The Theft of Childhood

Lerae Rowney meets a crusader examining childhood

beyond the media hype and stereotype.

Lerae Rowney meets a crusader examining childhoodbeyond the media hype and stereotype.

"Children now love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority.They show disrespect to their elders. Children todayare tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble theirfood, and tyrannize their teachers." How oftendo you hear such comments or, perhaps, voice them? Tut- kids today, right? Well, you may be surprised to hearthe words are actually by Socrates in 500BCE.

The perceptions and realities of children and childhoodthroughout history, and the current erosion of childhoodinnocence, are at the heart of a newly published book,"Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and our Children",by Dr Karen Brooks.

Associate Professor of Media Studies at Southern CrossUniversity in Lismore (NSW), Brooks is also a columnistfor the Courier-Mail, a feature writer for Child magazine,and a media commentator. She has a son (23) and a daughter(20). As such, she is well placed to comment on herself confessed "love hate and contradictory"relationship with the media.

Brooks is convinced, somewhat controversially, thatpopular culture is not the enemy, and says "we'reall complicit in the erosion of childhood" - parents,the media, and manufacturers and marketers of children'sclothes, toys, music, movies etc.

"Culture, popular and unpopular, is the ideologicalequivalent of fast food - only unlike fast food, anddespite what we're being told by everyone from politiciansto the guardians of education to concerned parents andgrandparents, it is, when filtered through the rightprocesses, full of nutrients."

"Consuming Innocence" is the offspring ofnearly seven years of dedicated research (there's 40pages of references and footnotes), selecting children'sproducts, interviewing and writing, including a stintin the US.

In it, Brooks delivers an articulate, fascinating,entertaining and, at times, frightening, work that meldsinsightful media analysis with practical parenting advice.

I ask Brooks what motivated her.

"What fascinated me was the way people eitherdemonised popular culture or were very light heartedabout it and didn't believe it affected them in anyway, shape or form. I knew that neither was the rightanswer. With young people, in particular, there hadbeen and continues to be so much debate as to what degree,if at all, popular culture should be addressed at homeand in the classroom.

"So what I started out to do was write a bookthat would guide parents, teachers and children throughthe sticky terrain of popular culture. But in researchingit and talking to loads of young people, parents, teachersand 'experts', I found my direction changing as I startedto realise just how insidious marketing to childrenis and how much popular culture does work to shape children's(and adults') identities, yet also how much parentscould intervene in that process. The fact is that manyadults feel powerless or are absent in many ways interms of their kids interacting with popular culture.

"I want to put adults back into the equation."

The other main driving force, for Brooks, was the sexualisationof children. Yet she's quick to stress that it's notsexuality and children that's the problem, ("sexualityis completely natural, even in young children"),but the commodification of it, the exploitation of it,that's the demon.

Brooks promises that by reading her book, parents willbe able to "reduce the risk of your child's innocencebeing consumed and, subsequently, their childhood disappearing.You'll discover how to talk to your kids about the culturethat consumes them, that defines them. And your kidswill love you for it."

In addition to quoting many authorities including paediatricians,child psychologists, marketing consultants and bookswritten specifically for advertisers of children's products,what impressed me most is that Brooks spoke to childrenin her research. She agrees that, while this would seeman obvious step, it isn't actually that common.

"Yes, I noticed in a lot of studies the absenceof [dialogue] with children. And what there was, waslargely the result of focus groups or laboratory work."Acknowledging the stressful and "unnatural"element for children inherent in such approaches, Brooksinstead established "natural" environmentsin children's own homes - gaining their trust and interactingwith the children via their own toys, clothes, and DVDs,for example.

"I learned so much from them. I went in with oneset of assumptions and left with a completely differentset."

Her advice is to understand and relate to your childrenthrough popular culture, not to ban it.
"You can't ban it. It's not going to go away. It'subiquitous. It's everywhere so it's incumbent upon usto empower ourselves, to educate ourselves, about whatour children have access to."

Brooks' message is loud and clear: communicate withyour children. Find out what appeals to them in popularculture and why.

I suggest, "How can you possibly relate if youdon't know, watch, experience and listen?"

"Exactly. I encountered this over and over. Oneexample that springs to mind was a group of mothersin Sydney who regularly bought a particular girls' magazinefor their daughters and who, when I pointed out someof the articles and topics covered, were absolutelyhorrified and said they would never buy it again. "That'snot actually the response I hoped for, and I said: 'It'syour choice if you buy it, or anything else, for yourchildren. But make it an informed choice'."

I ask Brooks what she feels is the number one priorityparents should address when considering purchasing anitem for a child.

"I'd ask, 'Does it reflect my values and thoseI want to instil in my child?' "Every time we buyage inappropriate clothing, toys, CDs, DVDs and electronicgames, or allow a child access to material that's notsuitable, we're complicit in 'eroding the magic of childhood'.

"We pay lip service to the loss of childhood,and yet do very little in real terms to prevent it.Innocence is something that adults have to protect andpreserve. These days, it's as much a marketing ployas it's an adjective." Brooks has coined the term"cultural paedophilia" to encompass the wholeof society every time we allow our children to emulateadult role models and celebrities in any way throughdress, makeup or attitude in public. By allowing othersto view them, and in purchasing the clothes and products,watching the programs or music videos alongside ourkids, she insists we're condoning cultural paedophilia.

While Brooks acknowledges that in many ways lif ismore demanding for children today, does she also believeit's harder for parents?

"Yes, I do. Sure, when you look at appliancesand time saving gadgets we do have it easier. But thenumber of things that influence our kids today is muchgreater - the objects, ideas, values - and we find ithard to stem and control. We're also being persuadedto believe that instilling manners and curbing 'attitude'is either too hard or old fashioned."

Added to this unhealthy mix, she says, and exclusiveto this generation, is the unprecedented influence peershave in children's lives - coupled with the common portrayalin TV programs and films of parents and other adultsas objects of ridicule, meanness or cruelty; often absenteither physically or emotionally (or both) while peersand celebrities take their place as guides and rolemodels. Brooks is adamant that parents need to redressthis unhealthy imbalance in perception, and cites astartling discovery in her research: a survey askedchildren who their greatest heroes were and the overwhelmingmajority nominated their parents.

"I find it really sad that we don't harness that.Sharing your tastes and attitudes helps kids understandwhy you deny them certain objects and activities."

Brooks warns against feeling pressured by anyone else- corporations, friends, relatives, neighbours, yourkids - to conform. Instead, we should seek to pass onvalues of self worth to our kids - not the notion thatthey are and will be measured by what they own.

And while she acknowledges that peers can be cruelto kids who don't have the 'right stuff', she maintains"we're nurturing acquisitive children as opposedto inquisitive ones".

"Instead of standing our ethical ground, shoringup our kids' sense of self and teaching them about valuesand emphasising what is important, we take the easyway out and buy more."

And as we all know, presents are never substitutesfor presence.

Given our largely cash rich/time poor society, I askwhat she believes is to blame.

"I think it's a mixture of apathy, laziness, seeingyour child as a status symbol, competitive parenting,'too good' intentions as a provider and not seeing what'sbest for your child. And sometimes that's saying 'no'."A lot of parents have best intentions. They don'twant their children to be deprived (as perhaps theywere) or teased or left out."
Do parents need to re-evaluate their priorities?

"Definitely. Being time poor can become an excuse.It's about striking a balance. Look, parenting is bloodyhard work. And every family situation is different.There's no perfect guide book or recipe."

Her advice is to start interacting when your childrenare really young. At the very least, sample what yourchildren are watching and listening to, be responsibleand don't rely on someone else who may not share yourvalues. And while Brooks stresses that parents needto be proactive, she also warns against trying to beyour child's best friend.
"That is not a parent's role. In fact, psychologicallyit is incredibly damaging. Your role is to prepare yourchildren for adulthood. If you're a good parent, a goodadult role model in that you provide fair but flexibleboundaries that are age appropriate, are there to offercounsel and advice (and you've got to be disciplined),then there will come a time when your adult child willbecome your friend."

She firmly believes that loving our kids doesn't meangiving in to them, pretending to share their tastesin music, fashion or even friends, or refusing to expresslegitimate feelings of irritation, disappointment oroutrage. And that includes saying "no".

"Children both want and need boundaries. Kidswant to be controlled. They don't want control. Sometimesthey test us so we can prove to them we have controland can protect them, look after them. Out of controlkids are anxious kids. They want reassurance."

Some readers may find a few of Brooks' assertions andconclusions confronting and controversial, including:

* Why toy guns and play "violence" are necessary* Why kids don't always have to come first, and * Being"ordinary" is okay and how, through insistingour children are "special" and "amazing",we're setting them up for failure. Brooks elaborateson this last point: "Parents, again with the bestof intentions, search for something unique and specialin their child - something that sets them apart fromother children. Often, they over structure their child'slives with lessons and activities. But it's about thechild reflecting who we are rather than us allowingthe child to find out who they are." I ask Brooksif she agrees with the adage, "It takes a villageto raise a child."

"Largely, yes. And today the TV has largely takenover the traditional 'village' role, but we need toknow who the 'villagers' are and just what influencethey are having.

"Parents, and teachers, too, have been made tofeel guilty and disempowered. I think we need to learnto trust our instincts, and raise our children to bewho we want them to be, not what corporations and marketingforces, our kid's peers or other parents tell us theyshould be."

Brooks quotes the cartoon environmental warrior CaptainPlanet: "The power is yours", adding, "Useit wisely".
A final piece of advice?

"Reintroduce 'no' into your vocabulary."

I am impressed by Brooks' passion, intellect, wit andwarmth. Reading her book and speaking with her has mademe even more grateful to my parents than I already was.In giving of themselves - their time, care, involvementand interest - they truly went "above and beyond".

And when it comes to our children, shouldn't we all?

Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and our Children
Dr Karen Brooks
University of Queensland Press
RRP $34.95