It’s time to talk about Thomas the Tank Engine.
If you don’t have a young child, quick introduction: Thomas is based on a series of children’s books started in 1942 by the Rev. W. Awdry to entertain a sick young boy. Today, Thomas is a multi-million-dollar empire of books, wooden trains, and TV shows / videos. The Thomas universe consists of a group of engines and coaches living together on “The Island of Sodor” where they get into trouble, help one another, take pride in being “Really Useful,” learn important lessons about cooperation, bravery, friendship, and self esteem. What makes the Thomas railroad different from a “typical” children’s railroad is the fact that all of the engines and coaches have faces, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, modes of interaction that mimic (the better aspects of) society at large.
Unlike some kids’ shows, Thomas is aesthetically pleasing to parents, totally un-saccharine. The Thomas videos are beautifully shot and produced (featuring voiceovers by Ringo Starr, Alec Baldwin, George Carlin, others). The sets are elaborate, well-lit, clearly created by actual train lovers.
The thing about Thomas is that it has a tendency to make two-year-olds somewhat obsessive. Speaking from our own experience: Miles will play with Thomas trains for hours, then want to read Thomas stories before nap and bedtime, wants to watch Thomas on PBS when he wakes up in the morning, and will then go play with trains and tracks while reciting Thomas books from memory. He often wants to sleep with Thomas trains at night, and has even compared real-life situations to Thomas stories. From talking to other parents of boys, we know the obsession is not unusual (the fact that we have yet to meet a 2-4 year-old girl deeply into Thomas says all kinds of things about nature/nurture, but that’s for another day).
Fortunately, the obsession comes in waves. He does have other toys and other interests, and we try to encourage variety in his involvements, but it’s safe to say that the Thomas universe is a core element of his young life.
There are lots of good aspects to the obsession — when we play trains with him, he’s talking about how this engine or that needs help, finding creative ways to make sure the trains are cooperating, scolding trains who block the tracks or knock down bridges, coaxing cows off the tracks to make sure they don’t get ow-ies, “talking” the trains so that one is giving compliments to another… there’s a whole sociological microcosm going on here.
Of course, the machine that sits behind the Thomas empire is making a mint off parents like us (engines and coaches start at $8 and go up to $20, and a wide array of tracks, stations, bridges and accessories are sold to milk the parents of truly obsessed children.) In reality, children are being exposed to their first “brand,” being encouraged into a Great American Life of desire and consumerism without any comprehension of money, marketing, etc.
Recently had a debate with friends about whether the form of marketing that sells Thomas is insidious or damaging to young psyches – I maintain that Thomas is successful because it’s good, not because it’s marketed — the child’s obsession flows from the quality of the product and the stories themselves, not from a marketing machine that works to convince the child that s/he should want something s/he wouldn’t want otherwise. In other words, the desire is organic rather than synthetic; Thomas is marketed, but it’s not pushed. “Let the products sell themselves,” as The Minutemen’s D. Boone once said.
It’s not like I don’t have misgivings about the marketing machine behind Thomas. But at the same time, I know that Miles is not having crap shoved down his throat by the Thomas empire. He doesn’t perceive the marketing, he perceives the characters and the stories, gets a lot out of them. As parents, we may know that it takes some form of marketing to make a brand successful. But what Miles is exposed to is a collection of stories, not advertising. He is not having the experience of marketers trying to convince him to choose Thomas over some alternative, trying to sell him Nike rather than Adidas, or to use some shampoo just like all the rest. No one is suggesting to him that all the cool kids are into Thomas. We haven’t encouraged the Thomas obsession – we’ve only responded to his love for the characters. And I’m okay with that.
Pictured: Salty the diesel engine (who works down by the docks, sings sea shanties, and happens to be daddy’s favorite); Miles hard at work on the Island of Sodor; Emily, the fast, strong, and sensible female role model; choo-choo dogpile with the Little People Zoo Train.