Anyone who thinks two-year-olds are too young to be influenced by television and marketing should visit the Franklin Square Child Care Center in a modest neighborhood of Boston. Among toddlers there, the reigning status symbol in recent months has been Power Rangers underwear, proudly displayed to classmates and teachers.
Cute? Perhaps. But Debra Florence, head teacher at the center, also uses another word to describe the strong appeal the Power Rangers have: ''sad.'' The karate-chopping plots, she explains, teach even the youngest children violence.
''The kids act out Power Rangers every day through play - the motions, the kicks, the hits, the sounds,'' she says. ''When we mention it to the parents they'll say, 'Oh yes, I buy them the toys, and they watch the TV show.' ''
Beginning this week, children can also watch ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie.'' For adults who wouldn't know a Power Ranger from the Lone Ranger, the plot revolves around teenage superheroes forever fighting the forces of evil. Good prevails, but not without ferocious battles, and not before parents become helpless in the hands of evil monster Ivan Ooze.
Midway through the film, one of Ivan's henchmen walks through town giving children an irresistible handout: free jars of a purple slime called Ooze. He urges, ''Take it home in boxes,/ Take it home in cases,/ If your parents try to stop you/ Just throw it in their faces.''
As it happens, Ooze brainwashes parents. It seems a fitting parallel to what's happening in real life, where many parents are bowing to the enticements of entertainment producers and licensers who throw endless Ooze-like products in people's faces.
At an 8 p.m. suburban showing of the movie last Sunday, the audience included a distressing number of two-, three-, and four-year-olds. Aside from the obvious question - Why aren't these tots in bed? - there was another puzzle: Why are they here, watching a movie some educators say should be off-limits to three-to-six-year-olds?
Because their parents brought them. These parents are presumably among the legions of adults who robotically shelled out more than $350 million last year for Power Rangers spinoffs. Talk about taking it home in boxes and cases!
No one can deny that the merchandising cards are mercilessly stacked against parents. Outside McDonald's, a huge banner reads, ''Power Rangers Zord Sets, $1.59.''
Inside Toys R Us, Power Rangers products already bear the label ''Movie Edition,'' making them seem extra-hot. In a bid for the post-diaper set, some boxes read ''Ages 3 & up.''
And on TV, Power Rangers episodes draw more than 5 million viewers, making this the top-rated children's program.
But two-year-olds do not own Visa cards. Three-year-olds cannot drive to the nearest cineplex and shell out $4.25 for a movie ticket. And four-year-olds do not have final authority over the TV remote control. Parents make it possible.
Mass merchandisers may be unstoppable. But parents are not powerless to fight the manipulation and exploitation of children. What if they turned the tables on Ivan Ooze and figuratively threw tie-in products back in licensers' faces by refusing to ante up so much money for soon-obsolete merchandise, including telephones, wristwatches, radios, water blasters, and pajamas?
Maybe it's time for adults to heed a message they routinely deliver to children in another context: ''Just say no.'' No, as in, ''No, this toy is too violent.'' Or, ''No, that's too expensive.'' If parents spent even $100 million less on such merchandise, think of all the children's books or tickets to science and children's museums that money would buy.
Parents must also monitor TV shows. As Ms. Florence says, ''Parents need to get involved with what their child is watching.''
If Americans are serious about reducing violence, efforts must start somewhere. A coalition between home and child-care centers could be a small but perfect place to gain a toehold.
Mass merchandisers may be unstoppable. But parents are not powerless to fight the manipulation of children. They can spend less on the soon-obsolete toys.