A social storm is impacting the nature of childhood in today’s culture, eroding what has been and leaving in its place a vacuum that robs children of both innocence and imagination.
Editor’s note: First printed in
Beyond Ordinary Living, a Canadian Christian publication, this first-person article seemed a good start to our March focus on children, a five-week series that will look at school, play, parenting and teaching youngsters about God’s love for them.
In October 1991 a storm stronger than any in recorded history hit the coast off of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This “Perfect Storm” – so called because it was three storms combined into one – created an almost apocalyptic situation in the Atlantic ocean, where boats encountered waves of 100 feet (30 meters) – the equivalent of a ten-story building. The event was memorialized as both a book and then a movie, both called
The Perfect Storm.
Another storm is gathering momentum, three forces coming together, each contributing to the degree of damage that is possible. It is a social storm that is impacting the nature of childhood in today’s culture, eroding what has been and leaving in its place a vacuum that robs children of both innocence and imagination.
One storm warning recently came in the form of another distressing news headline that stared up at me from my doorstep in what seems to be a common sign of our times: a sexual predator operating over the internet gains access to hundreds of young girls – some as young as eight or nine years old – this time through the use of webcams.
What do we as parents make of the world we live in, when in the space of a single generation our concern for our children goes from wondering whether or not they’ll be invited to Suzie’s birthday party, to the possibility that they’ll be coerced to perform sexual acts on camera?
It’s easy to sensationalize a single headline and create a disproportionate fear, but perhaps this story embodies the truth of a wider phenomenon which is less obviously dangerous, namely that the barriers which previously separated children from the world of adults have eroded. As examples, I’ve seen numerous pre-schoolers in movie theaters viewing adult rated content, or become aware through the news that there are parties where parents have created non-alcoholic cocktail bars so their children can mimic the schmoozing of their adult counterparts.
More common is the way in which children from infancy on are dressed in clothing that mimics teen idols. You can, no doubt, provide your own set of examples and are led, perhaps like me, to ask simply, “Are our children growing up too fast?”
Many, including authorities on childhood development, are led to conclude that the answer is a resounding and sobering “Yes.” Indeed, the popular notion of childhood as a protected stage of life development is a fairly recent occurrence, historically speaking.
Children, in the past, were seen as miniature adults, expected to share in the duties of the family, often having to join the workforce and labor alongside adults with expectations beyond the limitations that size and strength imposed.
That changed significantly over the last few centuries as our social conscience improved, and as research taught us that children did indeed have distinct phases of development.
We pride ourselves on the strides we have made in protecting children from being forced to work at a young age, preserving their right to education and providing them with time to play. With all our advanced knowledge, children should be better off now than they’ve ever been, yet we have an increase in the number of kids with stress-related illnesses.
As for an improved standard of living, today’s children have more stuff than they’ve ever had: sophisticated electronics, trendy clothing and spending money, but, instinctively and practically, we know that those things don’t improve the quality of their lives.
I’ve concluded that the conspiracy which appears to effectively rob our kids of a more carefree childhood comes from three major forces colliding in a perfect storm, the result of which is to breach the levees protecting childhood and to swamp our kids with a deluge of influences ranging from inappropriate to dangerous. One is the impact of modern media technology, the second is unchecked consumerism, and the third is the depleted strength of individual families.
Media and the
Lest someone thinks I’m biased against technology, let me say from the outset that I believe both media and technology are value-neutral. There is nothing completely good or bad about either. The development of dynamite allowed us to improve transportation by blasting railway tunnels through mountain passes, but it was also used to make sophisticated weapons which have since killed millions. It’s not so much what’s possible with technology, but how we choose to use it. Our society’s focus on leisure and entertainment has led to an explosion of entertainment options for kids. Among them, television still looms large, and research supports that kids watch an inordinate amount of TV – much of it age-inappropriate.
Only a few decades ago, TV networks scrutinized material as to its suitability for family audiences, and banned inappropriate material from time slots where children were likely to be watching. That has since been replaced with catch-all disclaimers: “The following contains mature subject matter and is intended for adult audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.”
As a means of protecting young eyes from sensitive material, these warnings are woefully inadequate since children are often watching television without their parents and ignore the warning.
There isn’t space here to discuss video games, but there are similar pitfalls as their rating system doesn’t counterbalance the hype given to the aggressive, violent, sensual, and illegal activities depicted, and games purchased by adults are often accessed by their children in their absence.
Then there is the internet itself. How cool it is that your daughter can get live video from Mars and view your house via satellite? How sad is it that the same technology can link your son to Neo-Nazi hate propaganda and an unfathomable amount of pornography? Adults have some capacity to recognize when their Google searches may land them in trouble, but it’s not reassuring to know that even with the best firewall and security software in place, your child may only be a click of the mouse away from very explicit material.
Another common practice that exposes our kids to adult influence is the electronic messaging that takes place on the internet. A predator who operates in chat rooms and on MSN can do so anonymously, revealing as little of himself as he chooses, or passing himself off as someone else. With the increasing use of webcams, there is also a visual link to your home which, while allowing you to trade smiles with overseas relatives, also becomes a voyeur’s tool in the hands of the wrong person.
The majority of parents have trouble keeping up with all the technological advances taking place because they are multiplying at such a dizzying rate. This leaves children in a position of power because they assimilate them quickly into their learning. Perhaps you’ve seen the cartoon with the parent asking her teenage son sitting at the computer to install the security devices necessary to screen out objectionable content for teens. The irony of that situation is not far from the reality of the times. Parents need to keep abreast of current media technology if they want to protect their children from the encroachment of the adult world.
While the first force considered in this discussion may be value-neutral, the second clearly is not. Our current culture is one which is driven by consumer values.
Getting neat new ‘stuff’ is seen as an inalienable right by most. “Shop-aholic” and “retail therapy” are commonly used terms in our modern lingo, and in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, companies are ever looking to develop new markets.
You might think that marketing to children has limited potential for profit – how much money do kids have, right? But market researchers have pegged the spending of children aged 8 to 14 in the 1.7 billion dollar range. That’s a lot of video games and glam costume jewelry.
One of the reasons kids are targeted is because their income is totally disposable. They don’t have to pay rent or buy groceries. They can spend it entirely on their whims. Recent surveys suggest that the average allowance for many children is $20 per week.
Companies who market specifically to children know that kids want to be like the adolescents they see around them. They even have a term for the tactics used to encourage this trend. It’s called “age compression.”
TV and print media have more recently documented the marketing efforts made towards Tweens (those between early childhood and adolescence). Many include interviews with young girls who aggressively want to achieve a ‘sexy’ look, as well as those retailers looking for their business. Lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret denies marketing to Tweens, but the popularity of their Pink Line, as well as their fragrance, among this age group leaves room to wonder. Candie’s shoes have also come into the spotlight, promoted by a very sexy looking pop singer, Ashlee Simpson, whose target market is 8- to 14-year-old girls.
Adding to the confusion, in a PR campaign, Ashlee encourages girls to look sexy, though not to seek out sex. While it may salve her conscience and that of her sponsors, it is a mixed message for impressionable children.
See Children on page 11
As for toys, in case you hadn’t heard, Barbie is passé. In her place is a line of dolls (or are they called action figures?), called Bratz, marketed to 4 – 8 year olds. These dolls feature heavy makeup, with provocative and sexy outfits that my friend, who has two young daughters, simply calls ‘slutty’. They come with their own magazine for young girls with tips for flirting — as close to a Cosmo magazine for kids as you can come.
In one media interview, the Bratz PR spokesperson states they’re “cool plastic, just toys”. Unfortunately, toys and the way they’re played with do reflect the imaginations of our children, and the messages that come with them. The companies marketing to our kids may try to minimize their role as a corrupting influence, but their actions speak louder than words.
The third element in the perfect storm analogy is the current state of the family. Families are remarkably hardy and have adapted well over time, but they are facing a battle on several fronts these days.
One recent observable trend is to see children assume more adult responsibilities in households. This is especially true in single-parent homes and families where both parents work outside the home. Adult responsibility is different than having some chores to look after, such as taking out the garbage or emptying the dishwasher. It’s the level of responsibility involved in making meals and other work that would typically be shared with, or supervised by, an adult.
The term psychologists use to describe these children is “parentified”. Sometimes this parentification occurs because of a serious family dysfunction – such as alcoholism – as we see children of alcoholics who must look after siblings and scrounge groceries because a parent is unreliable. Other times this occurs for less sinister reasons such as when parents are feeling extra pressure from their demanding or low-paying jobs. Sadly, some of these children may simply be neglected because their parents are pursuing more self-focused interests such as dating or working out at the gym.
The number of single parent households in our society has increased and the math is easy to figure. When there is one less grown-up to provide relief for the constant demands that parenting makes; children may take on some of that pressure. It has also been observed that children who are witness to their parents’ dating habits are much more likely to pursue dating at an earlier age, and this is especially true of young girls with dating moms.
An additional subtle pressure to have kids grow up quickly is hidden in the practice of enrolling them in formal recreational programs, be they sport, music, or dance lessons. Even parents who may not feel such programs are necessary don’t want to disadvantage their children in relation to their peers. Over-programmed children may find it hard to access their imaginations and simply pursue play with their friends.
Despite these current challenges, what all successful family structures have shared historically is a commitment to prioritize the needs of the children – the most vulnerable members — even at the expense of the parents’ own fulfillment. The popular documentary, March of the Penguins gives us a glimpse through the window of nature to see the kind of sacrifice that is required to ensure the well-being of the next generation.
Weathering the Storm
All this begs the question as to what concerned parents can do to guard their children against encroaching adult influences. Keeping perspective is one thing. The family is a remarkably strong institution and has survived many tests over the centuries, and children remain remarkably resilient. While children are being targeted by those who would exploit them, there are practical steps one can take as a parent. Certainly taking a good hard look at our expectations of our children is paramount. Are their responsibilities in line with their age? Are their chores teaching them responsibility but still allowing them the freedom to play, to dream, to imagine? One of the hallmarks of a healthy child is the capacity for wonder. We need less emphasis on having our kids attaining sophisticated knowledge and need to give them simply the chance to play.
Outside The Lines is a family-friendly music group that subscribes to that point of view. Their musical mission is to provide families, along with their kids, a fun evening of great music, laughter, and celebration as they share their faith. OTL band member James Gay believes that if children experience the true joy of just being kids, in the context of family and faith, then they will voluntarily choose to forego the artificial sophistication of our slick culture. Like bank tellers who can spot a counterfeit simply by feel, Gay points out, kids who get enough of the real thing won’t want the phony baloney.
In response to aggressive marketing tactics, we as parents need to learn how to say no. Kids will always push the boundaries of what they can get. Parenting is not a popularity contest, though many may act as if it is. Your children need meaningful time with you, and not money or a material substitute. Reference points for clothing choices need to be what is age-appropriate and while there will naturally be some variance as to where lines are drawn, there is clearly no need for children to look sexy.
Advice for protecting your children against adult media is available from many sources. Installing computer firewalls helps; keeping computers in open areas and out of children’s rooms is absolutely vital; limiting on-screen time (both television and Internet) will encourage them to play or read, both of which will develop their imaginations.
Most importantly, there is no substitute for being aware, involved, and engaged in your child’s life. The cultural weather is scary, with a forecast for even more sinister developments, but if you batten down the hatches and hold your course, you and your children will safely reach your intended destination.