No Laughing Matter

Alan Cronk

I FEEL FORTUNATE there weren’t any iPhones or iPads when our son was a toddler. I’ve recently seen two-year-olds mesmerized by the magic of a smartphone. The kids can whiz around a screen like they were born with one in their diaper pocket. It scares me to think how we would have managed these “toys” if they existed in the 1990s.

But they didn’t. From our perspective, Saturday morning cartoons were the biggest threat to our child’s financial development. What possible harm, you might wonder, could a cartoon do—and what does that have to do with financial education?

Every Saturday morning, I took our son grocery shopping at Kroger. I’d say, “Let’s go Krogering.” It was a lot of fun, having him ride in the shopping cart in his bouncer, before he was able to sit. At that juncture, managing his impulses was not a problem.

But around us, I saw a number of parents struggling with kids who had spied a product on a shelf they recognized. Sometimes, the showdowns weren’t pretty.

Wow. Is this what I had to look forward to? I remember that we read a number of articles about kids, TV shows and commercials. We came to the conclusion that if our son didn’t know about the “benefits” of Cocoa Puffs, Tony the Tiger or Happy Meals, we stood a fighting chance that he wouldn’t be attracted to them on the grocery store shelf or when we drove past the Golden Arches.

The upshot: We decided that we wouldn’t introduce him to Saturday morning cartoons, the Cartoon Network or Toys “R” Us. That’s the nice thing about having only one child. There aren’t any older siblings to offer a “second opinion.” His TV viewing consisted of one channel: PBS. It was all about Barney, Sesame Street and The Magic School Bus.

Interestingly, the one thing that I clearly remember, after watching hundreds of these shows with him, is the marketing line that was used by one of the program sponsors: “Chuck E. Cheese: Where a kid can be a kid.”

I thought this was pretty tame and we used to have fun repeating the phrase. It sounded cool and had a nice ring to it. In retrospect, it shocks me that I still remember it 20 years later. Clearly, it’s the kind of marketing that can influence purchasing habits for a lifetime.

But that’s the reason Saturday morning cartoons exist: to market a whole universe of products to impressionable children. It’s where a kid can learn to be a consumer.

Our plan ran into a hitch when we went to India one summer to visit relatives. Most days, it was around 110 degrees in New Delhi, so our son was stuck in the house for many hours during that month. In a moment of desperation, we let him discover the Cartoon Network. We rationalized it by telling ourselves that there were language benefits to watching Scooby-Doo speak in Hindi.

And the line that we developed before returning to the U.S. was: “When we get back home, it’s back to normal. No more Cartoon Network.” Somehow, it worked.

Back to Kroger and age three: Up and down the aisles we went. I hope it’s not selective memory, but I don’t remember him ever saying, “Can I have that?” Not even when we were in the evil checkout line, where they put all kinds of shiny objects, meant to attract the attention of kids. Never once did we have a battle-of-wills over a consumer product in a store aisle.

Of course, maybe it wasn’t PBS or a lack of Saturday cartoons. But that’s my version and I’m sticking with it.

Alan Cronk retired after spending 32 years in the newspaper industry as a marketer, editor and writer at the Winston-Salem Journal. This is the second in a series of articles about his and his wife’s experience educating their child about money. The first article: Baby Steps.

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