Several things happened a few weeks ago. I watched a documentary in a meeting for kindergarten parents. The latest Harry Potter movie was released. We took the kids to see a Star Trek exhibit at a local air museum. I listened to my children singing along to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” Sierra, my five-and-a-half year old, took one look at the Sunday paper and announced, “We need Direct TV.”
On the face of it, these events are disparate and pretty mundane, but there is a common thread that drives into the core of our choices and life as a family. To find the thread, it may help to know that the documentary was entitled Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. Produced by the Media Education Foundation, the film explores the explosion of child-targeted marketing since the deregulation of the 1980s. In case anyone was wondering, child-related purchasing is a $700 billion-plus-per-year business. Yeah, billion, like with a ‘B’ and a heck of a lot of zeroes.
OK, this news is not so shocking to anyone with children and even partially-functioning critical faculties. In 1998, I began receiving catalogs, coupons, and special offers from baby-related companies almost before I peed on the stick. I barely knew my due date before the first baby-gadget (you-must-have-every-item-in-these-pages-or-your-child-will-be-emotionally-and-intellectually-stunted-or-die-a-horrible-disfiguring-death) catalog landed in my mailbox. Three children later, and having realized exactly how much one can accomplish with some cardboard and a square of fabric, I’m far more cynical about child-related marketing. Even so, I hadn’t realized how pervasive and how pre-meditated this system is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Consuming Kids is, in itself, a masterpiece of marketing genius. It layers images, news clips, quotes, and statistics in exactly the right fashion to target a parent’s worst fears. However, did you know that marketing advisers have a name for the irritating four-months-before-Christmas whine for a specific toy? It’s called the “Nag Factor” and studies have been done to determine exactly what type of tantrum is most effective in manipulating parents. Yeah, that’s right, those cute commercials, character-food tie-ins, the must-have toy/movie/book/meal combo: they are deliberately crafted to make your life hell. Were you aware that there are field-trip organization companies that steer grade-school classes to places like Petco and Sports Authority in the name of “education?” Or, did you know that market research is so detailed that they film kids in places like the bathtub to see how children interact with various bath products and toys? I felt as though I needed a bath after seeing that clip.
Bikinis on top
Will melt your popsicle
Oooooh Oh Oooooh”
Admit it, you’re singing along in your head right now, aren’t you? Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” appears to have spent most of the summer at the top of the pop charts. I don’t begrudge Perry that success. As music goes, “California Gurls” is cotton candy: pink, fluffy, totally devoid of substance, and absolutely delicious. But, those perky lyrics sound a little more disconcerting when sung in the treble of a kindergartener. Or, here’s part of the next verse:
“Sex on a beach
We get sand in our stilettos
And we’re cheap…”
Yeah, not disturbing at all. Interestingly, the website where I found the lyrics had an asterisk in place of the ‘e’ in sex. The song does not.
Ours is not a particularly prudish household. My husband and I have long believed in talking openly with our children about, well, almost everything. We try to keep discussions within the developmental understanding of the kids, but we don’t censor much. Most of the time, this philosophy seems to work for us, but occasionally, it crashes head-on into an awkward situation. Explaining to my kids why we won’t play Dad’s mix CD when driving on field trips is always fun. Call me narrow-minded, but I have a sneaking suspicion that other parents wouldn’t really appreciate their kids listening to “88 Lines About 44 Women” by The Nails. We’ve had enough conversations about why Mom doesn’t think that song is appropriate to last several lifetimes.
So, “California Gurls” is probably a strange trigger for my parental anxieties. Yet, in its own bubble-gum pop way, Perry’s tune is far more dangerous than the obvious misogyny of “88 Lines About 44 Women.” No one is going to give The Nails’ song anything other than an NC-17 rating. The explicit nature of those lyrics is its own parental warning. But, how many parents really listen to anything other than the bouncy, pink and tangerine melodies of Perry’s songs? Regardless of the intended audience, the music is successfully branded toward tweens.
The marketing industry has gotten very good at directing ostensibly adult media toward children. We no longer receive broadcast or cable TV in our house, so I was initially shocked to learn that American Idol is a top-rated show in the children’s market. But then I thought about it. Plastic American Idol fast-food trinkets have wandered about my house until I chucked their irritating, static-y, repetitive selves into the trash. American Idol birthday supplies, costumes, and toys fill the pages of every child-related catalog in my mail.
“No TV?” you may ask. No. Well, not really. My kids attend a Waldorf school, and media exposure for young children is frowned upon. Some parents have gone so far as to evict their televisions entirely. My husband and I are Gen X-ers, the generation of Atari, Star Wars, and Scooby Doo. We aren’t willing to completely surrender our video games and movies, and aren’t quite hypocritical enough to say to the kids, “Do as we say, not as we do.” Our television is basically a monitor for the weekend movie or Wii time.
Here’s where the conflict arises for me. I don’t want my kids watching tons of TV. I don’t like their behavior after even three hours of “screen time.” Yet, I was the one who bought the tickets to the Star Trek Experience, and I will most likely take them to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Why? Because those are forms of media that appeal to me. So, is this my line? I enforce rules that I believe lead to the healthy development of my children, except when the “bad things” are forms of entertainment that interest me? Or, am I striking a reasonable balance by allowing some forms of media but not others?
The line between compromise and hypocrisy is a narrow one. In a perfect world, I would choose to raise my children with simple toys, lots of nature, and homemade and homegrown food, out of reach of a society that seems increasingly disrespectful, needlessly confrontational, and materialistic. I would also like for them to never get their feelings hurt, never be sick, and to be fed dew-drops by woodland elves. But that’s not the world we inhabit. My kids have grandparents, an aunt and uncle, access to catalogs, and commercials (at both grandparental houses). They attend a school where most parents hold similar values as far as education goes, but where many of their classmates have parents with considerably greater wealth than ours. They live with two parents, one who loves hiking and camping and one who will consent to the occasional foray into the wilderness but would much rather hang out in the living room with his Xbox.
And so we’ve crafted a strange, tenuous compromise. The kids get “screen time” only on the weekends, and are limited to a couple of hours. We try to avoid fast-food toy meals, and Mike and I have more or less immunized ourselves against the nag factor. Yet, when the system breaks down, it does so spectacularly. One day of television at Grandma’s will produce behavioral repercussions that last for weeks. The delight of my five-year-old knowing about gum paste in cake decorating is more than canceled by the requests for a particular toy or (highly processed) food.
Part of the problem with the compromise is our own ambivalence. Though our kids, particularly our son, have provided us with copious and repeatable evidence that screen time (TV, movies, video games, computer games) adversely affects their behavior, somewhere deep in our hearts, we still don’t quite believe that media can really be all that bad. After all, we grew up with Saturday morning cartoons, Pac Man, and Star Wars; how can a limited amount of these things be any different for our kids?
Also, the situation is not without a degree of family conflict. We were raised with more or less unlimited media. Though I had time restrictions, particularly on school days, my husband’s single mother often let him stay up to watch Saturday Night Live, and as a latchkey kid, his only after-school options once his homework was done were the TV or Atari. Our restriction of our kids’ access to media has been interpreted as criticism of our own upbringings.
And so there are times when it is easier to let the rules slide: to pop in the DVD so that Caitlin’s babysitting job will be easier, to not insist on other activities at Grandma’s house, to let the Saturday morning cartoons at Grandma and Grandpa’s run an hour longer, to turn on the Wii or Xbox for another hour or two on a rainy afternoon. After all, what’s the harm?
We let the rules slide, and we always regret it. The harm manifests in aggressive behavior – even after Discovery Channel shows: whining, hyperactivity, boredom, backtalk, and picky eating. I can’t explain the last behavior; I only know that dinner is much less fun following an afternoon of TV. As to the other behaviors, the difference lies in the media itself. Watch a cartoon from the 1970’s. Even in superhero cartoons, the colors are somewhat muted, and the transitions between scenes are slower than today. Fast forward to the digital age, and scenes are on, well, fast-forward. Characters and settings flicker across the screen lightning-fast, colors flash bright, and dialogue is loud – and often disrespectful.
OK, I feel a little funny writing that last bit. As I said, I’m no prude. Smart-ass comments are a staple in our house, and we banter freely with the children. However, we encourage them to use their words carefully, and call them out on phrases that are hurtful or rude. Watch a few shows on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, and you see a new norm for children – bumbling parental figures, wise-acre kids, frequent references to what my kindergartener calls “potty language.”
So, how do we make our compromise function? How do we limit the access of the marketing machine into our children’s minds without raising them in a bubble? Because, of course, sooner or later, they will enter the world, and preparation is the best defense.
In our house, the primary tool is a small one, consisting of two letters: N, O. No. No, you can’t have the super-choco-frosted-radio-bomb cereal. No, we aren’t going to McDonalds for dinner. No, you don’t need the toy that they’re giving in the Happy Meal. No, you can’t play Wii on a school night. No, I’m not buying the Star Wars Jedi mind toy. No, I don’t think Santa is going to bring you an iPod. No, you don’t need to watch another DVD; go play outside. No, I won’t buy the yogurt with the cartoon rabbit on it; this is the kind we buy. No, I don’t care that you’re the only kid in your class without a cell phone.
Sometimes the no is multi-generational. No, we aren’t getting a satellite dish; we don’t need one. No, it isn’t a commentary on the way we were raised. This is our choice. No, I don’t care what your granddaughter told you; she doesn’t need a phone. No, we really don’t need a DVD system for the car; they can play “I Spy.”
Sometimes we say yes. Yes, we can do family movie night tonight. Yes, we can go see Harry Potter. Yes, you can play one cup of Mario Kart after you clean your room. But, as the years go by, we grow more and more careful about our yeses. The one thing our choices have taught us is that our purchasing and viewing decisions should be our choices, not our kids’ choices, not our parents’ choices, and not Corporate America’s choices. We are the parents, and right or wrong, we get to choose.
I’m still not sure how I feel about “California Gurls,” though.