A Look at Consuming Kids

With the holidays’ annual toy-buying frenzy coming up, I thought I should finally get around to posting my thoughts on a book I read several months ago. CONSUMING KIDS: THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER OF CHILDHOOD, by Susan Linn, was a thought-provoking read. I found a copy at my local library, and I highly recommend it to parents, educators, and anyone interested in the methods and madness of our consumerist culture.

What do I want for my son? I want him to grow up happy, healthy, balanced. I want him to know that he is loved and cared for; I want him to be able to communicate his feelings, his wants, and his needs to the people around him. I want him to feel successful, at least in a few things; I want him to feel confident enough to try things even if he’s not successful. I want him to have a clear sense of his purpose in life. I want him to demonstrate empathy and caring. I want him to be capable of having close friendships, and eventually, love relationships. I want him to have faith.

But I feel like there’s a fight coming. Our culture isn’t doing such a great job, if you ask me, of instilling most of those things as norms and expectations. Chances are good that if Smooch goes to a public school, he’ll learn a lot – but he won’t learn about faith, empathy, or communication. If he spends time in church, he’ll learn about faith (I hope!) but he may not feel that he can communicate any of his feelings (you know how so many ‘religious folks’ complain of the guilt they feel, the anger they smother? That kind of thing.)

I know that his primary influence is his family, at least for the upcoming handful of years, and I’m grateful for that. But I gotta say, that’s a lot to put on two pairs of shoulders. Our extended families, while good people, just don’t share our philosophy or our practice when it comes to parenting.

(I should qualify that statement here the same way I always do with our relatives. We are new at this. We only have one kid, and he’s not even 2 yet. It would be the height of hubris to imagine that we know it all already. I am willing to concede that I do NOT know everything that’s coming in this journey, and I am willing to wager that there’s a possibility I’ll change my mind about some of the things I said I’d never or always do. So take everything I say with a big ol’ grain of salt. And a side of margarita, if you prefer…)

Linn makes a great point about the importance of “traditional,” creative, imaginative play. Play that’s not driven by toys and gear that sing and dance. Play that doesn’t revolve around a pre-written script memorized from a movie or television show. Play that doesn’t focus on media characters so tightly that any divergence is impossible.

          “Play requires physical and/or mental activity. The impetus for play comes from within children. It is their way of learning about the world. It is inherently satisfying in and of itself and requires no goal. Once a goal is more important than the activity, that activity is no longer play. In competitive sports, for instance, once winning becomes more important than the process of playing, the games or matches cease to be play. The ability to play and be playful is a sign of health.
          Once we acknowledge the importance of play, it makes sense that toys—the things children play with[sic]—are also of critical importance. There’s some unintentional irony in the face that so many toys today are labeled ‘educational’. The best toys are inherently educational in that they serve as tools for helping children actively explore, understand, and/or gain mastery over the world. Even if they have multiple parts, they are simple enough to be put to many different uses, and to become different things in a child’s imagination.
           The recent proliferation of computer chips that enable toys to move or make sounds on their own renders children passive observers rather than active participants in play. Because children are attracted to glitz and because these are the toys being marketed to them, they may desperately want stuffed animals or dolls or action figures that walk and talk independently, or toys that whiz, bang, whistle, and hoot at the press of a button. However, because they discourage active, imaginative play, toys that do only one thing soon become boring; children use them a few times and then are ready for a new toy that does something else.”

I’ve written about this before. When we flood our kids’ playrooms with toys that do all the playing, all the exploring, all the thinking for them, we are taking away the most precious task of childhood. The author of CONSUMING KIDS cautions that there is

“…a disturbing trend in commercial children’s toys away from nuruturing creative play [and toward] fostering a more constricted experience. Legos, like other creative construction toys, now tend to be packaged as kits rather than as free-form collections of blocks. The brightly colored boxes, and the instructions within, provide a compelling argument for a ‘right’ way to put the blocks together.”

Not only do new-fangled toys quash creativity and free exploration, but now the trusty old stand-bys have compromised what they used to do so well. Where a parent used to be able to choose a few standards (Legos, Lincoln Logs, etc) and feel confident that a child would enjoy hours of imaginative, creative, spatial and constructive play… she now faces the reality that her child will literally be “boxed in” to a predefined set of choices. What’s a mom to do? (Other than scour eBay for the old, reliable, vintage versions of these toys?)

Some will argue that the reason they buy all those toys for their daughters and sons is because the children want them! They ask for them by name! They nag and nag until the toy is brought home! The problem is, for many years of childhood, human beings are incapable of the type of reasoning required to decipher the manipulation inherent in advertising. When they see commercials – and they see them, everywhere; even PBS, whose shows are spared “commericial interruption,” provides “sponsored-by” spots before and after all its shows aimed at kids – they believe what the advertiser is telling them.

Unless you have managed to truly insulate your family from all forms of media inculcation (and if you have, PLEASE speak up and tell me how you did it!), then you know that the far-reaching effects of multimedia influence on our kids is pretty scary if we stop to think about it. Even more frightening:

          “The power of media to influence values and, by extension, the power given to the people who own media is one reason why advocacy groups ranging from the Center for Digital Democracy to the National Rifle Association are so alarmed by the consolidation of media company ownership. Even if we can choose among a hundred television stations, how much diversity of viewpoint do we have if each of the channels is owned by one of five corporations? We have even less if newspapers, book publishers, Internet service providers, television, and radio stations are all owned by the same companies as well…
           At this juncture [the book was published in 2004], three corporations control most of the television programming that targets children. These are Viacom (which owns Nickelodeon and MTV), Disney (which owns ABC and all of the Disney channels), and TimeWarner (which owns the Cartoon Network). The Fox News Corporation (which owns FoxFamily and FX) also commands a significant child audience.”

So we really have just a very few individuals making decisions about what MILLIONS of young children see, hear, and covet. Who ARE these people, for one thing? And for another, do they care about our children as people?

Given the recent outbreak of toy recalls (and the lack of care and oversight by the toy retailers that the recalls have exposed), I think most parents would agree with me that the toy companies, the larger companies that own those companies, and the media outlets who profit from toy advertisements, only care about our children as consumers. They see our precious little ones only as an untapped market, capable of nagging Mommy and Daddy into a great deal of spending every year. They also see them as veritable baby ducklings, ready and waiting to “imprint” on a favorite brand at birth –providing customer loyalty that money can hardly buy.

Our response so far has been to send a strongly-worded request along with Smooch’s “wish list” that our family members honor our concerns about the toy recalls and stick to the list of suggested companies and toy selections. For his age and interests, we’ve narrowed it down to kitchen play (all wooden and fabric accessories) and vehicle play (wooden, whether hand-held or ride-on sized) this year. A number of great, reputable companies are offering toys that are made in the USA, made in Europe, or made in China under careful supervision – and many of these companies are providing great customer service if you call with a question about the origins of a specific toy.

The next thing I need to do, especially as Smooch is getting older (and much more product-aware), is re-evaluate my TV policy. I’d be glad to hear of the strategies that have worked in your homes to limit your child’s exposure to advertisements and such.

Happy holiday buying, I guess.

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One Response to A Look at Consuming Kids

  1. crono says:

    You know though, Lego has been sold in preboxed kits since I was a kid. You would buy the Medieval Knights trebuchet and it would have a manual showing you how to build that one item. but it also had pictures of other stuff you could build (and you had to puzzle those out yourself).

    What invariably happened though was the the thing you built would break, and you wouldn’t be able to find the instructions, and so I ended up always building houses and ships and they were staffed by spacemen and pirates and knights, with storylines and heirarchy and all that jazz.

    Even with the preboxed kits today I stil think Lego is awesome. In that case it’s s atarting point, you can go “look what I made!’ and it helps you follow instructions (which is why I think I’m a master of Ikea assembly) and gives you a sense of accomplishment. But it also gives you ideas on how to implement different things. I remember getting one set and looking at it and using that I figured out how to build a cool little mech that had arms with little grasping claws and everything.

    I feel you on kids being targeted though. I cringe when I walk by a toy asile and see Thomas the Demon Tank Engine, knoing I will hear a cry of “Thomas” and when I push the cart past I will hear cries of “No, THAT way!”

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