It’s at once exhilarating and terrifying. My kids “know” Elmo. I don’t mean we’ve been to Sesame Place (we haven’t) or that they watch Sesame Street (they don’t) or that they have three thousand Elmo-emblazoned toys at home (they haven’t). I mean, they’re at the age where they’re pointing out all the Elmos in the world. And that furry red monster is a sneaky bastard, lemme tell ya. Dude is everywhere. Sure there’s clothes, toys, and games. Elmo has moved beyond the Tickle Me stage, and has matured into Big Hugs, Forever Friends, Lullaby & Good Night, Steps to School, Guitar Elmo, Potty Time Elmo, Counting, Trains, Soccer, K’nex, Memory, LeapFrog, and, the most disturbing evolution yet of the Tickle Me Elmo, “LOL Elmo”. In addition to fruit snacks and applesauce with the tempting red furry mug on them, Elmo is now peddling a variety of Earth’s Best organic foods, including crackers, cookies, canned pasta in sauce, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, squeeze-pouch smoothies, and frozen entrees.
Unlike the happy meal or cereal box that comes with a prize (do they still do that? Or is an iTunes download more enticing?), these products have little to do with the character on them. Maybe the crackers are shaped like Elmo’s head, but the oatmeal is just oatmeal. They are simply branded to build loyalty, character recognition, and ring up sales. My friend who is an expert in mass media is nodding vigorously right about now, and it’s no shocker. Kids’ characters promote products to families with kids.
My children are just now entering the word-combining phase of their speech development. We are collecting their gems such as “Mama poop” (a comment) “No, doggy!” (a condemnation)“Mama, off shirt” (a command) and “More oatmeal” (a request). One of the things that fascinated me as they learned their first words were the semantic features they would use to differentiate between words. “Cracker” was an early word, and it encompasses all small, crunchy hand-held foods, such as Chex, Cheerios, Ritz, yogurt melts, freeze-dried strawberries and Gerber puffs. My son uses his name to apply to all babies, in person or in pictures. The children may understand many differentiations for footwear, but only a binary distinction is required expressively. There are “choos”, and there are “cocks”. And when they want their Crocs, you’ll know, as they shriek and point “COCK” at the top of their lungs. (and don’t ask me about how they pronounce “fork” and “shirt”). Beyond the thrilling worlds of clothing and food, they’re learning about their environment and the people/animals in it. Children’s authors receive a dictum that approximately 70% of books must contain farm animals. I think the library associations are subliminally preparing our children for an agrarian lifestyle. They’re also learning about furniture, everyday objects, and those big grown-up strollers: cars. No shocker that “car” was one of their first words, and that “mama car” and “dada car” were two of the earliest two-word phrases. Taking them shopping was a veritable sensory overload in the parking lot, trying to label and point to all the cars individually. (There’s a car! There’s another car! A car! Look, a car! Omigosh, another one! Car over there! Here’s a car!”)
So it follows that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were identifying Abby Cadabby and Elmo as we ventured out into the world. Mind, they’ve never seen the television tuned to any children’s programming. We have books with these characters, and they occasionally have seen them on their box of crackers or in a Babies ‘R Us circular. Taking them through Target or the grocery store is getting dangerous. They’re liable to point out every Abby and Elmo in sight. And of course, I get excited and proud when they recognize a familiar character or object. Yes, my sweet little geniuses, that is a dog walking in our neighborhood! That is an avocado just like we eat at home! But just as I can’t buy every avocado in the supermarket, I’m not going to bring home every Disney Cars toy either.
Planning their birthday party last year – I should say overplanning – I was lost for a “theme”. Diving into the depths of Pinterest I saw all manner of one-year-old themes, from Eric Carle, to Dr. Seuss, to “You are my Sunshine”, to Mickey Mouse, to trucks. I know the party is for the parents, to celebrate having survived the hardest year of their lives, have kept the defenseless slug-like child alive long enough to actually enjoy it, but I was perplexed by the themes. Visits to the overachieving parents’ blogs would reveal, “Little Bisquick is so into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we carved a butter sculpture with naturally-derived dyes in the shape of a chrysalis”. Or “Rubella is so into Cookie Monster we turned the house into a Sesame Street backdrop for photo ops”. I wondered if there was something wrong with my kids that they hadn’t expressed preferences yet. Should they be “into” princesses or hippos or farm equipment by now? Sure there are books we read over and over and over again until we know them from memory, but my kids’ demanding to hear “Moo Baa Lalala” for the 47th time doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the Sandra Boynton paper plates and napkins in the world. I know they need repetition to learn language and concepts. That’s why Blue’s Clues airs the same show five days a week. It’s not so parents want to drive ice picks through their ears; kids actually learn that way. (Learning from television itself, now that’s a separate story)
Once they started pointing out all the Elmos in the world, they also started pointing out more mundane things. Cars, for one, but also doors. My kids love to knock on doors, especially if their parents are behind said doors, trying to use the bathroom. (I may have taught them this game, but I may have been influenced by a college roommate. I’m not naming names. It’s funny if you’re 1 or 21, that’s all I’m saying.) So when we go to the children’s museum, they get excited by seeing the plastic bananas in the supermarket, riding the boat in the fairytale-themed exhibit, and knocking on the doors to the maintenance rooms. Are they “into” doors? Are they “into” bananas?
No, because outside of the sexy world of energy efficiency, Pella hasn’t figured out how to make doors fun and exciting to parents. Chiquita hasn’t been working on cultivating the 3-and-under set to demand banana appliqués on their onesies. There’s no commercial market place for unbranded products. And no birthday theme packs, either.
I suppose that parents are so excited to see their kids recognize an object or character, that they project their own schema of interest, and that supplants the baby’s intent to just say, “Hey, mom, that’s a dog”. Identifying the object (or pointing to every car in the parking lot) is the purpose of the interaction. I know we want to support their growth, so we look for their interests. We buy them all the Elmo drek, we fill their playrooms with vehicles and princess paraphernalia. I think that gender roles and gender norms creep deviously into our minds and our parenting styles much more subtly than we think. It’s not just the glittery pink Stride Rite shoes versus Star Wars action sneakers. It’s also caregivers seeing a boy identify “car”, inferring that he’s into cars, and jumping on the boys-love-vehicles bandwagon. They might ignore when their daughter does the same, or at least not praise it with as much overt enthusiasm. You don’t have to explicitly tell a boy that dolls are for girls, but you might not perceive a boy as nurturing if you don’t recognize the times he pretends to feed his baby doll.
Have the marketers and ad agencies figured this out, too? You betcha. Put a character on a box of cereal or a carton of ice cream, and the kid will identify it, which the parent will interpret as “want”. Even better, put it on a healthy, natural product (Princess carrots. Have you seen these?), and the parent will coalesce the kid’s “interest” with their own desire to choose nutritious foods. Once the kid does get old enough that the “interest” has been nurtured and funded, it’s only a matter of time until you overhear, “Mommy, I want Dora ice cream” and “But I NEED the Thomas backpack!”
That Dora cake at her first birthday? That was all for you. That carton of purple ice cream (or, technically, “frozen dairy dessert”) when she’s 5? That’s to get you out of ACME without a major meltdown.