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Living With Kids



A few years ago, I attended a parent-teacher night at my son's preschool. As I was scarfing down chocolate chip cookies, I heard the director refer to something she called "kid culture." She was explaining how the school tried to respect the children's rights to enjoy Happy Meal toys, TV programs, whatever was popular. It is a great preschool and she was not saying that they abandoned the children to Disney coloring books or plunked them down in front of videos all day. If memory serves, there was some groaning about how sick everyone was of Power Rangers, or whatever it was we were all sick of then. But I found the idea very interesting.

What I think she was saying was that there is a children's component to popular culture and that grown-ups shouldn't discourage, mock, or forbid children from participating in it. To a certain extent, their mutual exposure to television and videos is the common ground for children who are too young to have done much outside of the bosom of their individual families. And let's face it, a 3-year-old with a Minnie Mouse habit isn't feeding her obsession shopping on the black market by herself. There's got to be some parental complicity. It's not up to teachers to pass judgment on large purple dinosaurs, no matter how insipid they might be. You know whom I'm talking about.

This is a complex issue in our household. If I keep Barbie out of the house, will Cassie become obsessed with her? I never had a Barbie when I was a girl and I didn't miss her. By the age of 7, I could have explained that Barbie presented an unattainable and unhealthy standard for female beauty. Obviously I have big-time Barbie issues. (I did, however, have a Mrs. Beasley doll.)

Our house has a "no toy guns" rule. We do, however, have a complete armory in the basement, including several swords, shields, a mace and a telescoping lance. There was a brief time when Benny and many of his friends watched a TV show called The Mystic Knights. During the show's popularity, Benny's ongoing interest in knights and swordplay intersected with kid culture and put him on the same wavelength as his classmates. Eventually most of them moved on to Pok&233;mon; the TV show disappeared and everyone's plastic armor got a little dusty. But Benny's interest in knights preceded the popularity of The Mystic Knights and survived their fall from grace. Knights, wizards and dragons have fascinated kids for a long time. In this particular instance, the TV producers were following the kids' lead rather than the other way around.

I think that's the real issue. Are the TV/video/toy producers of this world giving kids a new way to explore something that is of inherent interest to the kids? Or are they brainwashing them into consuming an endless supply of cheaply made merchandise which is only of interest to kids because of the way it's been advertised or placed in videos? (You know, the way they do with adults.)

Videos can be especially insidious. My kids recently received a copy of Toy Story 2. We've all enjoyed it. But because the kids want to see it over and over again, I've begun to see how something that slick can insinuate itself in the brain of someone who's under 3. Now that Cassie has seen Toy Story 2 about four times, she has declared that her baby's name is Jesse, reassured said baby that Zurg is not going to get her, and pointed out that the doll who broke her arm in Little Bear's Friend is "just like Woody." If you haven't seen the movie, suffice it to say it has penetrated her brain and now informs every facet of her existence. (But on the bright side, she stopped talking about that really scary Halloween costume.)

I'm not planning to cocoon my children in a cabin somewhere, with no input from the outside world, making sure that everything they play with is made of wood and wool. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But there are some good videos and some good TV shows. Besides, they'll want to see their grandparents, and you can't stop grandparents from bringing presents, many of them slathered with popular cartoon characters. And, I must confess, I watch TV myself.

I have some very fond memories of the kid culture from my own childhood: the theme song to Flipper, the Jackson 5 cartoon show, Schoolhouse Rock, Good & Plenty candy, Disney's Peter Pan, troll dolls, Little Bear, Holly Hobby, The Cat in the Hat, Winnie the Pooh (both Milne and Disney), Cracker Jacks, and my Easy-Bake Oven (a grandparent present). I don't remember wanting to get or see things because they were popular. Nobody marketed products to children back then. But adults weren't so interested in name brands and conspicuous consumption then either.

At our house we try to instill some critical thinking skills and some restraint, if for no other reason than to protect the planet and our pockets. We don't have cable. We don't frolic on the Internet. We heartily say no to requests for trendy toys. We make gifts or buy second-hand.

Yes, we're raising little un-American freaks. But since they still have to live here--since we didn't flee during the Reagan-Bush reign of terror, we'll probably survive W's onslaught--I'm willing to allow limited exposure to kid culture. It's my hope that it'll give them something to talk about on the playground, where they can annoy all the other kids by explaining exactly what's wrong with whatever it is that all the parents are sick of that week.

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