Why my kids are convinced they have a McDonald’s-shaped vacuum in their little souls.

When we take our children to the shrine of the Golden Arches, they always want the same thing. If they get it, the trip is a success; if not, it is sheer misery. The odd part is that what they are after is not the food. They want the prize. The prize itself is a pitiful thing, worth maybe 10 cents; but for the moment, getting it is all that matters. McDonald’s, in a fit of marketing genius, gave this package of food and prize a special name: the Happy Meal®. You’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp, you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children that they have a McDonald’s-shaped vacuum in their little souls: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a Happy Meal.”

The creation of what might be called strategic discontent in children enables McDonald’s to inflate the price far beyond the value of the toy. I try to buy the kids off sometimes; I tell them just to get the food and I’ll give them a quarter to buy something on their own, and the cry goes up, “I want a Happy Meal!” All over the restaurant, people crane their necks to look at the tightfisted, penny-pinching cheapskate of a parent who would deny a child the meal of great joy.

So I buy each child his own, and they’re happy—at least, for a minute and 30 seconds. The problem with the Happy Meal is that the Happy wears off. It is an illusion. No child discovers lasting happiness in one. Years later, no child says, “Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there. “You would think that after a while children would catch on, that a child would say, “You know, a Happy Meal never brings lasting happiness; I’m not going to get ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.