limits on types of merchandise permitted (toys only, no decor, for example), or base your limits on cost or total number of items allowed.
When they get to school and of an age to go to other kid’s houses, it gets harder to keep this up. Other kids have a lot more stuff, and may be deep into Frozen or SpiderMan. Your kids will see the branded school supplies and clothing. Movies and TV might not be as regulated at another home. Your previously unexposed kid will now likely catch the licensed product virus. This is where you have to step up and start teaching. Explain as much as you can about brands, costs, budgeting, advertising, issues around consumption, and the choices you make and why you make them. Even little kids can grasp the concepts, if explained appropriately.
Do you have anymore ideas for raising kids without all the merch? Let us know in the comments below.
Jennifer Derrick is a freelance writer, novelist and children’s book author. When she’s not writing Jennifer enjoys running marathons, playing tennis, boardgames and reading pretty much everything she can get her hands on. You can learn more about Jennifer at: https://jenniferderrick.com/.