Kids & Advertising: How to help children process what they see

Kids & Advertising: Helping Children Process What They See

This post is by regular contributor Kate Fairlie of Picklebums.

Our kids don’t watch much commercial television.  We keep away from it, not because of the programs, but because of the advertising.  While I’ve made peace with how televisions is used in our family, I have not made peace with the messages advertisers try to sell my children, so for the most part I’d rather avoid it.

But I know I cannot stick my head in the sand forever. No matter how much I restrict my kids’ TV viewing to the handful of commercial free stations, I know they will still come in contact with advertising. Advertising is everywhere these days (even on my blog!) and my children need to learn to be critical consumers.

It was a toy sale catalogue that first started our conversation about advertising.

My girls were turning six and were trawling the junk mail making lists of what they wanted for their birthday. They had their eye on a game, a game I thought would sit unused in the cupboard after the first day, but a game they were both desperate to have.

“Do you really want that game? “ I asked them…. Listing off all the reasons I didn’t think it was a good idea.
“Oh but Mum…. It’s sooooo cool! Look at the picture!”
“And Mum look it is on special, and they say it is ‘the best game for girls aged 5-9, that’s us!”

I was tempted to just say a flat no, but in a rare moment of parenting sanity, I decided to discuss it instead.

Talking With Kids About Advertising
We talked about how advertising in catalogues is there to make you want to buy things, even if you don’t actually need or want to buy anything. We talked about how advertisers sometimes make a product look or sound better than it actually is to make you want to buy it. We talked about the sorts of things they use to entice you, like telling you it is ‘on sale’ even though it still actually costs a lot of money.

We talked about how none of those things meant that this game was actually bad but that you needed to think really carefully about it before you bought things and not rush in based on what you read in a catalogue, or hear/see in an ad.

I wasn’t holding much hope that what I said had sunk in, but a few days later the girls came home and told me they had asked a friend who had that game what it was like… “She said it got broken and wasn’t very much fun… we don’t want it anymore, the toy catalogue was wrong.”

I may have done a secret little fist pump right then and there!

Not only did I avoid yet another annoying toy entering our house, but my girls had gone away, thought critically about the product, decided to get a real person’s opinion, and made their own decision.  That’s pretty momentous.

I feel it is important to teach my kids to identify ads, to think about and discuss the messages they are sending us and to seek more information. And the best way I can do that is simply by talking about it. I would suggest;

  • Pointing out commercials when you see them in everyday life, especially those that may not be so obvious.
  • Talking together about the fact that advertisements are often based on opinion not fact, don’t always contain all the information and can sometimes be misleading.
  • Argue with TV commercials – say out loud why you think they are ridiculous, not entirely true, or don’t contain the values you want to encourage in your family. Ask your kids what they think the ads are about, how the ads make them feel, and whether they think the information is relevant or correct.

Advertising is so pervasive in our society and can have a profound effect on our lives. Teaching kids to think critically about advertising is an important life skill that translates well into other areas of life too. It teaches them to evaluate information and helps them to make more informed choices, and not just when it comes to buying toys.

Do you think worry about how much advertising your children are exposed to? How do you help your children understand advertising?



  1. Lynne @ Mumma Funk says:

    Hi Kate, I’ve gone down the same path in that I restrict my little boy’s viewing to ABC3 because of the ads. He’s just turned 3 and sometimes after he’s gone to bed and we have commercial tele on, he will get out of bed and come out when an ad is on. Ads seem to mesmorise him and he’s been known to talk about the ad he saw the night before quoting a line from one. It’s amazing how much kids absorb and then recall. He’s just turned 3 so I haven’t given much thought to a world outside ABC3 yet. I liked your suggestions, and think they are practical important conversations to have.

    1. It is incredible how quickly the ads get into our brains isn’t it! We recently started listening to commercial radio on the short drive to school and apart from the songs my girl seem to know by heart after only a few listens… the ads and ad jingles they repeat is astounding! But driving in the car is a great chance to talk about the ads they are hearing… since they are a captive audience! LOL

  2. Fantastic practical advice. Our kids, 9, 5 and 3 don’t watch commercial TV either but they still have an inbuilt ‘greedometer’ which basically urges them to want everything they see elsewhere ie. catalogues, street posters, friends etc. Thankfully we don’t have the budget nor the inclination to indulge all of their whims and usually they’re satisfied. If however they are determined to get something, we encourage them to save up their pocket money and buy things themselves. They usually work out pretty soon if it’s really important to them or not. My son is now saving frantically for an Ipod. We’ll see…

    1. Ah my twin girls are saving for ipods too… the time it is taking them to save up has meant we’ve had lots of time to talk about how they might be used, what rules we should have and if they really are worth the money… time is always a good thing to have up your sleeve!

  3. Great advice, thanks Kate. Such a proud parenting moment too, its so great that your girls went away, thought about it and made an informed choice.

  4. Thanks so much for these suggestions! My kids are 6, 4 and 17 months, but I really limit what they watch (we generally record it so we can skip past the commercials). the few times that they’ve seen commercials, I’ve tried to point out that the point is to make you want to buy something that you don’t necessarily need or even want. I’m not sure how well it has come across, but hopefully the repetiveness of it will stick with them.

    1. I got with that theory often Tamara! I think just always sending the same messages, and always being a role model for these things, over and over… I hope that means it will stick with my kids too!

  5. Such a great post. We don’t have a TV… well it’s in the house for DVD’s but it’s not hooked up for television reception! It’s been 4 months and it’s been FABULOUS!
    When I was teaching Year Four I did a fabulous unit on being a smart consumer! Children don’t even realise they’re being ‘marketed at’… so often we as adults don’t realise it either! Thanks Kate! 🙂

  6. SquiggleMum says:

    We talk a LOT about advertising in our home, and even about “not getting tricked” by ads. Love your advice Kate. xx

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