I have been thinking about this marketing-to-kids and appropriate-movie-watching topic for a few days now. And what I have come up with is this: there are two separate issues at play (at least). One is my distaste at the way adult-themed (or any-themed for that matter) stuff is marketed so heavily to kids, and the other main issue is what I let my child do and watch within our house, and how I create some structure around that. So I have to ask myself: to what extent (if any) do I buy in to the marketing hoopla by purchasing products that are marketed specifically to kids; and secondly, to what extent (if any) am I ok with the Spiderman-play and the associated violence that goes with it? I need to examine my motivations - am I denying him an age-old childhood enjoyment as a knee-jerk reaction to the big bad advertising industry, or do I really believe that allowing him access to this stuff is inappropriate to his age and will encourage anti-social behaviour?
I think that the reason this has struck me as a particular issue, to the point where I have been moved to blog about it, more than any other parenting issue I've faced so far, is that I can see both sides to the argument, and had not formed a clear opinion about which way I wanted to approach it. You see, like with virtually anything else in life, for each argument there is at least one counter-argument. I have found this applies especially to parenting. Bear with me while I digress for a moment. You have a baby. You love your baby. You're in a cocoon of love. Then (on about, oh, the second hour after they're born) a million voices start clambering to be heard, offering advice (some well-intentioned, some not) about how to soothe your baby, feed your baby, dress your baby, get your baby to sleep. The advice might be spoken, written, or just as plain as the disapproving glance on Aunty Joyce's face, but it's out there. Whether you care to seek it or not. And most people, being new at this, care to seek it. That's just being a responsible parent, doing your research. But here's the thing. After a while (and I was lucky, it was a short while) you start to get the hang of this thing, and for better or worse, start making your own decisions, and rely on or seek out the advice of others less and less. Or, even if you seek it out every so often, (or even a lot), you still come back to what you know is right for your child, or maybe what you are culturally attuned to doing, or what's within your comfort zone, or whatever works to bring about the outcome that is the highest priority for you. (For example, if sleep is the highest priority, then you might start doing whatever works to maximise that).
My point (and, to quote Ellen De Generes, I do have one...) is that for me, anyway, I've always absorbed this advice and information with an underlying certainty that I'm doing it my way. Occasionally it's been against my better judgement (as in the case of a short-lived stint of controlled crying); but even then I knew intuitively what my preferred stance or approach was, and that what I was doing was a means to an end. I've grown more confident about that as time has gone on. I've never claimed to have all the answers, not for myself as a parent and certainly not about what works for any one else, because it's such an individual thing, but I realised that this is the first time I've asked for ethical parenting advice as opposed to just practical advice. This time, I wasn't at all sure where I stood or even what the preferred outcome is. I don't just want to give my child what he asks for because he wants it, and I don't want to let him participate in a cultural phenomenon 'because every one else is doing it', but I want to give him some agency in his own life, I want to be able to accommodate some of his preferences, and I want him to be able to fully engage with his peers. So when I mentioned in the last post my fears about it being a 'slippery slope', I think what I meant by that is that it's just the beginning of the complicated world of parenting a young child as opposed to a baby. A baby cannot as clearly articulate his/her wants as opposed to needs, or, put more succinctly, perhaps a baby's needs and wants are more simple. A baby is not as influenced by the world, its peers, and marketing juggernauts as a small child. With my almost-4 year old, we are well and truly out of that cocoon.
So, issue number 1. Marketing. I know people who happily (and perhaps without a second thought) buy with an 'oh my child will LOVE this Elmo-flavoured water' rationale. They display an apparently well-intentioned desire to make their kids happy by providing them with myriad versions of things the kids 'love' (and perhaps on some level satisfying their own desires? Or because of 'pester power', it's easier to give in? Or they just can's see the harm?). Some kids at Alex's preschool seem to be clothed in head-to-toe Spiderman every single day.Other people I know deliberately search out products without any cartoon or trademarked design of any kind, and I totally respect that.
While I sometimes think it would be easier to either be completely permissive or take a hard line, I am somewhere in the middle (therefore consigning myself to the purgatory of having to examine my every parenting move without a blanket rule to fall back on!) I'm not comfortable with the level of marketing aimed at kids, but I have to acknowledge it exists and that they exist in the midst of it, and hopefully give my kids the tools to analyse it and partake in it to a reasonable extent only. With my friends who don't buy into it at all, it's the only solution. I doubt whether they considered any alternative. It fits their lifestyle. But I am a medium-level consumer of popular culture myself and I wonder to what extent I can then expect my child not to be. So, I've decided to allow Alex a Spiderman-themed party, with invitations and a cake. I'll buy him a Spiderman toy, and maybe a colouring in book. But when he asks me for a Spiderman t-shirt, shorts and shoes, it's a no. That's my decision. I try to be consistent and follow through with my yeses and nos, so whinging about it won't get him anywhere. As I do in my own life, I'll try to stay aware of when and why things are being marketed at my kids, and allow them to participate in moderation. The increasing proliferation of crap (particularly inappropriate-for-age crap) doesn't make this a particularly easy job, but now that I've sorted out my own personal boundaries in relation to it, I think I'll find it easier to stop feeling guilty about it and push ahead.
Issue number 2. Spiderman and whether he is too young for it. As a few commenters noted in my last post, it's really an individual thing and I am in the best position to decide because I know what my child can cope with, and what he cannot, and it's not always in direct correlation to the rating accorded by censorship bodies. I understand and agree that they're there for a reason, but I take an active interest in everything my children consume and ultimately I am responsible for deciding what's appropriate. For whatever reason, Spiderman has taken his fancy at this point in his life, and with careful monitoring, I think it can be a safe way for him to explore his curiousity (which I believe is an innate curiousity within human beings) about good and evil, and to find an expression for his physical frustrations and an outlet for his energy - by watching the scenes unfold (Spiderman saves people from crooks/ burning buildings/ the Green Goblin) and reenacting them with himself in the role of hero (with limited marketing equipment as props!). So far I have not noticed his behaviour changing for the worse, but he does get very animated when talking about how to climb walls and which of the superheroes is strongest! So for now, at least, Spiderman stays. And so does the Mummy's Decision is Final and No Further Correspondence Will Be Entered Into clause in his contract.