At CiCi's Pizza, I once put my hands in front of my daughter's face so she wouldn't see what was on CNN: two white people kicking a black man who was writhing on the ground. It's not that I don't want her to know about current events or racial tensions, but she was only 4-and-a-half at the time. (Even if she weren't too young, I wouldn't have opened our conversation by showing her disturbing footage during supper.)
A year or so later, watching the 2000 Summer Olympics on a Saturday afternoon, we were ambushed by a commercial for tennis shoes that was too scary for me, not to mention my daughter. A masked man with a chain saw confronted a partially clad woman in her bathroom, and then chased her through the woods. We saw other inappropriate commercials during the Olympics too--violent shows, sleazy ads for sleazy shows. I can avoid inappropriate TV programs, but there's no way to avoid inappropriate commercials. These days Susannah, now 8, covers her own eyes when a commercial for a Stephen King movie comes on during the Olympics.
It takes a lot of energy to deflect the influences of those who are pushing their own moneymaking agendas at us. Unless I move to a cabin in the woods, there's almost no place I can be where I don't have to be a watchdog for my child.
Often I have to decide whether to let her visit whatever Web site is being hawked in the back of the book she's just finished. It's not so bad if it's something like a Magic Tree House book: The site is "educational." But the Mary-Kate and Ashley site is mostly a catalog for products my daughter doesn't need or want until she sees them: Mary-Kate and Ashley fashion dolls (Barbies) and Awesome Accessories.
Even at the pediatric dentist's office, the radio is constantly on with its unpredictable jaunts into adult dirty jokes or news about terrorism. Then there's the dance class where Susannah and her seven-year-old classmates were dancing to "If You Wanna Be My Lover," by the Spice Girls (we switched dance studios after that). A couple of months ago, the Funky Winkerbean comic strip showed Funky and Cindy in bed together, naked except for bedclothes, obviously aprés sex. Aren't the funny pages supposed to be for children, or at least something for adults and children alike? I have this old black-and-white picture of my grandfather reading the Sunday comics to my brothers. I can't imagine how he would have explained that Funky Winkerbean strip to them.
Wouldn't it be lovely if the values we tried to instill at home were reinforced in our culture instead of undermined? What if there were no violence or sex on TV before 8 p.m.? What if books for children did not contain advertising for Web sites that sell merchandise aimed at youth? What if billboards didn't use women's bodies to sell beer? What if we were not surrounded by advertising for products children are too young to know they don't need? (Even the monthly cafeteria menu that Susannah and her schoolmates bring home is covered with ads.)
It's not as if we don't know this stuff is bad for our kids. Studies have shown that young children have trouble differentiating between commercials and TV shows. Even when they can, they are not always able to recognize the persuasive intent of commercials. As far back as 30 years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General recognized the tube's influence and published "Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence." In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics told us children under 2 shouldn't watch television, and older children shouldn't have televisions in their bedrooms. The following year, a whole slew of experts (the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) issued a statement that linked increasing violence among children to violence in TV, music, video games and movies. And yet the violence continues to escalate (for a graphic illustration of this, try watching the three Star Wars movies back to back, each more violent than the one before). And our children are the targets of more marketing and advertising every year. Late last year, three different retailers opened test stores that sell "intimate apparel" and other accessories to "tweens" (age 7-14) and teens. Why? Because, according to one industry consultant quoted in the Washington Post, "It's a group comfortable spending money. They spend their parents' money and they spend their own money. Teen girls have a lot of purchasing clout."
I don't want to move to a cabin in the woods and home school my daughter. I just want her to be free to go to a restaurant, read a book, or watch the Olympics without being surrounded by images, advertisements and products that are at best not age appropriate, and are at worst contrary to the values my husband and I are trying to teach her. This issue affects more than just parents and children; it affects everyone in our society. After all, when we're geezers, today's children are the ones who are going to be cleaning our teeth, teaching our grandchildren, advising us on financial matters, and making our laws. If we want to be able to rely on the people who will be doing these things for us, we've got to take good care of them now.
Does our culture really believe that selling products is more important than raising healthy, intelligent, gentle children who can think for themselves? Sometimes the answer seems to be "yes," especially if I'm looking at corporate advertising, marketing and TV. However, I don't think that most individuals believe that. And therein lies our power--dealing with people and small organizations one-on-one. After I took my daughter out of the dance class where the teacher played "If You Want to Be My Lover," the director asked me why we'd left. When I told her, she was surprised and said she would talk to the teacher about choosing more age-appropriate music (I realized then that I should have talked to the director before deciding whether to leave). At CiCi's, I could have asked an employee to change the channel, or changed it myself, instead of putting my hands in front of my daughter's face.
A friend of mine recently took her 7-year-old son to a children's indoor climbing space. Once there, he got interested in all the flashing, beeping video games and asked her if he could play one called Mortal Kombat, which features people being decapitated and other horrors. She told him no and sent him off to climb. Then she began walking around and asking the other parents there, whether she knew them or not, if they thought a play space for young children should have Mortal Kombat. One parent didn't care, but all the others said "no." My friend went to the manager and told him the results of her informal survey. The next time she and her son came back, the game was gone.
We may not be able to change the huge and many-armed monster that is American commercial culture, and we can't shield our children from it entirely, but there are some choices we can make to limit their exposure. We can speak up at dance studios or play spaces when we see children being exposed to harmful images, products or ads. And we can keep talking about the balance between what's good for free enterprise and what's good for children.