My toddler was climbing on the playground the other day when another boy started pointing at him. “Plex! Plex!” the boy cried excitedly. His mom turned to me and said, “Oh, your son’s wearing ‘Plex’! That’s my son’s favorite character on Yo Gabba Gabba.” At that point I remembered that LO was wearing a Yo Gabba Gabba t-shirt that he got as a gift, and that the character on it must be named Plex. “Oh, right! Uh… Plex!” I responded, trying to act cool like I was in the know.
My toddler has no idea who Plex is or that there’s a show called Yo Gabba Gabba. He doesn’t even know there are TV shows or cartoons. He also doesn’t know about Mickey Mouse, Sponge Bob, or Ronald McDonald. He has a Scout toy that he calls “Dog,” and he refers to Big Bird simply as “Bird.”
In today’s world of Nickelodeon and Disney, my toddler might as well be from Mars.
This probably seems a bit extreme, considering how most kids his age would know most of those characters and more. Even among adults, almost all of us has a favorite Disney movie or two (um, I not only watched The Little Mermaid every day for a whole summer, I memorized the entire movie which my sister and I then stayed up late one night to recite to each other in the dark). It seems like everyone but my toddler has a favorite character. One time at the park, I was talking to a dad who asked me what LO was into these days. “Oh, he’s really into puzzles right now,” I responded. “How about yours?” He said, “He’s really into Sid the Science Kid.”
My husband and I never sat down and said, “We will avoid mainstream characters as much as possible,” but somehow this is what we’ve been doing for the past two years. We tend to buy the toddler T-shirt that features generic graphics like an elephant instead of one with Batman. Or we’ll deck out our toddler’s bedding with monkeys instead of Winnie-the-Pooh. And for his past two birthday parties, we stuck to general themes (monkeys for his first, bright colors for his second) as opposed to Diego.
Because he doesn’t know the “story lines” behind these characters, he can make up his own. He has a generic toy bunny, so he’s able to make up his own characteristics: is it a boy bunny or girl bunny? Where does the bunny live? What does the bunny do all day? What’s its name? Even if he has a Bugs Bunny toy but didn’t know who Bugs Bunny was, he’s more likely to create his own characteristics about the toy. But the more familiar he is with Looney Tunes, the less likely he is to invent his own storyline and instead accept that the toy bunny is male, loves carrots, and can be quite the trickster!
I still wonder how this will affect my toddler as he starts making friends at school. Will kids make fun of him for not being in the know? I’d like to think that they won’t. From what I’ve read about kids, having many good friends doesn’t have much to do with how familiar they are with pop culture, but instead on how well they can empathize with their peers. So it’s a bigger priority to me that LO knows how to place himself in another person’s shoes and be kind than to own the latest toy and eat at McDonald’s. I also hope that LO will have enough self-confidence to thwart any type of bullying. Yet at the same time, peer pressure is very real, and this is probably the time that LO will be exposed to mainstream characters and start wondering why he has no idea who or what these brands are.
After all that is said and done, our toddler isn’t completely set apart from all things mainstream. He uses many items that feature famous characters: he has a Sesame Street toothbrush, an Elmo t-shirt and a Blues Clues book, for example. While he plays with open-ended toys, many of them are still big name companies like Lego, Crayola, and Melissa and Doug products. Even Dr. Seuss—whose books we love—has movies, shows, toys, products and clothing.
Eventually my toddler’s world will continue to expand and we’re likely going to watch TV and movies with him. I just don’t feel like I need to introduce it to him right at this moment. It’s not like I would consider watching Sponge Bob or going to Chuck E. Cheese if I weren’t a mom. Considering that he’s not clamoring to watch Yo Gabba Gabba, I’m not too inclined to turn on the show. On the other hand, I can’t wait until he’s five so that we can take him to see Broadway musicals, including The Lion King and Mary Poppins (both Disney productions).
When my kiddo does start watching TV (if we can ever get our cable hooked up!), we’ll sit right next to him so we can talk about what’s going on. We’ll enjoy the show, but we can also question stereotypes that are rampant in movies and TV and analyze the advertising in commercials (“Why do you think they used a pink and purple background for the My Little Pony commercial?”). He can question and observe with purpose rather than sit passively and accept what’s told to him.
And maybe once he climbs out of the rock he’s been living under, he can ask, “Who the heck is this Plex guy?”
What are the pros and cons of kids recognizing brand names and characters?