Children’s Culture Steven Mintz



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Children’s Culture
Steven Mintz

In recent years, a new paradigm has emerged in childhood studies: one that treats children as agents who play an active role in their own social, cognitive, physical, and moral development and who construct their own cultural and social identities. This new paradigm focuses less on adult ideas or institutions than on children's voices, behavior, and experiences.1 In no domain can we better observe children's voice and agency than in children's culture--the meaning-making and expressive activities that include children's imaginative world, such as their folklore and humor; children's social relationships, including their friendships and interactions with peers; children's play, including games, sports, and computer and video games; and children's consumption of commercial popular culture, such as children's books, television shows, and movies.2

In recent years, children’s culture has been subject to unremitting criticism. Violence, sexism, consumerism, bullying, exclusion, and disrespect, we are told, are woven into the very fabric of contemporary children’s culture. Traditional children’s culture, we hear, has been overwhelmed by television and videogames, with their pre-packaged fantasies, immersing kids in a world of images, simulacrum, and virtual reality, sucking out their imagination, and subjecting education and parental authority to blistering attack. Free, unstructured play, unsupervised by adults—where kids once learned lessons in independence, team work, rule making, and dispute resolution—has been supplanted by Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, Nintendo, and MTV, which, with their fast pace and flashy graphics, shorten children’s attention spans, blunt their creativity, and foster passive, hyperactive, and violent behavior. Meanwhile, marketers now prey on the young with all the wiles once reserved for adults, producing brand conscious kids who define their identities in terms of commercial products. The commercialization, commodification, and colonization of children’s culture are watchwords of contemporary cultural criticism.

Contempt for children’s culture is rooted in nostalgia and guilt. We contrast our own era of childhood obesity and an overpressured, overorganized, hyper-commercialized children’s culture with an idealized image of a time when kids amused themselves playing hop-scotch, marbles, stickball, and cowboys and Indians. But contempt for children’s culture has a long history. During the Progressive era, adults were agitated by kids idling on street corners or playing in streets, “doing nothing”; the Great Depression sparked fears of a “lost generation” who would fall into crime and be susceptible to demagogues; hysteria over youth gangs, black-leather jacket wearing juvenile delinquents, and even comic books flourished during the postwar era. Every technological innovation in children’s culture—beginning with the movies and pinball machines—has provoked apprehension, anxiety, and alarm that this would adversely affect children’s development.

Meanwhile, time-stressed, anxious parents, worry incessantly about their children’s safety and psychological well-being. With less time to monitor their kids’ activities, parents agonize about the mechanisms that our society uses to cope with time pressures, including the increasing reliance on day care, adult organized and directed sports activities, and computers, television, and videogames as baby sitters.

Has a purer, more child-friendly culture been overwhelmed and colonized by the encroachment of marketers, television, and videogames? Are kids’ identities and imaginations increasingly structured by commercial media? Has consumer culture displaced free play, distorted peer group interaction, and stunted kids’ imagination? The answers to these questions necessarily entail an understanding of history.

A declension model dominates popular thinking about children's culture.3 Many adults express concern about the overweening expectations of ambitious parents, who treat their children as little adults, and, undermine the notion of childhood as a moratorium from adult concerns. Others worry about the expanded use of psychotropic drugs, fueled by increasingly expansive definitions of distractability, impulsivity, and impaired attention, which, many fear, reflects a growing intolerance of “childish” behavior. Some adults point to the introduction of school classes in friendship as a sign that kids no longer no how to make or keep friends. Others lament the loss of older childhood rituals and pastimes, such as playing marbles, chasing fireflies, or indulging in kick the can, activities that supposedly nourished children’s imagination and taught them valuable social skills. To a greater extent than in the past, adults supervise and manage children’s play, and a number of recent best-sellers, including The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls, and a television series, “Kid Nation,” exploit adults’ desire to recreate a seemingly lost world of childhood as a time of playful adventure, risk, and discovery.

According to the notion of decline, children's innocence and imagination has been corrupted, manipulated, and exploited by the encroachment of adults and consumer culture, with damaging consequences for children’s social skills or creativity.4 But as we shall see, the story is far more complicated than the declension model suggests. No compelling evidence suggests that children’s resourcefulness, imagination, or ability to play independently has diminished over time; nor is there any empirical evidence to suggest that children are less outgoing or socially competent than in the past.

To be sure, there have been shifts in children’s playmates, playthings, and play environments, but far from being abrupt and disjunctive, these shifts have occurred slowly, if unevenly. Over the past century and a half, there has been a gradual, long-term shift in the “spaces of childhood,” from outdoors to indoors, from woods, pastures, streets, yards, and empty lots to bedrooms and commercial and other formal play sites. There has also been a shift in playmates, from family members, including siblings and cousins, to the peer group, and especially same-sex peers, as well as an increase in small group and solitary play, with geographical proximity no longer the predominant way that play groups formed. At the same time, there has been a shift in the material culture of childhood, as improvised items and toys sold to parents to impart useful skills gave way to fantasy toys marketed directly to children. The most important trends have been a decline in intergenerational amusements, an increase in sedentary, isolated play, electronically mediated play, and a decline in wholly unsupervised, free, unstructured play. But these trends have developed more slowly and incrementally than many assume, and their roots lie largely in demographic developments, not in misplaced cultural values.

Many of the trends that critics decry, such as the commercialization of children’s culture and adult efforts to domesticate, regulate, supervise, and uplift children’s culture have a long, if largely unrecognized, history, and today’s children, like those in the past, continue to successfully resist adult efforts to shape and control their culture. Meanwhile, critics tend to downplay or ignore positive developments, such as girls’ increasing access to sports.

The history of children’s culture is an ongoing story of reinvention and remaking. A product of highly specific social and cultural circumstances, children’s culture has always combined two elements. It has been compensatory—serving to offset stresses or deficits in other realms--and preparatory, grooming children for adult roles. Far from being “natural,” children’s cultural activities are invariably shaped by a host of social and cultural factors, including demography, especially the population’s age distribution; children’s responsibilities within the family economy; children’s clothing; domestic architecture; parental employment patterns; and the consumer economy. Children’s culture today is best understood as a response to a specific social and cultural environment, a culture thoroughly dominated by technology and commercialism which places a heavy emphasis on early cognitive development and on children’s safety. This is an environment characterized by older parents and working mothers, who are better educated than their earlier counterparts and who have more money to spend on their kids; by a diminished birthrate, resulting in fewer siblings and neighboring children; by larger houses, in which most children have bedrooms of their own; by an educational environment that is more intense and demanding than in the recent past; and by increased access to media, giving children greater knowledge of adult realities at a younger age.

The history of children’s culture helps to put many contemporary anxieties into a perspective. This history challenges the notion that children's culture in the past was more wholesome than it is today or that commercialism is a corrupting force only recently unleashed. Children's play, especially boys’ play, has often been violent and even sadistic; bullying, shunning, and teasing, as well as tormenting animals and younger or physically smaller children can be found throughout the history of childhood. Nor is the commercialism of childhood new, as the mere mention of such artifacts as Shirley Temple watches, Davy Crockett coonskin caps, or cereal premiums should make clear. Insofar as children's culture was freer, less structured, less commercialized, and less adult supervised in the past, this was largely due to adult unconcern--not a commitment to a childhood culture emphasizing danger and daring.

Children's culture is not a monolith. In every historical era, diverse children's cultures coexist, varying according to children's age, class, ethnicity, gender, location, and race. Although there have been some striking continuities in children’s culture over time, children's culture has never been static. Sometimes, children’s culture has been adaptive—promoting the adoption of adult values and behavior patterns. At other times, it has represented an alternative culture or even one that is resistant or rebellious. Today’s children’s culture is at once adaptive and adversarial. Take the example of videogames. Often condemned as addictive, violent, sexist, and socially isolating, these games can increase eye-hand coordination and visual acuity, and hone a variety of skills considered important in the twenty-first century, including strategic thinking, problem solving, multitasking, role playing, and parallel processing. Yet there can also be no doubt that these games also serve other functions; their virtual worlds can keep game players preoccupied and out of parents’ hair for hours on end; give young people membership in a realm largely unknown to their parents; and like hip hop music, provide a cathartic outlet from the constraints of middle-class childhood and a vicarious connection to a more intense reality.5

Yet for all the transformations that have taken place in children's culture in recent years, certain themes do recur over time. These include children's efforts to affiliate and develop shared identities, cope with the anxieties of life, and assert autonomy and express their growing maturity and competence. Not only have there been a certain persistence in children's rhymes, jokes, songs, and play forms, but in every era, children's culture has served social, expressive, maturational, and developmental needs. Children's culture has also served as an outlet for kids' aggressive impulses and for working out children’s fears, as well as a way to express their exuberance and vitality. And finally, children’s culture has repeatedly involved conflict with adults and their efforts to regulate and direct children’s activities.

The concept of children's culture grew out of earlier theorizing about youth culture. Initially, a structural functionalist conception of youth culture prevailed. According to this paradigm, discontinuities between childhood dependency and adulthood independence led to the development of a transitional youth subculture with its own distinct norms and rituals, some of which were adaptive (facilitating the transition to adulthood) and some of which were resistant or oppositional. In recent years, youth culture has been increasingly understood in expressive and symbolic terms, including style, dress, demeanor, argot, attitudes, activities, entertainment forms, especially music, and certain behavioral and subcultural styles, notably delinquency, radicalism, and bohemianism, each of which can be interpreted as a response to certain stresses or structural contradictions in young peoples' lives, and as forms of resistance to attempts to shape their leisure activities, consumption patterns, and standards and attitudes by adults and by marketers and commercial media.6

Much as the history of youth for a long time privileged adult attitudes and adult-structured institutions, so, too, the history of childhood, in the past, tended to focus on adults. Thus, for example, the process of growing up focused on adult childrearing practices and on children’s internalization of adult skills and knowledge. The study of children's culture, however, allows us to shift the focus to children themselves. It provides an invaluable window onto kids' tastes and how children see and deal with a shifting cultural, social, and technological environment. Like youth culture, children's culture can be adaptive, developmental, resistant, and subversive. It is also rooted in the stresses and challenges of highly specific historical situations. Children's culture foregrounds children's agency, focusing on the activities, entertainments, and meanings that kids construct for themselves. Even mass marketers and manufacturers cannot dictate the way that media is consumed or products are used. Far from being passive receptacles of commercial culture, even very young children transform what they receive from the media and adapt it for their own purposes. Contemporary popular culture, especially film and television, videogames, serves the same function that storytelling and books have always done: providing narratives that not only entertain children, but allow young people to interpret their universe.7

How might we conceptualize the history of children’s culture? One approach focuses on the theme of decline. Looking closely at children’s play, which he regards as essential for children’s creativity, mental health and happiness, Brian Sutton-Smith has suggested that, over time, children’s play has become less autonomous, self-directed, and unstructured; that play has grown more rule bound and adult supervised; and that toys have become less open-ended.8 Another approach emphasizes multiple dimensions of change. In his recent history of American children’s play, Howard P. Chudacoff charts shifts over a variety of domains: the site of play activities, the materials that children play with, the number and range of participants, the degree of self-direction, and the particular kinds of play.9 The sociologist William A. Corsaro has offered a particularly suggestive perspective, one that focuses on children’s peer culture, the activities, values, and concerns that children share with other kids. Children’s peer culture, he argues, is constructed through a process that he terms “interpretive reproduction,” in which children, collectively, observe, adapt, interpret, and reinvent the culture around them. Through their negotiations with adults and the creation of their own rituals and rules, kids contribute to their own socialization.10

Each of these perspectives greatly enhances our understanding of children’s culture. My own argument emphasizes the ongoing tension between adults and children over the nature and content of children’s culture. In recent years, time-pressed and increasingly affluent, well-educated parents have become ever more anxious about their children’s safety, well-being, and future prospects. Urban and suburban development, liability concerns, and parental desires to safeguard their children combined to circumscribe the public spaces available for children’s play. To better prepare their kids for an increasingly competitive economy and give them a leg up, many time-stressed, guilt-ridden mothers and fathers have embraced an intensive parenting style that emphasizes early cognitive stimulation, and have lavished their kids with toys that purport to be educational, including computers. Many have sought self-consciously to impart non-violent, non-sexist values in their offspring, for example, by forbidding gun play or fashion dolls like Barbie. As adult anxieties over children’s culture have intensified, children themselves have rejected toys and games that mark them as immature and childish and have instead embraced those that provide a higher degree of autonomy from adult control.

The history of children’s cultural rituals and rites of passage is a story of persistence, evolution, and transformation.11 Some components of children’s culture have deep historical roots, including many rhymes, jokes, songs, and spells.12 Other elements of children’s culture, which we consider “traditional,” are surprisingly recent in origin. Stuffed animals as transitional objects only began to be mass produced during the first decade of the twentieth century. Halloween trick or treating by children wearing masks and costumes was first mentioned in 1920 and only became widespread during the 1930s. Action figures for boys, though in some ways the successors of earlier toy soldiers, only became popular beginning in the mid- and late-1960s, while the first home videogame, Pong, dates from 1975. Adults struck by how far contemporary children’s culture diverges from that which they took part in, need to recall that today’s fads and activities are the descendants of the pinball machines of the 1930s and the chocolate cigarettes of the 1950s.
Children’s Shifting Interpersonal Interactions

Childhood today differs radically from childhood just two or three decades ago. Video games, cable television, and instant messaging are just a few of the signs that an older form of childhood is giving way to something dramatically different. Among the most striking changes are demographic. Compared to children just a quarter century ago, today’s kids are far less likely to have a sibling. The proportion of American women with just one child doubled in a generation, from 10 percent to 23 percent. In many of the nation’s larger cities, upwards of 30 percent of children have no siblings, and very few contemporary kids have more than two brothers or sisters.

Are there any discernible differences among only children and those with siblings? For much of the twentieth century, there was a widespread view that only children tended to be more spoiled, self-centered, and lonely than those with brothers and sisters. G. Stanley Hall, the pioneering psychologist of adolescence, claimed that ''Being an only child is a disease in itself. ... we commonly find the only child jealous, selfish, egotistical, dependent, aggressive, domineering or quarrelsome.'' Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychologist, developed a theory of birth order in the late 1920s, which claimed that only children, and significantly older first-borns, had difficulty relating to others because they never underwent an experience of “dethronement,” learning that the world did not revolve around them. Far from suggesting that only children are maladjusted, however, recent studies have indicated that only children score modestly higher on measures of academic achievement, motivation, and self-esteem.13

Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that life as an only child or as one of only two siblings is different than in larger families. For one thing, their parents devote more time and resources to them. Their parents are also more likely to be better educated, more career oriented, and more successful financially. Parent-child relations tend to be more intense, and the kids are the recipients of more undivided attention. The children also tend to spend more time alone.

Meanwhile, the very nature of children’s interactions with other kids and adults have changed profoundly. As birthrates fell, fewer kids had opportunities for “camaraderie” play with neighborhood friends, giving rise to the “play date.” There has been a sharp decline in walking, bike riding, and time spent out-of-doors. Increasingly, children’s leisure activities are technologically mediated and take place inside a home. Today, over a quarter of children two years old or younger have a television set in their bedroom. At the same time, more of kids’ activities outside the home are structured and supervised by adults, ranging from play dates for the youngest kids to organized sports as they grow older. Unstructured play and outdoor activities for children 3 to 11 declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and late 1990s.14
Shifting Age Norms

Accompanying the demographic shifts are a profound redefinition of age norms. One need not be a historian to sense that the norms that defined a “normal” childhood are undergoing far-reaching shifts, which has led some observers to express fear that childhood is growing extinct.15 Children seem much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than their earlier counterparts. At the same tme, blurring of age norms, a phenomenon called “age compression,” is widespread. Toddlers now type on computers. Barbie dolls no longer appeals to ten or twelve year olds; instead, these dolls are coveted by 3 and 4 year olds. A generation ago, girls who wore lipstick or earrings were sent home from school; today, these and much sexier fashions go largely unnoticed Meanwhile, boys of seven and eight demand and receive videogames originally intended for adolescents. The result: Many adults fear that children are being hurried—by pop culture, the mass media, peers, and irresponsible parents—into a premature adulthood before they are ready emotionally and cognitively.16

Does this mean that kids are growing up too fast and that childhood is disappearing? No, but it does mean that age norms and expectations are being radically modified. Age categories are a socially constructed phenomenon, and definitions of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate childish behavior have changed dramatically over time. In the late nineteenth century, age norms grew stronger and began to be more rigorously enforced. Behavior considered precocious, such as smoking or drinking or working for wages, drew increased public criticism. In recent years, age as lost some of its saliency as an organizing category for adults as well as for the young, a development that has provoked a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, there are efforts, such as school dress codes, to reinforce older age norms. Yet at the same time, time-stressed parents also embrace notions of children’s competence, independence, and self-sufficiency.

Children have long resisted and challenged age norms and adults’ efforts to police them. Throughout the twentieth century, children’s culture contained transgressive, subversive, and rebellious elements, evident in children’s language, jokes and rhymes, dress, and style, reading materials (such as comic books), and especially in children’s play, where children found inventive ways to evade and challenge adult control of their activities. 17 In the twenty-first century, children’s efforts to mark off realms free from adult interference continue. Indeed, one might speculate that today’s children’s culture is largely defined by efforts to create private worlds, most notably in the virtual environment of cyberspace, where children’s lives are not regulated or supervised by adults.


The Changing Nature of Children’s Play

Today, we often envision play in terms of a solitary child interacting with a toy or playing a videogame. Play, in this view, is simply a pastime and a form of entertainment. Not only is this image of play time-bound (since much children’s play in the past involved multiple players), it makes it difficult to appreciate the multiple functions that play performed historically.

To be sure, play always has been a way for children to amuse themselves and blow off steam. But it serves other functions as well. It provides a vehicle through which children can test their physical dexterity and hone their physical skills. It offers a medium in which kids can rehearse adult roles or prepare themselves for adult activities. It can be a means through which children learn to interact with others and formulate and follow rules. It also provides a space where children can master their fears and internal conflicts. Play can serve as an arena of socialization and enculturation, in which children learn socially prescribed gender roles and absorb their society’s values. But play can also be subversive, cruel, and disruptive. It can help establish social hierarchies. Ritual insults, sick jokes, and various forms of childhood mischief and tomfoolery offer kids a way to flaunt adult values and rules.

In recent years, there has been a growing concern about the disappearance of imaginative, unstructured, face-to-face, self-initiated, improvised play from the frenetic lives of overscheduled twenty-first-century kids. Many fear that adults have taken the play out of childhood through their efforts to structure childhood, overprotect children, and accelerate kids’ cognitive development. Play, we shall see, remains an essential part of childhood, though its nature has undergone certain profound transformations in recent years.

Play can take diverse forms. It can involve physical motion, fantasy, role playing, competition, strategy, gambling, the acting out of dramas, pranks, and much else. Alongside traditional games—like hopscotch, jacks, jump rope, tag, hide and seek, and clapping and singing games--which many adults fear are in decline—a host of newer games emerged beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, some inspired by mass media and some designed by adults. Among the most significant developments were indoor games, include card games and board games especially designed for children, doll playing (using commercially manufactured dolls), and competitive team sports. Introduced into the United States in the 1880s, the playground became a fixture of urban areas during the early twentieth century as reformers sought to relocate children’s play away from city streets, pool halls, and penny arcades.

During the twentieth century, when children’s advocates defined play as children’s work, play was viewed as essential to nourishing a child’s imagination. More recently, play has come to be viewed as vital in stimulating children’s cognitive capabilities. According to the emerging conventional wisdom, even infants are in need of cognitive stimulation. Meanwhile, the “discovery of risk,” the heightened awareness of the danger of accidents, led to restraints on forms of play that were considered too dangerous; one result was the transformation of playgrounds, as spongy surfaces replaced metal and places to hide were eliminated out of fear of pedophiles. Play has, in short, had to adapt to today’s circumstances: very small families, especially in upper middle class neighborhoods; highly educated parents; parental fears of various threats to their children’s well-being; and an intense parental desire to give their kids a leg up in the struggle for global competitiveness. At the same time, increasingly fragile marriages and the guilt of working parents who are on call 24/7, lead mothers and fathers to focus ever more intently on their offspring.

Play is rarely as innocent an activity as adults sometimes romanticize. Children receive intense bodily pleasure from much of their physical play; Sigmund Freud would term this pleasure sexual and would link it to young children’s polymorphous perversity, the erotic sensations they get from all parts of their body. Studies of doll play with Barbie have revealed that the girls sometimes work through issues of sex, anger, and violence in their play. Aggressive pranks, bullying, and taunting are not uncommon aspects of boy play. Play with dirt and various disgusting substances has been interpreted as offering a commentary upon adult society and its obsessions with cleanliness and order.

The forms and meanings of play are influenced by social context and cultural ideologies. A vivid recent example involves the various forms of gun play common among boys during the early Cold War years. But context also shaped play in the past. Among the games played by enslaved children were mock auctions and whippings, which allowed children to work through their anxieties about family separation and corporal punishment. Interestingly, competitive games were apparently uncommon among children in bondage.

Prior to the 1840s, most children’s play was directed by children themselves. Adults frequently criticized children’s play as childish in a pejorative sense, but made few efforts to organize or supervise these activities. After 1840, efforts to shape children’s play intensified. During the twentieth century, much of the history of play involved a tug of war between children and adults over what constituted acceptable play, with many adults favoring activities that were educational, safe and wholesome, or purported to build character.

The twentieth century also saw mass culture’s role in children’s play markedly increase. Various idols occupied an important place in twentieth century children’s imagination. The cowboy, the sports star, and the actor or actress became figures for identification, admiration, and even hero worship. Yet it is important to stress that even when children’s entertainments are adult created, children construct their own meaning and reinvent commercially constructed narratives and use them for their own purposes.


The Impact of Feminism on Children’s Culture

What has been the impact of feminism on children’s culture and cross-gender relations? Some observers look at children’s videogames, literature, television shows, and movies, and conclude that the impact has been minimal, with boys still trained to be warriors and girls prepared to be hairdressers and homemakers. Whereas girls’ culture still seems to focus on dolls, relationships, and grooming, boys’ culture still stresses rough and tumble play, construction, superheroes, and physical competition.18 Yet cross-gender friendships are more common than before, and girls have become much more involved in competitive sports.

The sociologist Barrie Thorne’s research suggests that today’s girls and boys are far more likely to play together in informal situations, outside of adult supervision, than in adult-structured situations, for example, in school classrooms.19 The scholar of children’s literature, Elizabeth Segel, has identified a somewhat similar pattern in children’s books. Publishers, librarians, and educators tend to target distinct literary genres at girls and boys, with girls more likely to be recipients of books focusing on relationships and boys more likely to receive adventure books. When these children read for pleasure, however, they often read across those boundaries.20

Children’s Use of Media

The forms of media available to children have proliferated dramatically in recent years. Today’s children have never lived in a world without DVDs, CDs, PCs, videogames, the Internet, cable television, or other forms of multimedia. Computer games, which are played with regularly by some 80 percent of boys, have evoked particular alarm, and many recent criticisms echo those directed early at television and the movies: that videogames desensitize children to violence, undercut their ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and diminish the development of children’s imagination. Videogames have been blamed for fostering hyperactivity among the young and diminishing children’s social skills by isolating kids from one another.

Defenders respond that videogames enhance children’s cognitive development, manual dexterity, and motor skills and foster visual acuity. They also claim that these games are cathartic, allowing kids to release tensions and express feelings and impulses that must usually be repressed. Videogames, we are told, also give girls and boys a chance to master and manipulate reality, and create and control a fantasy world in which they can exercise power. And, further, the videogame aesthetic is only one example of the highly stylized, hyperbolic forms of expression that pervade contemporary entertainment. 21

Still, it is not surprising that new media forms have generated anxiety, apprehension, and alarm. Even young children have ready access to imagery that is more sexually explicit, misogynist, and brutally violent than was available to pre-adolescents in the past. Adults find it increasingly difficult to serve as gatekeepers capable of monitoring and regulating what even young children see.

An essential point that is sometimes overlooked in discussions of children’s uses of media is that kids are not passive receptacles of media, but active agents who play with and reinterpret what they see. Since the early twentieth century, children have constructed their identities and formed their culture out of symbols, images, and stories that we have adopted from the raw materials provided by popular culture. While many adults assume that children’s consumption of media is purely passive, mind-numbing entertainment, in fact many interactions with media are playful—spontaneous, unstructured, and exploratory.22

The media scholar Henry Jenkins has persuasive argued that videogames serve a compensatory role in a society in which children’s freedom to roam has been constricted by nervous parents, allowing “home-bound children…to extend their reach, to explore, manipulate, and interact with a more diverse range of imaginary places than constitute the often drab, predictable, and overly-familiar spaces of their everyday lives.” 23 He maintains, convincingly in my judgment, that videogames give expression to a new kinds of narrative that is becoming increasingly common in various cultural genres: narratives that “lack the focus on characterization, causality, and linear plot development which defines classical storytelling and instead focus on movements through and the occupation of narrative space.”24 Jenkins has also made the valuable point that children’s increasing engagement with electronic media has heightened adults’ awareness of aspects of children's play and fantasy lives—especially the violent, the sadistic, and the scatological--which have long existed but were previously hidden from view.25

Research has shown that videogame playing and other uses of electronic media are not nearly as isolating as parents sometimes fear. Not only do videogame players often compete against one another, but their game playing experiences provide the basis for many of their conversations with friends. At a time when individual households and neighborhoods have fewer children, cellphones, instant messaging, e-mail, and websites like YouTube and MySpace provide ways that the young can form and maintain meaningful and supportive relationships and express themselves creatively.

No V-Chip or videogame rating system can preserve children’s innocence. We must recognize that children inhabit a new media world and strive as hard as we can to give them the visual, technological, and media literacy skills that they need to use new media critically and safely.


The Commercialization of Childhood

In recent years, a torrent of popular books—including Daniel Acuff and Robert Reiher’s Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children, Susan Linn's Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood , Murray Milner, Jr.’s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Alissa Quart, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and Juliet B. Schor’s Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture—have blamed unscrupulous marketers for a host of childhood ills, including unhealthy eating habits, wanton materialism, and the erosion of creative play. A barrage of aggressive and deceitful ads, we are told, did not simply promote expensive running shoes and logos on lunch boxes and T-shirts, it has colonized children’s imagination, distorted their body image, and encouraged precocious sexuality.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, companies spent about $15 billion annually on advertising targeted at children under 12, up from $7 billion a year a decade earlier, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The average American child now sees about 40,000 advertisements a year. Meanwhile, children wield more consumer power than ever before, receiving allowances that average more than $30 a week. According to a 1997 time use survey, kids spend two and a half hours a week shopping, five times as much as they spend playing outdoors.26

There can be no doubt that the intensity and aggressiveness of advertising toward children has escalated in recent years. Guided by the latest research in developmental psychology, marketers have devised sophisticated and irresponsible techniques to target child consumers. Key trends in marketing to children include age compression, targeting messages designed for older children toward ever younger children, and “trans-toying,” turning everyday objects (such as shampoo or toothbrushes) into toys. Many schools now sell ad space in their buildings, classrooms, and buses, and some include corporate sponsored educational materials in their curriculum.27

The commercialization of childhood is not a new phenomenon. In fact, modern childhood and the commercialization of childhood grew up hand-in-hand. Around the turn of the twentieth century, there was a proliferation of children’s periodicals which contained ads—for bicycles, breakfast cereals, and other products—featuring child consumers. To cultivate brand awareness among children, early twentieth-century advertisers and magazine publishers launched games and contests, and distributed gimmicks (such as miniature boxes of cereal or soap), while manufacturers supplied schools with booklets and charts, like Proctor & Gamble’s “A Trip to Ivorydale,” which described soap production and encouraged cleanliness. Even at the dawn of the twentieth century, commentators feared that the marketplace was transforming the innocent child into a “mercenary little wretch.”28

Fearing the allure of streets, penny arcades, pool halls, and movie theaters, many middle-class parents and childrearing experts sought to sequester their children within the home or in adult-directed organizations like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Camp Fire Girls. Middle-class parents, in growing numbers, embraced store-bought toys as an outlet for children's self-expression and a pathway to healthy child development. As birthrates fell and families grew smaller, manufactured toys provided a way for children to entertain themselves. At the same time, some experts endorsed school banks as a way to empty kids’ pockets of money that might be misspent, while many others favored allowances as a way to teach children how to manage money and reduce family friction over children’s spending. The commercialization of childhood accelerated during the Great Depression, as hard-pressed manufacturers promoted fantasy-oriented and licensed character toys drawn from the comic books, movies, and radio. Some marketers also established radio clubs for kids. By joining clubs like Little Orphan Annie’s Secret Circle or Post Toasties’ Junior Detective Corps, children were able to see themselves as part of a larger kid culture, separate from their parents’ culture.29

Television ratcheted up mass marketing of consumer goods to children. Although many aging baby boomers look back upon that decade with nostalgia, as the “golden age” of American childhood, in fact the 1950s marked a new phase in the commercialization of childhood. The Davy Crockett coonskin cap, introduced in 1955, illustrated television’s power to market products directly to children. The networks introduced the first programming targeted directly at children in 1955, beginning with “Howdy Doody” on NBC and “Disneyland” on ABC, the program-length advertisement for the brand new amusement park. Advertisers now hawked their toys to children year round.

What, then has changed in recent years? Not only do children have more spending power than ever before, but the deregulation of children's advertising during the 1980s, the proliferation of junk foods and advertising in schools, and marketing via the Internet have allowed marketers to penetrate spaces that were previous off-limits. Trusted organizations, including the National Boys and Girls Clubs, the National Parent-Teacher Association, Unicef, and PBS have partnered with commercial companies in aggressive marketing campaigns. Especially disturbing is the commercialization of public schools. Today, roughly 12,000 schools receive Channel One, which provides TV equipment in exchange for broadcasting 12 minutes of programming a day including two minutes of commercials. In addition to posting ads in gyms and on buses and selling “pouring rights” to soft drink companies, many schools accept sponsored educational materials, including a Revlon lesson “about good and bad hair days.” By some counts, children now view, on average, 110 advertisements a day. According to one study, kids aged four to twelve spent 400 percent more in 2002 than in 1989.

The commercialization of childhood can be restrained. It appears that the most affluent, best educated parents have been quite successful in reducing their children’s level of consumer involvement. Their kids watch much less TV and are much more engaged in non-commercial activities. Poorer parents apparently have fewer opportunities to find alternatives to excessive television viewing and videogame playing. Evidence suggests that grassroots activism is effective in combating the commercialization of childhood. Thanks to pressure from parents and activists, Kraft eliminated in-school advertising in 2003; meanwhile, Channel One has suffered a sharp decline in ad revenue, which fell over 12 percent in 2004.
Why Has Children’s Culture Changed?

Why has children’s culture changed so dramatically in a generation? The answer is demographic, economic, and technological. A demographic and economic revolution has fueled the rise of “postmodern” childhood. Today’s parents want fewer but “higher quality” kids. With more mothers working, there are fewer adults in a neighborhood to provide informal supervision. As geographic mobility has increased, parents know fewer neighbors, and feel less comfortable letting their kids play unsupervised outside. Meanwhile, economic growth and higher standards of legal liability mean that the empty lots where past generations played have disappeared. It is a cliché that the “new” economy of the 21st century places a high value on education. Between 1970 and 2000 the real wages of high school dropouts decreased by roughly 20 percent while the real wages of college grads increased about 20 percent. As a result, much more is at stake in elementary and secondary education than in the past.

These developments have had far-reaching consequences for parenting. Parents worry more than ever about their children’s well-being. As marriage bonds have grown more fragile, parents invest more of their time, emotion, energy, and resources into their kids. An increasing number of parents view their children as an extension of their self and regard parenting as an art and a science. Hence, most parents, male as well as female, are Jewish mothers now. Anxiety is the hallmark of contemporary parenting. Today’s parents agonize incessantly about their children’s physical health, personality development, psychological well-being, and academic performance. From birth, parenthood is colored by apprehension. Contemporary parents worry about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and physical and sexual abuse, as well as more mundane problems, such as sleep disorders and hyperactivity. Contributing to parental anxiety are three decades of panics over children’s well-being. Since the early 1970s, there has been recurrent alarm over stranger abductions, poisoned Halloween candies, childhood obesity, and pedophiles luring children over the Internet.

An information revolution has also played a crucial role in transforming childhood. Today, over a quarter of two-year-olds have a TV set in their bedroom and half of all kids between 7 and 16 have a cellphone. We have moved a long way from a world where a child had to climb on a bookcase to sneak a peek at Fannie Hill or a father’s collection of Playboy magazines. Now, pornography can be found with a click of a mouse.

One of the most striking developments is a phenomenon known as “age compression.” Fashion, movies, TV shows, and videogames originally targeted at teenage audiences are now consumed by tweens or even younger children. Barbie no longer appeals to ten or twelve year olds. Instead, she is coveted by 3 and 4 year olds. Many traits once associated with adolescence now appear in pre-adolescence or even earlier: self-consciousness about dress, awareness about sex and anxieties about their sexual orientation, and intense anxieties about physical attractiveness. It’s now in middle childhood and the preteen years that kids become independent consumers and embrace new forms of technology and communication such as instant messenging, e-mail, and the Internet.
The War Against Children’s Culture

Children’s culture is often treated with condescension or contempt. In fact, much of contemporary children's culture is subtly subversive of the values of the adult world, providing a critical perspective on the world that adults have created. It tends to invert the values of adult society and to free children to be disobedient and disrespectful of authority. It is a culture filled with bathroom humor and a fascination with bodily functions that adult society hides. It is a culture of "moron" jokes poking fun at stupid and incompetent adults. It is a culture that takes delight in using "dirty" words and fascination in all that is gross, slimy, and ugly.30 It is also a culture under siege.

Even as many American kids enjoy electronics and privileges unimaginable a generation ago, their childhood has also become more regulated, regimented, monitored, and managed. Kids are indulged but also marginalized, segregated, and juvenilized. For a generation, adults have engaged in cultural cold war with their own kids. And this war has all the more unsettling because it is motivated by a deep-felt belief that it is waged for children’s own good; that it will make children safer, promote their cognitive development, and make them more competitive in a global economy.

Weapons in this war include school dress codes, V-chips, zero-tolerance policies, high stakes testing, and Internet filtering software. The spaces of childhood have become more circumscribed, and children’s freedom of movement has diminished. Some of the daring and danger of childhood has been eradicated. Fun-free playgrounds have proliferated, stripped of jungle gyms and hiding places and even swings, impoverishing childhood by removing some of its risks. Rough and tumble play has been banished from school playgrounds, in order to protect children from bullying. And adults increasingly intrude in children’s everyday interactions in order to discourage teasing, scapegoating, and exclusion. Meanwhile, playthings with pre-packaged fantasies have multiplied.



Ours is a culture that claims to love children, but the reality is much more ambiguous. Upper-middle-class parents tend to treat their own children as a project, who need to be protected and perfected, while regarding other children as a problem. In particular, children’s culture is treated as problematic. Rather than giving children the time and space that they need to play and improvise, there is a tendency, at least among the upper middle class, to over-pressure, over-organize, and over-structure their lives, and impose excessive demands for early achievement. To be sure, children remain capable of finding joy, companionship, and a degree of autonomy. Still, it is a sad commentary that American society’s most privileged and best educated parents, who, for the most part had unprecedented opportunities for free, unstructured play, have lost sight children’s fundamental task: to develop the social and interpersonal skills and imagination and creativity that they will need throughout their lives.


1 Peter B. Pufall and Richard P. Unsworth, eds., Rethinking Childhood (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

2 Henry Jenkins, ed., The Children’s Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

3 Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Carolyn Sargent, eds., Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Sharon Stephens, ed., Children and the Politics of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

4 Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York: Scribner, 2005).

5 Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead, 2005); Marc Prensky, Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning (New York: Paragon House, 2006); James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); David Williamson Shaffer, How Computer Games Help Children Learn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

6 Mike Brake, Comparative Youth Culture: The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures in America, Britain and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1990).

7 A.H. Dyson, Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Vivian Paley, Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

8 Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture (New York: Gardner Press, 1986).

9 Howard P. Chudacoff, Children at Play (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

10 William A. Corsaro, The Sociology of Childhood (Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Pine Forge Press, 2005); Corsaro, "We’re Friends, Right?": Inside Kids’ Cultures (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2003); Corsaro, Friendship and Peer Culture in the Early Years (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1985).

11 Kathy Merlock Jackson, ed , Rituals and Patterns in Children’s Lives (Madison : University of Wisconsin Press/Popular Press, 2005).

12 Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

13 Denise Polit and Toni Falbo, “Only children and personality development: A quantitative review,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49 (1987), 309-325; T. Falbo and D. Polit, “A quantitative review of the only-child literature: Research evidence and theory development,” Psychological Bulletin, 100 (1986), 176-189; T. Falbo, “The one-child family in the United States: Research issues and results,” Studies in Family Planning, 13 (1982), 212-215; T. Falbo, “Relationships between birth category, achievement and interpersonal orientations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41 (1981), 121-131

14 Sandra L. Hofferth and Sally Curtin, “Changes in Children’s Time, 1997 to 2002/3: An Update,” NICHD Family and Child Well-Being Research Network, grant # U01-HD37563 (2006); S.L. Hofferth and J.F. Sandberg, “How American Children Spend their Time,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(3), 295-308. S.L. Hofferth and J.F. Sandberg, “Changes in American Children's Time, 1981-1997,” in S. Hofferth & T. Owens (Eds.), Children at the Millennium: Where did we come from, where are we going? (New York: Elsevier Science, 2001), 193-229.

15 Kay S. Hymowitz, Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults (New York: Free Press, 1999).

16 David Elkind, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (3rd. ed., Cambridge, Mass.:Perseus Publishing, 2001).

17 Chudacoff, Children at Play.

18 Kathleen McDonnell, Kid Culture: Children & Adults & Popular Culture (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1994). McDonnell observes that girls; culture is not merely a matter of sex role stereotyping; rather, it places female experience at the center rather than the periphery of life and contains a wealth of imaginative action and fantasy. Similarly, if boy's games seem to focus on male power and dominance and the use of violent means to achieve those ends, these activities also help boys to deal with frustration and develop impulse control. One might also speculate that boys’ apparent preoccupation with superheroes and strongmen and crude “gross-out” humor serves a psychological functions in helping to resolve fears of inadequacy.

19 Barrie Thorne, Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993); Henry Jenkins, “The Innocent Child and Other Modern Myths,” http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/innocentchild.html

20 Elizabeth Segel, "As the Twig Is Bent …": Gender and Childhood Reading" (165-86) in Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio Schweickart, eds., Gender and Reading, ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)

21 Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead, 2003).

22 Henry Jenkins, “Children’s Culture,” http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/children.htm.

23 Henry Jenkins, “Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/pub/complete.html

24 Henry Jenkins, “Children’s Culture,” http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/children.htm.

25 Henry Jenkins, “Congressional Testimony on Media Violence,” June 16, 1999, http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/articles/index_dc.html

26 Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

27 James U. McNeal, The Kids' Market: Myths and Realities (New York: Paramount, 1999); Schor, Born to Buy.

28 Lisa Jacobson, Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3; Jacobson, Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: A Historical Handbook and Guide (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2007).

29 Gary Cross, Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

30 McDonnell, Kid Culture.





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