Children and mass culture

We can’t escape mass culture.  Everywhere, children and adults are bombarded: TV, movies, video, radio, books, newspapers, toys, comic books, billboards, friends and neighbors, etc., etc., etc.. Through all of these media we are pounded with messages that glorify consumerism, reinforce sexual stereotypes, and trivialize and homogenize anything if it will turn a buck. We literally breathe in myths about beauty, success, money, sex, violence, power, happiness, good, and evil.  

As adults, we may want a product that’s the latest thing, but we rarely want with the intensity and concentration of a child,  who can easily feel that life is just not worth living without it.  If a child has already been seduced by the commercialized allure of a particular toy, fashion, or script, it can be hard to respond. The negative feelings we may have about commercialization and materialism are rarely of use to a child, and can easily get in the way of any kind of successful communication.

For years I tried to figure out what to do about the junky little plastic toys that came into our house–as birthday gifts, from their friends, even as tokens from us to show that we were flexible on our values about quality playthings–and then broke on the second day. I HATE them. It was hard at the time to think of anything I hated more. I hate how cheap and glitzy they look. I hate what they symbolize about the distorted values of our country. I hate how those people don’t care what they do to children so long as they can make a profit. I hate how deeply disappointed a child can get over a broken piece of shallow exploitative junk, and how powerless an adult can feel in the face of that deep disappointment.

There’s nothing wrong with hating all of this, but what predictably ended up happening was that I took it out on the children. “I can’t help it,” I would say, in a voice loaded with frustration. “It’s a piece of JUNK! Of course it broke!” Hurt and confusion at their mother’s unfeeling response was now added to the grief over having such a wonderful toy broken. I showed no indication of caring either about his special new toy, or about his feelings at losing it.

It took a while to find a way to communicate both my passion and my values in this area without blaming my child or his choices. “It makes me so mad,” I would say. “The people who made up that toy just didn’t care at all about how the children would feel when it broke. All they cared about was making a lot of money for themselves. I’m sorry, sweetie; I wish it weren’t that way.” My feelings hadn’t changed. My values hadn’t changed. But I could talk about it in a way that clearly indicated that I was on my child’s side.

The more we’re able to do this, the more information our children will actually be able to take in about how the commercialized culture operates and how they fit into it. It may not change their choices or wants in the present, but it will provide them with a larger context for making sense of their world. Most important, it will enable them to continue to use us as allies as they try to find their way through this maze of conflicting values.

1 Response

  1. Hi Pamela, and thanks for writing this. Your heartfelt appreciation for the depth of commercialism in children’s lives comes through spectacularly, and your sincerity is obvious too.

    As the parent of a nine-year-old child, I am constantly on alert for a lot of the things you said. However, I believe that the ways we frame this conversation are absolutely essential for effectively addressing them. I believe the essence of what you said came through in your very final paragraph, when you started using the language of allyship with children and youth.

    I found that engaging my child as my ally in addressing consumerism throughout /both/ of our lives is a rich experience for both of us. It allows her to teach her dad constantly, reminding and remembering things we’ve discussed and agreed on as important, while steadily and intentionally increasing her capacity to be a critical participant in this ongoing experiment of attempting to raise a child in a democratic, socially just fashion while occupying an anti-democratic, neoliberal-driven society.

    Today, we actively use language to build understanding almost anytime we shop; we raise issues as they emerge at home; and we deliberately encounter and address things we don’t agree with in order to increase our consciousness and exposure. I believe that through these ways we’re both reaching a more engaging place of awareness and ability; me as a better dad, and her as a conscientious co-creator of the world she lives in.

    I’m aware that there’s a long way to go in this adventure called parenting, but I feel confident that my daughter’s skills, ability, and knowledge will ultimately match her innate capacity to change the world without inhibition and with critical consciousness. I don’t think there’s a much higher place I can aspire to as a parent.

    Thanks for writing a piece that reminds me of that!

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