Ads and Kids

Like all the other neglected kids of the 70’s, I grew up glued to the TV for Saturday morning cartoons, getting my impressionable little brain blasted with ads for toys, sugary cereal and candy, in between episodes of The Smurfs and Menudo videos.

The jingles of my childhood are still rolling around in said brain, while other, much more important information consistently gets deleted. It’s highly irritating to remember all the words to the Big Red song and yet have difficulty committing a new phone number to memory.

Advertising is powerful stuff. The word on the street is that more progressive countries like Norway and Sweden have banned advertising to children altogether. Kudos, to you, Scandinavians, for recognizing that children have no filter when it comes to ads. They take at absolute face-value what they are being told on the screen, and at the tender age of 4 or 5, haven’t yet learned to blur out the ads that fly at them at all times.

This is becoming obvious with my Bean, more on this in a moment, but first let me revisit a childhood event which proves this point.

When I was about 8 years old, and my younger sister 3, we kept seeing a TV commercial for a ride-on toy called “Inchworm”. (This could be the one: At around the 9 second mark, you will observe a curly-haired girl who looked a little bit like my sib. “That’s me!,” my sister insisted.

Awww, isn’t that cute, we all said. She thinks she’s in the commercial. And next, yup, you guessed it, a request to obtain an Inchworm of her very own. I’m not sure if we were actually at the toy store within the hour, that’s how 8-year-old me remembers it, but at some point immediately after, we did, in fact, have an Inchworm lurking in the garage. As ride-on toys go, it was totally inferior to a tricycle or Big Wheel, and was soon gathering dust, as my sister preferred to ride a vehicle that actually went somewhere. (This guy’s review on Amazon sums it up nicely.)

The moral of the story is that companies shouldn’t be allowed to market their crap toys to children, and, obviously, parents should turn a deaf ear to their kids’ repeated pleas for this or that shiny gadget.

I’ve been learning of late how hard it is to just say no when your kid really, really wants you to say yes. My son will beg with the relentlessness of the tide beating against a rocky shore. He will not stop, ever, until the coveted thing is in his possession. And that may just be a thing he decided he wanted of his own volition, not a thing that some marketer on TV told him he must want. 

We don’t actually have “TV” in the conventional sense. Bean watches DVD’s, movies, and episodes of things on Netflix.  This helps limit his exposure to loud, seizure-inducing commercials that turn him into a crazed animal of consumption. When he was little, he didn’t understand what commercials were, and so, when he happened to see them would try to make sense of how they fit into the story-line of the show he was watching. Trying to explain what ads are to a 3-year-old makes you realize how messed up our culture is. Well honey, people make things and they want us to buy them, so they use pictures to tell us how amazing the thing is. But mostly they are lies, all lies, and you should learn to ignore them.

Bean recently revealed to me what an absorbent little sponge he is at the family cottage. When we (the grown-ups), want some quiet time, we park him in front of the telly for an hour, usually watching a DVD. Then the DVD player died, so we scrolled around the channels and found very little in the way of children’s programming – so settled on a channel that plays retro cartoons all the time. Perfect! I thought. Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs on tap.

After a few cottage TV sessions, one evening he interrupted my wine-drinking with a declaration that he had seen a toy on TV that he had to have. Now. It was called a “Sea Pad” he said. It was a wondrous item that you could use in the car and take with you places, he said. On your bike, on a plane! It could also be a pillow! So many uses for this incredible toy. He asked me to Google it and figure out where we could get one, stat.

Further investigation revealed that they are actually called “Seat Pets.” The commercial for it is a terrible, low-budget affair that is over TWO minutes long. Two minutes is all it takes to fully brain-wash a child. Studies have been done. Here is a special gem:

And, hey, mom and dad, ever heard this, “Are we there yet?!” That’s one question you’ll never get when kids ride with Seat Pets! 

Bean found that last bit particularly compelling. He believed that all of his car-ride boredom was now a thing of the past, but only if we could get our hands on a Seat Pet. The only way out of it was to make non-committal remarks about how we might find one… one day… Thankfully, without further exposure he has forgotten all about Seat Pets.

Now that summer is over, we are no longer doing unchaperoned TV sessions, which is probably a good thing, as the other day in the kitchen he piped up with, Have you ever heard of Herbal Magic? It’s a great product that you can use to lose weight and be healthy!

Ugh, the pristine landscape of my child’s mind is now littered with Herbal Magic and Seat Pets and it’s all my fault! Obviously, the only solution is to move to Norway.

(Check out the ad for Seat Pets)

Orange Nail Polish

My kiddo has been sporting orange nail polish off and on for the last couple of weeks. The reactions of the general public have ranged from: meh, to how cute, to downright horror.

Bean’s likes and interests are pretty firmly in the “boys” camp. Spider-Man, other super-heroes, blowing things up with explosive accompanying noises, Star Wars, pirates. He is covered in bruises from leaping off of furniture in high-speed reenactments of Kung-Fu Panda scenes. You get the picture. Playing Calico Critters with him has always inwardly annoyed me because he wants things to blow up and then flies the critters away on jet-packs. And I just want the kitties to sit down and have a nice piece of toast and marmalade. I don’t even know how he learned about jet-packs.

However, I have never ever said to him, “That’s a boy’s game.” or “Only girls wear dresses.” I have tried (key word, tried) not to impose on him the strict gender-divide rules that society at large seems to love. If he wants to put on a sparkly Tinkerbell dress at the play centre, so be it. He likes doing artsy, creative things with his hands, and convinced his Daddy to first learn, then teach him, how to knit. He is making a purple scarf. (Note that he asked Daddy to teach him because he knows that Mum would be completely crap at it.)

A little while ago, he began asking me if he could paint his nails. Yeah, I hesitated.

First off, I don’t put anything chemical-ish on his little body, so it would have to be one of the “natural” brands. I knew they sold it at our local toy store. And secondly… I realized I was having a hard time with it because there was a very small voice in my head, murmuring, Boys don’t wear nail polish. After much coaxing on his part and a little inner debate on my part, I finally told the voice to stuff it and took him to the toy store. He picked out a lustrous, fluorescent orange. We went straight home to apply it and he insisted on doing fingers and toes himself. He was thrilled with the results. Everywhere we went for a couple of days, he showed off his digits to anyone who seemed remotely interested. (And to many people who clearly weren’t.)

I’m thankful that he was oblivious to the variety of responses from friends, strangers and neighbours. Friends thought it was cool. Because our friends are cool. Strangers thought it was weird. Oh well. And our elderly, super-conservative Portuguese-Canadian neighbour didn’t love it. He is a kindly man, but he said, “Boys don’t wear nail polish” twice in one conversation, all the while shaking his head and eyeing me with a kind of bemused smile on his face. I like him and he’s old and hard-of-hearing, so I refrained from giving him a lecture about gender equality, but just gave him an awkward grin and said, “Yes, they do.”

Okay, I know it’s not exactly revolutionary, but a little side-step outside the bounds of our society’s norms is, to my mind, a step in the right direction. If we all just consistently accepted the status quo, well ladies, you know where we would be. It’s because of the intrepid spirits before us who chose to be different, that we can vote, work, get a buzz-cut, READ, own property, and get married or not, as we choose.

There was once a time in our culture when people said, “Girls don’t wear pants.” Hell, my own mother had to wear skirts to high school in the 60’s. Had to. 

Right now, while he is still only 5, I can’t predict who my son will be or what he will like or who he will love when he is older. I only know that it is my job, (yes, I looked it up, it’s in the job description) to love him for who he is. To protect him from criticism. To cherish the fact that he is my beautiful child, and to make him feel respected for the choices he makes.

And right now, my kid chooses to express his creativity and artistic nature through a bold use of colour that he thinks, (and I agree) looks quite awesome on his little hands.

So when the quiet voice in our heads starts saying, “Girls don’t…” or “Boys don’t…”, well, you know what to do.

Backyard Hot Tub

Almost every day, my four-year-old son comes up with some elaborate schematic for a machine he would like to build or project he has in mind. He wants his mum to help him make his vision a reality. He then becomes irate or choked with tears when I cannot make whatever it is “real.”

One of the most beautiful qualities of small children is their absolute faith that their parents are master engineers or rocket scientists, when in fact they almost failed Grade 10 Science. I love that Bean thinks I could ever, in this current incarnation, build a robot out of odds and ends we have lying around the house. But it’s also super frustrating to get him to understand why it is not physically possible, as he screams at me in rage.

As a toddler, heck, even six months ago, he was easily pawned off with a facsimile made out of cardboard and his imagination filled in the rest. But now he wants his devices to have fully functioning capabilities.

On our recent trip to Florida, he got on this kick about wanting to build some sort of cannon, that would launch cannon-balls at targets, and I suppose, make them explode. The last bit was hazy. My long-suffering mother spent an hour making this contraption out of a wine box, vacuum hose, golf balls and duct tape. Bean was thrilled! His evil plan was nearing completion! But then. It didn’t actually work. It wasn’t real. Tears were shed and then lots of disappointed shouting.

The very next day, he again drew up a blueprint for a machine. But this one would be a spraying machine that could knock houses down. It had to spray some sort of material which would make the house collapse. He and I constructed it out of an old water bottle with holes poked in the lid. We decorated it. We took it outside to trial our prototype. I “sprayed” it at the house. Of course the house refused to collapse properly, in fact didn’t at all. Bean was upset. NO! he shrieked. You have to make it ACTUALLY work! We spent a very long time discussing why this was not possible. In the end I got annoyed and did some shouting of my own.

Not all of his wacky plans are demolition-based. One day he got very upset because he wanted to visit a pool and go in a hot tub. It was a Sunday night, so I explained that all the pools were closed. Without missing a beat and sniffling away, he suggested that we could dig a hole in our backyard and fill it with hot water. I gently explained that it was March and the water wouldn’t stay hot in the freezing ground. He thought we could cover it with some wooden boards to keep the water warm. I explained that the ground was frozen and impossible to dig a hole in anyway. This last bit finally convinced him that his hot tub dreams were not to be. That day. But oh when the ground thaws…

There have been so many times that his inability to accept reality vs. his fantastic plans has driven me nuts. I have been badgered for over an hour to “buy some wood” and help him build a house in the yard. He once wanted me to suspend his cardboard-box house from the ceiling for him to sleep in for the night. I did let him sleep in it – on the floor, once he accepted that it couldn’t be hung up.

Of course, I want  to make his dreams come true, and whenever possible, I try to. I love how imaginative and creative he is and I don’t want to quash that. I like to think that these designs are forerunners of actual, functional plans he’ll devise as an adult. In his future career as a rocket scientist?

He’ll have to pass Grade 10 Science though.

The Urge to Purge

Kids come with a lot of stuff. First-time parents believe, whole-heartedly, that precious Baby needs every new bouncy chair, ergonomic carrier, organic rubber squeaky giraffe and all-natural baby balm that hits the market. And so we frantically stock up on these items, reading Amazon reviews and weighing the pros and cons of disposable diapers vs. cloth.

The result is a veritable stuff explosion. By this I mean, like a bomb that goes off in your previously pristine adult abode. Half of this plastic junk is designed for large suburban homes, not narrow urban Victorians – so of course you have to sell the coffee table to make room for the Exersaucer. True story.

In our house, we are not huge fans of stuff. My husband would prefer to live in a monastic cell with only his rice bowl and hessian robes for worldly goods. There are definitely times that I’m right there with him, daydreaming of lighting a match and sending all of our crap up in flames as we march off into the sunset to live like nomads. The thing that I have always loved about long stints of travel is how completely unencumbered you are by things. You’ve got one bag, that’s it, you pack it, you move on, you unpack it, and so on.

I admit I have a split personality when it comes to things. There was a time in my life when I owned very little, and between the ages of 18 and 26 moved house, city and country more than 25 times. With each move, I was bound to let a few things go. All of this moving found my husband and I washing up on Toronto’s shores in 2003 with a few bags but not a stick of furniture between us. Friends supplied us with old IKEA bits and we were off. Stuff accumulation began. Snowballed. Getting married and having a baby are really good ways of collecting things too. We now live in a 2.5-storey house that is packed to the rafters with our own personal flotsam and jetsam.

In my defence, I’m not about to be featured on that show about hoarders. I can still find my bed with ease. Back to the split personality – I keep way more things than I should, mostly because I hate for things to go to waste and I feel almost panicky at the thought of landfill. Horrors like the Pacific Garbage Patch haunt me. So if I’m going to get rid of something, I want to do it responsibly. I want my things to find new life somewhere else, with someone else. Just anywhere but here.

The last couple of years have not seen much purge, for pretty good reasons. After all that has happened with Bean, all by himself he has been on a pretty good roll of stuff collection. The kid has received more gifts and toys than any 4-year-old really should, but I can’t possibly complain about the generosity of our friends, family and perfect strangers who have been so giving to him. He is also a prolific artiste, and brings home reams of paintings and whole galleries of sculpture from his various activities. He is rightfully spoiled rotten. And THIS is where this mama has issues – like a hoarder I’ve become sentimentally attached to his stuff, even if it’s a crappy old sticker book or scribble drawing he did when he was 2.

Today is the first day of spring, but you wouldn’t know it by the swirling snowflakes circling my window. With spring comes spring cleaning, and I’m determined to ruthlessly cull the herd.

The process has begun with a Goodwill clothes drop. I didn’t have much luck selling things on craigslist or Kijiji. Then the light bulb went off: why sell things when I can just give them away? After all, we have been on the receiving end of SO much kindness and generosity, it’s time to pay it forward. And the craigslist people go crazy for free stuff. I have got rid of both a broken vacuum AND an unused sitz bath, amongst other, better quality things.

Now I’d better go tidy the hoarder’s pile office. I’ve got some purging to do.


Ah, Fall.

The ice-cream-eating and jumping-in-lakes of summer are a distant memory now. Fall is Back to School, and beginning new projects, it’s crunchy coloured leaves. It’s shorter days. It’s tweed sweaters and running through an apple orchard with a golden retriever. It’s turkey, pumpkin pie and decorative gourds.

If Fall were an ex-boyfriend he’d be a bookish sort in glasses. He’s got elbow patches on his cardigan and prefers to be known by his proper name, Autumn. Whereas Summer is a tanned surfer dude that’s all like, Whoa. And then he takes off on his jet-ski.

My Australian husband has never really come around to the concept of concrete seasonal lines. He doesn’t get that, after Labour Day weekend, summer is over. It doesn’t matter that it’s still 28 degrees out, it’s time to put away the flip-flops and get out the yard rake. And September is not Back to School for him, that’s February. Now that our son has actually started school, I think the cultural implications of the first “-ber” month are finally sinking in.

Craig comes from Sydney, a city blessed by the gods in many ways. It sprawls around a beautiful harbour, there are palm trees, there are 24-hour bars. Most importantly though, the sun shines. Almost. Every. Day. Your barbecue never gets rained out. You will never spend a picnic or a camping trip huddled under a dripping tarp wearing fleece. On what is supposed to be the hottest day of the year.

All of that sun and lack of wild temperature fluctuations make Sydneysiders (seriously, that’s what they are called) pretty happy folk. This is also the reason half of England lives in Bondi. Australians don’t have to contend with all the seasonal labour we have to put up with here in North America.

They don’t have to haul one wardrobe out of storage while tearfully bidding adieu to one’s summer dresses. “I will see you next year my friends, or perhaps in March. In Cuba.”

They don’t have to suffer post-Victorian guilt over not canning a bunch of organic vegetables grown in the garden.

They don’t have to buy their kids new snow-suits everysingle year. They don’t have to buy them ever.

They don’t have to spend countless hours raking up leaves and bagging them, only to rake up the next lot the very next day. Because no matter how many times you think there simply are not any more leaves on the trees to fall, there are. Until there aren’t. And then it’s winter.

They don’t have to clean out the eaves, fire up the furnace, and put away the patio furniture. They don’t have to figure out the best time to put on the snow tires.

You are probably asking yourself why we live in Toronto and not Sydney, since I find all this work so tiresome. Good question. An especially good question when the temperature is a solid 2° C today and I will be fetching my winter parka down from the loft later on.

Toronto is a comfy kind of city where 3 million people from every country in the world rub shoulders without too much friction. T.O. is flat enough to cycle around with ease, and is laid out on a grid, making getting lost impossible. Whatever you want to eat, from souvlaki to sushi, it’s here somewhere. We’ve got a really high tower, and a huge lake. Crime is low. We’ve got parks. We’ve got trees, and right now, most of those are the colour of flames.

In about two months the pond down the road from us will be frozen over, and you might find us skating there on a Saturday morning. Beat that, Sydney.