Summer, A Summit, and Some Sanity

Summer is easy in our western Michigan city. The Farmers Market bustles, the garden grows, the kids live outside. Lake Michigan beckons and leisurely dinners at the picnic table are the norm. We go weeks at a time without exposure to the artificial lighting of grocery stores, electronic entertainment or the seduction of chain stores or restaurants. We vow to buy and eat locally and are able to keep our promise.

Family activities come in the form of full moon bike rides, walks to parks, and outdoor festivals. Mother Nature is in full force and we follow her commands. If she graces us with a clear sky, we are out the door as fast as you can say sunscreen. If it rains, we are happy for the plants and for our friends the farmers who work so hard to bring us a cherished tomato, flecked dozen of eggs, or head of crisp lettuce straight from the ground. Something ancient and wise takes over and lives in us all deeply. Television. What television? We are tuned into something different- something much more sustaining.

Despite the crisp air, fabulous apple orchards, and drop dead beautiful colors, autumn gives us our first hint of the challenges to come. It starts with the catalogues- the gobs and gobs of stapled glossy sheets reminding us that the “holidays” are marching towards us and that their new leader is Halloween. A tradition that used to be pretty simple- jack-o-lantern, costume, candy- has morphed into an all out marketing bonanza that includes hundreds of chintzy costumes and stuff straight off the China boat with toxicity contents more frightening than any horror mask could ever be. Even more appalling are the “child” nurse, devil, cheerleader, and kitty cat costumes targeting my five and nine year old daughters all complete with short skirts and- I kid you not- assortment of matching garter bands.

We make our own costumes and throw a low key Halloween party instead. The highlight is a pieced together haunted garage that owes its existence much more to the dedication of a few highly creative mamas (and perhaps more than a few bottles of red wine) than any credit card purchased accessories.

School starts and the girls quickly catch up on what is the latest must-have gizmo or show. They come home from school talking about Hannah Montana concerts, Webkins and I Pods. We rarely indulge these things as evidenced by the creative ways our girls have had to piece together their understandings of items, games and trends that they have had no exposure to. They are far from immune to the influences however. It’s right around the fourth or fifth week of school that my beautiful nine-year-old girl comes home, and for the first time, tells me she’s fat.

Thanksgiving arrives and the tug-of-war intensifies. Every year the acquisition machine rolls out earlier and earlier trumping longstanding traditions of thanks. One has the sense that the holiday train has jumped the rails and is hurtling out of control with the massive Christmas cars overtaking all the others. This year I had the inkling that if it wasn’t for the strange representation (and incredible girth) of those ten foot high inflatable turkeys gracing yards all around our area, one might worry that Thanksgiving was in danger of being shut out all together. How this most pure of holidays came to revere televised football and “Black Friday” sales as much, or more, as time together around the table is beyond me. There’s nothing like folding hands in gratitude one day, and then pummeling strangers at 4 am the next, to be the first to get those same hands on the year’s most coveted discount appliance.

By the time the true Michigan cold sets in, I am in an all out slugfest. Winter is always the hardest. We all know that the Christmas season was hijacked by marketers some time ago yet every year the extent seems to be more and more mind-boggling. This year we were told that we could buy and receive everything from better relationships with our kids (it’s as simple as giving them the right cell phone) to the assurance of monogamy (which conveniently now comes in the form of diamond bracelets and pendants). I daydream of a new version of that POW/MIA flag flying on the back of Harley Davidson’s all over our roadways. This one sporting the bearded silhouette of Jesus in the middle.

While we are not church goers per say- I do have the standard that if I’m going to celebrate something you sure as heck better believe I’m going to know why. Despite all my efforts to the contrary- I may be losing this battle with my children. My five-year-old was in tears as she finished unloading her Christmas stocking this year. Her simple hand-knitted stocking made by her great-grandmother and filled with a mixture of fun necessities, unique novelties and special treats paled in comparison to the images she had subconsciously compiled from the few print ads and commercials that had snuck past the recycling bin and the mute button. Those scenes depicting Santa’s bounty as overwhelming heaps of every toy and box and bow imaginable had seeped in and consumed her expectations without any of us ever being in the know. The quivering lip and big tear-filled blue eyes of this beloved child (whose every imaginable need we strive to meet) would have been comical if it wasn’t so unbelievably sad.

Snowflakes fall and my oldest reads Little House on the Prairie, Where The Red Fern Grows and Naya Nuki. I find myself in tears when she talks of the thoughtful preparations for a community dance, a cherished orange at the bottom of a Christmas stocking, the milking of a cow, and ancient Native American traditions. I know I’m in danger of being called sappy and nostalgic but, truly, where has this kind of reverence gone?

I feel a strange pull to what my kids have coined the “Old Fashioned Town” exhibit at the Public Museum. No matter how many times we have strolled its reproduced cobblestone streets, musty smells and squeaky screen doors-I want to linger in this exhibit the longest. The lure of the tiny specialized shops- the grocer here, the pharmacy across the way, the artful function of the printing press- provides an enchanting comfort. I am intrigued by the bolts of fabric, the intricate beauty of a hair comb or a pocketknife – the purposefulness, simplicity and beauty of it all.

The snow piles up and gray skies dominate. I shop at Target. I try not to bring the girls with me-something in me intuiting that this retailer has a power that just may trump mine. This is a most unsettling feeling for a mother who is really close with her kids. When they are pushing the red cart, I cringe at what I’ve exposed them to. The mixed messages, the marketing targeting them at just their vulnerabilities, the needless nature of so much of it all, the waste.

We go to a new movie store to look for the fabulous 1970’s version of Pippi Longstocking with the English dubbed over the Swedish. We search futilely amid huge televisions blaring R rated film clips overhead. Violent video games are organized by the checkout at a height that anyone over the age of eight would have to bend over to see. The store is teaming with families and young children yet cleavage, crotch shots and gore meet us at every turn. Why is there not any outrage over these things? Are we that immune already? We get the hell out of there as fast as we can- a subscription to Netfix moving quickly to the top of the to do list. I feel so alone.

My husband- a doctoral student- talks about French intellectuals, post-modernism and the fragmentation of society due to the lack of any guiding narrative. I think I may know what he is speaking of. Something in me feels like it is breaking into a gazillion little pieces.

There is a huge television when we walk into our local YMCA. In the split-second it takes to walk past it, my five-year-old sees footage of a house fire- someone screaming for her baby. My husband doesn’t notice it. It haunts her dreams for weeks. Televisions are everywhere- cars, gas station pumps, family restaurants, grocery store carts and checkout lanes. I am so angry. So overwhelmed. Something in me is dying. My own fire to combat these things seems to be going out- smothered by the sheer volume of it all.

Playtimes are turning deadly as kids in our community accidentally shoot their best friends with guns. In contrast to their video games- they don’t get back up. Local fire chiefs, school teachers and city council members are getting busted for porn- for child porn- for taking pictures up student’s skirts. Boyfriends are killing their girlfriends. A mother I know left her two-year-old for an hour and he was shaken to death by the man who was supposed to be caring for him. Husbands are killing their wives- in front of their children. I am in despair.

A front-page article in our main paper profiles local school districts that are signing up for Bus Radio- a for-profit company that will install radios in school buses for free. Of course you then listen exclusively to the Bus Radio channel pumped full of the “child friendly” advertising of their sponsors. The drivers love it- the kids are “so well behaved”. Districts love it- “it’s free”. The article doesn’t ever mention the effects on kids or the opinions of their parents. The only contrast to all the glowing reviews is one reference to an organization called “The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood”. I immediately sign up.

A few weeks later I am e-mailed a notice of a summit hosted by the campaign. It is titled “The Sexualization of Childhood and Other Commercial Calamities”. Every single part of the agenda resonates with me. It is in the spring and in Boston. It is too far and too expensive of a trip but I can’t get it off my mind. My husband suggests that we both go and that we drive. My 22-year-old brother hears of the idea and offers to watch the girls. My very elderly grandparents agree to loan their vehicle for the trip. A friend of a friend in Boston offers us a place to stay. Things come together and we sign-up.

Crocuses push through the ground the week we are to leave. The first real promise that spring is on its way. The drive is indeed long but painless. A warm sun melts snow along our entire route. Trace elements of green can be seen among the many shades of brown in the fields and roadways.

On the opening day of the summit and the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, we hear Director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s, moving account of working with the man and the Civil Rights movement. He likens the current assembly to those that took place in the fifties and sixties and highlights that such gatherings are fundamental to the future of human rights and to the continued generation of change. Child psychologist pioneer and child advocate Dr. Susan Linn, also of Harvard Medical School, tells the audience that she too is reminded of not only the Civil Rights movement but of the individuals who came before the movement- the activists of the 1920’s and 1930’s- the people who didn’t come close to seeing any of the major changes on their behalf but who knew that change was needed.

Something stirs deep within me. The cold paralysis of my seasonal anguish is shifting a bit. Like those flower bulbs planted deep within the ground must at some point detect- light is out there. Start moving towards it.

The day goes on to hold plenary sessions by education professor Dr. Diane Levin, author of the forthcoming book So Sexy, So Soon, and investigative journalist and broadcaster Susan Gregory Thomas, the writer behind the fabulously titled Buy, Buy Baby. Dr. Levin chronicles the history of children’s marketing in the United States, a legacy that we owe primarily to the Reagan administration and the deregulation of children’s television in the 1980’s. This dislodged the avalanche that has been pummeling us ever sense- burying us from birth in the ceaseless barrage of promotion and product that piles up (both literally and figuratively) threatening the ecological survival of our planet and invading the most sacred dimensions of our humanity.

Dr. Levin further illustrates the effects of unregulated children’s marketing with gripping examples of gender divisions generated by children’s television and toys (Bratz dolls vs. WWF), the increasing evidence of age compression (Tickle Me Elmo Barbie anyone?) and the vital importance of distinguishing sexualization from sexuality. As a mother of daughters and an early childhood educator I want to stand up and cheer. Ms. Thomas is illuminating as well, with a reading from her book about the history and savvy of both branding and marketing Barbie in the fickle and competitive children’s retail marketplace.

Sara Grimes of Simon Fraser University provides a crash course in the virtual branding of children’s play through internet games and social networks. The evolution goes something like this: children’s television shows provide characters and “scripts” for children’s play that lead them to the purchase of licensed play toys that then have an internet or media based play component. Commercialization convinces children that product play is superior to their own imaginative play. Online sites consist of very thinly veiled advertising that promotes the purchase of additional products or, as Ms. Grimes refers to them, “advergames”. These games often revolve around the virtual purchase of more products perpetuating an endless cycle of consumption.

Dr. Michael Brody, chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry presents on the effects of playing with sex and death in video games. It is both disturbing and fascinating to hear him speak of video games as immersion mediums that visually, physically, and emotionally promote atmospheres of violence and constant fear. Dr. Brody shares that “habits of the mind become structures of the brain”- an observation I have made time and again in classrooms. The behavior and personalities of children as young as two or three-years-old show the very real impact of large daily doses of electronic media stimulation. Dr Brody goes on to demonstrate the “normalization” of violence perpetuated by video games as well as examples as to the objectification of (and violence towards) women, compulsive behavior, and the lack of empathy or altruism that result from extended video game exposure and play. There is a reason video games are used to train U.S. troops prior to going into battle. Players are not conditioned to think or to problem-solve, only to follow a predetermined story without distraction or hesitation.

Workshop sessions throughout the day highlight equally potent and timely topics that serve as top-notch primers for pretty much any angle on the commercialization of children. I struggle with making the choice of which to attend.

The day wraps up with Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, speaking on hyper-consumerism and our increasing ecological crisis. It is vital to take in the global effects of consumer and disposable societies and Dr. Schor’s illustrations and data are especially compelling. Dr. Poussaint closes with a brief talk on toxic marketing to African Americans; an incredibly destructive dimension of consumer targeting based strongly in the exploitation of under privilege and the perpetuation of the message that being black comes with inherent deficits that can be filled through the purchase of certain products and images.

These are far from uplifting topics so why am I feeling so much better? After the decompression provided by a long walk and dinner in a nice Irish Boston pub (not to mention a few sips of my husband’s Guinness) I begin to put a finger on it. All of these things I have perceived and chronicled as an educator and a mother. As a wife, daughter and granddaughter. They have names. People are writing about them and researching them. People from all across the country are speaking a language that I have intuited but struggled to articulate. I go to sleep with my head spinning- both exhausted and energized.

On the second day of the conference I have a first time crash course in hard-core pornography- and this was right after breakfast. Presenter Dr. Gail Dines did the difficult yet critical job of demonstrating the crisis that is upon us. This is a tragedy written by the highly addictive nature of the medium, the push for ever more shocking conquests and the very real evidence that this need is generating a serious increase in child pornography.

Porn is everywhere and the internet has created the perfect home for the anonymity and accessibility that feed its proliferation. Dr. Dines shares that the average age that a male sees his first pornographic image is eleven-and-a-half. That is the average mind you, meaning our boys are being exposed to representations of females and sexuality that their development cannot even begin to comprehend. Soft porn is the norm on television programming and even advertising. Most disturbing is the fact that after developing a porn habit, many men find themselves unaffected by the glut of images of women doing anything and everything and have moved on to seeking out “teen” and ultimately child pornography- the last real taboo.

The pornography industry is a shrewd, profit driven organization- always motivated by the bottom line. This means that they are willing to push the envelope as far as they possibly can to continue to find a customer base. Increasingly this means the exploitation of incredibly young looking “teens” in child-like settings, clothing, behavior and language. Proliferation of the kind of thinking and behavior that this perpetuates is unconscionable; yet, it is becoming more and more the norm. I am grateful for the call to arms provided by Dr. Dines, Wheelock College professor, author and activist. In her speed-fire twenty-five minute presentation I saw more than enough evidence to believe that the sanctity of childhood is indeed in serious peril.

Author Joe Kelly, President and Co-Founder of the nonprofit organization Dads & Daughters, follows with a timely presentation of the impact of pseudo-sexualization on boys. This is a dimension that comes up often when I speak with other mothers about the sexualization of children. Parents of boys often shrug their shoulders with a version of the “thank god I’ve got boys” statement but Mr. Kelly points out that boys and men are actually the less visible (but no less affected) victims of a hyper-sexualized culture. Pseudo-sexuality is a false, oversimplified and constructed portrayal of sexuality that leaves out all of the complexity and beauty of human relationships. The constant inoculation of pseudo-sexuality furthers spiritual illiteracy and emotional illiteracy, which unchecked, leads to emotional death in boys and men. This is a shadow dimension to the crises presenting themselves to parents and caregivers and leaves many young boys floundering, hurting and disabled as they struggle on their journey to be healthy men, partners and fathers.

I am six months pregnant and with another conference attendee joke as to whether I dare let the baby come out. I admit to her that there are times that I wish I could return all of my children to the safety and holiness of the womb. She smiles knowingly but reassures me by briefly sharing how impressed she is by her twenty-something son- by the lack of materialism in his life and the healthful pursuits that he is engaged in. I am reminded of my brother and know that as parents there is a way to cut through all of this but I also recognize that the volume of competing messages is getting stronger everyday. Confronting and challenging the commercialization and sexualization of our children takes constant vigilance, conversation and presence.

Two more plenary sessions are included in the morning, the first focused on The Failure of Self-Regulation from Big Alcohol to Big Food by public health lawyer Michele Simon from the Marin Institute and the second, Transforming the U.S. Media: Commercial Free at Last presented by Berkeley psychologist, Dr. Allen Kanner. Both presentations are tangible, substantive and helpful. To create a healthier landscape for our children we have to know what works and what doesn’t. Ms. Simon’s experiences in the world of food and alcohol leave her with plenty of ammo to destroy the myth of “self-regulation” that she defines as voluntary, vague, unenforceable, undemocratic, and biased often providing a big distraction from authentic policymaking and debate. Dr. Kanner introduces and then breaks down the fantasy of the advertising and marketing “meta-image” of the whole world coming together around corporate products. Meta-marketing narrows any sense of the future by it’s main message that we can buy our way to happiness. The goal of a materialistic monoculture lacks any of the richness or value of everyday life. Dr. Kanner offers Sao Paulo, Brazil as a beacon of hope. Sao Paulo is a commercial free city that has placed public well-being over private profit, aesthetics over ugliness, and cleanliness over trash. It is indeed an inspiring example.

After another fascinating workshop breakout we return for the final plenary sessions of the day. Dr. Tim Kasser of Knox College makes the hypothesis that the well-being of children is lower in nations with more marketing to children. Using UNICEF’s 2007 report on the well-being of children, he shows that among wealthy nations, those with more marketing indeed have higher instances of child ill-being. Amplified marketing correlated with increased marijuana use, increased teenage pregnancy, obesity, and the finding that fewer peers were ‘kind and helpful’. Dr. Kasser goes on to illustrate that marketing values reduce the likelihood of lasting relationships as there is a trend to view others as objects. Dr. Kasser’s research substantiates the observations of so many child researchers, families and educators that a child’s development is indeed intertwined with their environment.

Julie Gale, of Kids Free 2 B Kids, joined us all the way from Australia to provide some much needed comic relief, inspiration, and a reminder of what the determination of one person can do. Ms. Gale was a riot as she spoke of the “corporate sleaze and community complacency” that she has encountered in her neighborhood and beyond. So much of what it takes to counter these influences is just a dose of common sense coupled with perseverance and the willingness to ask questions and to speak out. Ms. Gale is an inspiration on all of these fronts.

Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University professor, long-time child advocate, and author of the just-released Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World, spoke on consumer culture and the obstacles that parents face. I find Dr. Carlsson-Paige’s solutions to be simple and to the point. Some examples include: no ads for kids under eight-years-old as they are not developmentally ready to understand and distinguish persuasive content and the prohibiting of toys and products directly tied to television, especially toys and action figures connected to PG13 movie ratings. These initiatives are rooted in solid child development research and would provide monumental progress towards the goal of reclaiming childhood.

Our final two speakers are Enola Aird; scholar, lawyer, activist mother and director of the Motherhood Project and Josh Golin; Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Ms. Aird reminds us that those who tell the stories determine the culture. Who is telling our children their stories? In the United States, the current narratives are undoubtedly dominated by marketing and advertising and consumption. Ms. Aird reminds us of the spiritual dimensions of the marketing crisis, the loss of the sacred, the rituals, and the rites of passage that guided humanity for so much of our history. The recognition of these dimensions in my own life, the lives of my children and the lives of so many of the classrooms and homes that I have spent time in, has been my primary motivation for making the trip to the summit. All the statistics and research aside, the preservation of the sacredness of childhood is what it is truly about and as Ms. Aird reminds us, “marketing to children has no place in a society that holds up it’s children”.

Mr. Golin brings it on home with an address that is equal parts passion, celebration and motivation. He highlights a number of significant successes made by CCFC members and the CCFC organization. These include the taking on of my latest local nemesis, Bus Radio, as well as efforts involving schools, hospitals, fast food chains, and more. I feel pride and joy in this newly found network of activism and scholarship and am reminded again of the summit introductions, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the timeless power of people coming together for change.

On our return trip, trees are budding and new colors dot the fields and yards that we pass. The landscape is transformed and so am I. I leave Boston better educated, inspired, emboldened, and most importantly, not alone. I have connected with what I have been longing for. When we exit the car for a stretch, the ground is soft and springy under my feet. I feel a similar thawing. A few hours later my youngest calls to tell me that the tulips in Michigan are coming up. Summer is right around the corner.

Mindy Holohan is a writer, parent and is hoping to start a local chapter of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. mgholohan@gmail.com

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org