The Thomas Dilemma

By: Susan Linn

This is the first post in our new series CCFC Q&A: Commercial Quandaries for Modern Parents.

Q: We made the mistake of letting Thomas into our almost-four-year-old’s life and now he is obsessed. I like the wooden track as it encourages creativity and problem solving (and there are plenty of non-Thomas trains for it) but I cringe daily at the requests for ever more characters and so forth to add to his collection. I wish I had looked into it more before exposing him to it—we like trains in our family, that’s about all the thinking that went into it. Is there any undoing this? I feel as though Britt Allcroft has a firm grip on our son’s soul (and our bank account). :( —Jennifer

A: How great that your whole family loves trains and what a thoughtful parent you are. Your dilemma is not unusual for parents raising young children in our hyper-commercialized world. But it certainly is frustrating. We often hear from parents wishing they could reverse a decision to introduce their young children to media icons. Many of these characters are delightful and incredibly appealing to children—the problem is that they are usually also irresistible springboards for a $10 billion brand-licensing business of toys, tech, food, clothing, and accessories. 

You can’t turn back the clock, but here are some suggestions for taking steps to mitigate the problem. As you read through them, remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all for raising children and how you handle this will depend on your child, your budget, and your values:

  • Remember that it’s okay to say no. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge and validate your son’s feelings for the character. Try saying things like “I know you love Thomas, but we don’t want to buy any more. Let’s play with the ones you already have.” If he’s gets upset about it, validate those feelings, too. “I know you’re upset (or sad, or mad), but we think you have enough.” 
  • Try encouraging your son to mix the other trains you own in with his branded trains. You can encourage your son to pretend that the other trains are distant relatives of the Thomas trains. 
  • Encourage him to expand his play with Thomas characters to include more creativity. How about building buildings along the track out of blocks and pipe cleaners. Or making freight out of clay for the trains to carry—anything that expands his play beyond Thomas story lines. 
  • If he asks for new ones after he watches the program, talk to him about that. You can try saying things like, “It seems like watching the program is hard for you because it makes you want to buy more Thomas trains. Do you think you can have fun watching it even if you’re not going to get any more? If not, maybe you should stop.” If you do this, make sure to follow through. 

As your son’s social world expands, you will have increasingly less control over what popular characters he encounters and so it’s good to think ahead about how you want to respond to his request for them. And you can make conscious decisions at home about whether, if, and when you want to introduce your son to other media programs that promote brand-licensed characters. The less they figure into your lives at home, the less nagging you’ll be subjected to! On the other hand, parents often want to take their young children to the movies or have them watch videos. If you do, think about setting limits ahead of time. You can say things like, “It’s okay to watch this, but we’re not going to buy any of the toys.”

I hope these suggestions help. All the best to you and your family.

This is the first in a series of Q&A’s with CCFC staff. If you have a commercial quandary email [email protected].