It's a kid's world
Your children may live with you, share your values, and have many of the same interests, but children also live in a parallel world of their own that has its own toys, its own games and movies, even its own sense of humour. Kids have always lived in this world separate from adults. What's different for today's kids is that their separate culture has spawned huge entertainment industries with well-oiled marketing machinery. Many parents worry about what effect all this attention is having on their kids.
With the number of movies, music, games, and toys aimed at children, it's hard to remember that children's culture is a relatively new phenomenon. Since the Second World War, children's toys and children's entertainment have exploded into multi-billion-dollar industries. The average child in the six- to 12-year-old group now watches about 20 hours of television a week. During that time, he may see as much as six hours of commercials for products, which creates his appetite for a never-ending stream of new toys. Not only does the advertising accelerate demand, but the programs do, too. Many cartoon shows are created by the toy manufacturers who feature animated versions of their products in the programs.
When Canadian kids watch TV, they may experience the world largely from an American perspective, since American programming dominates the channels. Some major Canadian toy manufacturers produce American toys under licence, rather than develop toys that reflect the Canadian scene.
How advertising affects kids
How does this exposure to television programs and the products advertised affect kids? Stephen Kline, a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University and author of Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing (Garamond press, 1993), a critique of modern marketing to children, says children's imaginative play is now largely scripted by advertisers. He feels that while kids once created their own culture through fantasy play and whatever props they could find, they now need a certain toy to play a certain way or to act out the characters that the toys represent.
But in Kid Culture: Children & Adults & Popular Culture (Second Story Press, 1994), Toronto-based author Kathleen McDonnell argues that children don't always follow the script laid down by toy makers. Instead they use it as a starting point for their own imaginative games. Even the Barbie doll, often criticized as creating sexual stereotypes, isn't used in the way marketers imagine or parents fear, she says. The doll is instead the centre of an imaginary universe where females rule supreme and do whatever they please.
McDonnell also pleads for a little less rhetoric about the sometimes antisocial tone of some children's entertainment. Child culture, she points out, has always had a tinge of subversion, be it rude bathroom humour that grownups hate or satirical songs about teachers. And, in spite of much research on violence in television programming, it has not been proved that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between violence on TV and childhood violence, which is another concern that many parents have.
What do you think about advertising aimed at kids? Share your thoughts with other readers in our forums.
Fascination with pop heroes is an aspect of children's culture that baffles parents. It's not unusual for children to develop intense crushes on a particular movie star or music performer, especially as they approach the teen years. While seeing your child mooning over a pop idol may irritate you, it's seldom unhealthy. Some experts think it may even be a positive and necessary part of development.
These fascinations are good practice for handling the intense emotions your child will experience in just a few years in real relationships. Since there's little chance she'll ever get to meet or spend time with her idol, it's a practice relationship at a safe distance. Unless your child's other behaviour changes -- she stops eating or sleeping -- don't worry about her pop star crushes. Whether it hurts their imagination or not, whether it affects their behaviour or not, pop culture has become an integral part of children's play. They relate to each other by discussing the latest episodes of their favourite program, the details about their star of choice, or the capabilities of their newest toy.
Keeping your child aware
So what should a parent do? Probably the best answer is to carefully monitor your child's exposure to manufactured kid culture. Children are resilient and, with direction, can become quite sophisticated in analyzing how marketers attempt to reach them. Help them negotiate the highly commercial world of child culture. Here are a few pointers.
• Take the time to play with your children often. While playing whatever game or activity they involve you in, you pass on your values and attitudes in a subtle and natural way. You also gain insight into your children's world.
• Watch television programs and movies with them, and talk about the incidents you see or the actions and conversations that don't reflect your values or opinions.
• Try to choose toys on the basis that they will have long-lasting value for your child, but don't be too restrictive. If he says he wants a toy that he has seen on television, take him with you to the store to see it before you commit to buying it. He may find the real thing less appealing than the version in the animated commercial. Don't be afraid to let him know what you can afford and what you can't, and which toys, such as a war toy, don't reflect your values.
• Select programs for your child's TV viewing to limit his exposure to commercials and, more importantly, to give him more time for his own imaginative play.