I worry about the impact of commercialism and consumerism on my kids. Actually, I worry about it a lot, and I don’t think I worry about it enough. The older ones especially are very aware of and intrigued by brand names, logos, companies that seem “cool.” Lots of people will say this is just normal. But it’s SO prevalent these days, and SO insidious, that I suspect that we don’t even know what damage is being done.
Since pretty early on, we have talked to the kids about commercials. While they don’t watch any regular programs on TV, we do watch sports. Soccer especially, lots of baseball, basketball…and the commercials for sports are fairly intense. My then 6 and 4 year olds had a conversation in the car one day about what make of car is the best, and I know they were basing their opinions on the ads they have seen. So we tried explaining to them that a company will make its car (or whatever) look absolutely great in a commercial, because the people who own the company want you to buy what they are selling and help them make money. And while they can’t lie, they won’t tell you everything about a particular item in 30 seconds, nor would they want to. “You have to make up your mind for yourself, instead of just believing what the commercial tells you.” “Commercials are designed to make you want to spend your money on what they are selling, not on providing something to you that you truly need or want.” “Everything looks good in a commercial; real life is very different.” This sunk in enough that Sam, when he was around 5, remarked with considerable disgust after seeing a bottled water commercial, “Why are they trying to sell us water? They know we’re going to drink it anyway. They’re wasting their time!” The foundation for the media-savvy consumer is laid. We can talk about industry competition when he's a little older.
But my children are subjected to far more ad-pressure than I was when I was growing up, and it’s absolutely everywhere. The local grocery store recently put TV screens at every check out line, where the captive audience has no choice but to absorb the messages from the screen, 90% of which are ads, and 10% of which masquerade as “community service” messages. The sides of buses, the cereal box on the breakfast table, the flyers that come in the mail, the magazines they get, the stadium where they like to watch the Giants play baseball, the inserts that come with any toy they get, it’s EVERYWHERE! Of course, this makes the job of parenting that much harder. They want everything they see, and who could blame them when it all looks so wonderful, and the people using all these fantastic products look so happy, so much happier than we seem to be on a day-in day-out basis. This is tip of the problem I think: that the kids are constantly being shown false picture of what happiness is and how to achieve it.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a debate going on about whether or not the Golden Gate Bridge should accept corporate sponsorship, which would mean displaying some kind of corporate sign at the bridge site. Many people are extremely opposed to the idea; they believe that it would detract from the beauty of the bridge, and they don't like the mix of commercialism and landmark. I completely agree. But I wonder why we only get appalled at the big things, like the bridge, but we don't mind the thousands upon thousands of other ways in which commercialism seeps into our lives and exerts an influence on us. And I wonder how long we can sustain a society in which our national treasures can only be supported by corporate involvement. When beauty and art and human achievement can only be celebrated if someone is making money off of it, I think it's time to worry. Are we there yet?
I am convinced that linking consumerism with nearly every experience that our children have is detrimental to their development. They cannot imagine a world in which movies are not cross-promoted with toys and fast food. For them, banner ads and corporate logos are 100% normal and "baseline." Samuel wanted me to add a corporate symbol to a shirt I made for him -- because that's what they all have, right? So on some level, a thing is not legitimate, not complete, unless it's got a corporate logo, unless it's an advertisement for something else, unless it's encouraging us to spend our money and increase the bottom line for someone or some company. How do we help our children enjoy an unsponsored life? While the unexamined life may not be worth living, I believe that the unsponsored life is absolutely worth fighting for; I just have to figure out how to raise non-consumers in a pro-consumer culture. I'm not talking about taking them out of the culture. I'm talking about raising them to put consumption in it's proper place, with the right perspective and the true understanding of what exactly is going on.
It's a tough one. Yet again, I feel like I'm battling the larger culture, which would like to raise my children quite the opposite of how Rick and I are tying to raise them. David and Goliath indeed...