The Active Viewing Revolution Is Here
The family television set, a twenty-seven-inch Toshiba, suddenly seemed to loom over the living room with the omniscient aura of the monolith in 2001. For reasons I am still trying to understand, I cocked my head that winter morning, ape-like, and beheld it as a mysterious gift from the technology gods. This was no longer a mere hunk of metal and glass on which I squandered my own waking hours, watching three consecutive SportsCenters or handicapping which sequined pair would win Dancing with the Stars. No, this cube was now a Socratic learning tool, even a shamanistic guide to life. And I, as father and provider, would bestow it upon my daughter, who would bask in its radiant, edifying glow for all her days. Margot was six months old at the time. And it's worth noting that my epiphany occurred at 6:17 a.m.
The morning shift had become my routine once Margot had blessedly learned to sleep through the night. I rose with her as a small trade-off for the fact that my wife, Stella, usually put her down to sleep and awakened for multiple nighttime feedings. Coping with the skull-scrambling feeling of new-parent jet lag, I would retrieve the newspaper, hold Margot close to my bathrobe-clad body, and shuffle downstairs. Lurching Tony Soprano-style into the kitchen, I'd balance her over one shoulder while I ground coffee beans, measured out water, started a pot brewing, and warmed up her breakfast. On that fateful morning, we plopped down in the living room on a floor mat known by its marketers as the Tiny Love Gymini® 3D Activity Gym. Tiny Love claims that its red, white, and black geometric design approximates the womb and stimulates babies' brains. I can't speak for Margot, but the mat apparently made a synapse fire in my head, and I remembered a TV program I had not seen for almost thirty years. I sparked up the Toshiba and tuned to Sesame Street.
An hour passed blissfully. We sat together but faced the screen. I read the paper and slurped my coffee, glancing up occasionally to see reassuringly familiar sights straight out of my own childhood: the classic New York stoops, Big Bird talking to Maria, Oscar in his trash can. Margot cooed and pointed a couple of times, especially during a computer-animated segment that was new to me, "Elmo's World." I couldn't tell exactly what she made of Sesame Street, but I took great comfort in that hour. It was me-time that doubled as an introduction for her to some of my old friends, who, I believed, would teach her only the purest principles, the most intellect-enhancing concepts -- Tiny Love on the floor, tiny love on the screen.
Of course things did not remain so simple. Day after day of this morning ritual (often repeated in the evenings as we made dinner) soon got Margot hooked. She would gaze, gape-mouthed, for up to two hours at a shot. Attempting to turn the TV off became an ordeal that produced tears and screams. Over the next few months, as she grew, the menu of offerings seemed to expand accordingly. A modest serving of Sesame Street exploded into a twenty-four-hour Las Vegas buffet of diversions. Between DVD and cable TV, dozens of playmates beckoned and Margot fell in with a rotating series of them, most with short, catchy names -- Maisy, Miffy, Oobi, Franklin, JoJo, Caillou, Dora. When her obsession became the low-rent DVD series called Baby Prodigy, starring a duck named Dookie ("Raise a healthier, smarter baby!" the box blares), it seemed there was no end to the offerings. I felt like I was trapped in the final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a long zoom-out that reveals not just the single, known ark in a crate but a vast, Orwellian warehouse of goods.
The journalist part of me stirred. I wanted to find out more about the supply side of the preschool entertainment equation, rather than just participating in it as a parent eager for a glimpse at the morning paper and a vestige of my preparenthood routine. Looking closer, I was astounded by how massive the warehouse was and how meticulously and secretly its contents were calibrated to stoke the appetites of consumers barely able to sit up.
As I started exploring the boom, quotidian objects and names I took for granted suddenly acquired startling new dimensions. Take Tiny Love, an Israeli company that has rapidly expanded well beyond its traditional business of mats and rattles. It is now pushing a video series called MagIQ designed for kids from six to thirty-six months. A company spokesman hastened to insist that Tiny Love "wasn't much into sitting a baby down in front of a DVD and letting them just be a couch potato." Therefore, in order to engender more interactivity, the company packaged the DVDs, which show simple animations of boats, ducks, and the like, with a little stuffed teddy bear. The bear comes with a chip inside and a series of vocal responses to what's playing on the screen. According to the company and the "experts" it marshaled, the presence of the bear creates more interaction with the child and the screen.
The promotional video for MagIQ speaks volumes. "A ball," the narrator begins as everyday objects appear on-screen. "Your baby can kick it, pass it, chase it. A butterfly. Your baby can play with it, sing to it, make friends with it. A xylophone. Listen to it. Dance to it. Make awful noise to it. An apple. Eat it. Wash it. Roll it. Color. Paint it. Express himself with it. But when all this appears on a TV screen, your baby can only...watch it." Cut to a shot of a two-year-old in a beanbag chair looking at a TV with raccoon eyes and a frown. "That's why Tiny Love has decided to create MagIQ." A choir sings: "Maaaa-giiic!" The narrator continues, "A totally active new viewing experience that makes your baby switch from passive to active. The magic lies within the triangle formed by your baby, the TV, and our truly special doll. Our doll encourages your baby to participate, sing, laugh, and react to the DVD content on the screen."
A voice on the screen-within-the-screen says, "I see -- the boat is upside down!" and the camera shows a baby looking between her legs, upside down, and laughing. A montage follows showing babies smiling and laughing as the elemental animations play on the room's TV screen. The background is completely white. White furniture, white walls. Are we in heaven?
"So next time you buy a DVD for your baby, don't just watch the screen. Watch your baby. And if she looks like this [a smash-cut montage shows laughing one-year-olds playing with the doll] then it must be MagIQ. The active viewing revolution is here."
Actively or passively, preschoolers devour $21 billion worth of TV programs, DVDs, CDs, stage shows, magazines, and tie-in toys every year -- a figure that has nearly tripled since 2001. In that watershed year, the Walt Disney Company bought the Baby Einstein line of DVDs and toys and Dora the Explorer went on the air. Dora now generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and draws nine million viewers each morning, more than Today or Good Morning America. A recent survey by nonprofit group Zero to Three found that the mean age when babies start watching videos is 6.1 months and they watch television at 9.8 months. Baby Einstein, acquired for $25 million, has mushroomed into a billion-dollar asset that cranks out a spectrum of "infant development" products from videos to bassinets to party kits. Dozens of companies emulating those top brands have collectively altered child-rearing by marketing to viewers from an age they chillingly call "zero," though the real targets are their doting, gear-obsessed parents, the first TV-raised generation to become parents themselves. These new parents have scooped up millions of CDs by artists such as Dan Zanes, the former lead singer of '80s college-rock band the Del Fuegos who has reinvented himself as the floppy-haired Pied Piper of preschool kids. They have laughed along with spoofs of their Muppet-TV youth such as Broadway's Avenue Q or MTV2's lacerating Wonder Showzen, whose creators' stated aim is to "take all the things you loved about watching TV as a kid and turn them into a twisted nightmare for all ages."
The airwaves teem with preschool TV networks, among them Noggin, PBS Kids Sprout, BabyFirstTV (aimed, incredibly, at children ages six to thirty-six months), BabyTV, and large blocks of programming on Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, Discovery Channel, and The Learning Channel. A generation ago, there were two shows for preschoolers: Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Today, more than fifty shows vie for the two- to five-year-old audience every day of the week. Thriving DVD lines such as Baby Einstein, Baby Genius, and Brainy Baby are among many targeting the very youngest viewers with a cognitive development bent. Sesame Workshop has drawn protests from some child development advocates with its new infant DVDs called Sesame Beginnings, which use diaper-clad baby versions of Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster to reach under-twos and their parents. By 2007, one in three DVDs bought in the United States (51 million units) was intended for the pacifier crowd.
Nielsen, the TV ratings company, has no reliable method of tracking viewers under two years old, and scientific research is scarce and inconclusive as to the effects of media exposure on them. "They're very squirrelly and you have to infer what they're thinking," explained Georgene Troseth, a preschool media expert at Vanderbilt University. Yet this audience is clearly fueling the boom. A 2006 study found that 59 percent of kids under two watch TV daily; 42 percent begin watching before they turn one; 36 percent have TV sets in their own room; and 52 percent know how to operate the remote control. U.S. population trends are likely to accelerate the flow of product into the marketplace -- the U.S. Census Bureau projects the annual birth rate to grow by 20 percent over the next generation, from 4 million now to 4.8 million in 2028.
How exactly do conglomerates target the ultrayoung? Are they pushing ethical boundaries to do so? And what happens on the receiving end of the transaction -- in the living room, where the marketing messages and parental choices are made manifest? That is what this book intends to explore.
As I looked around and started to take stock of the glut and the need for shows to compete by proclaiming their idiosyncrasies, I quickly realized that the monoculture of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and Captain Kangaroo had disappeared. The shows I watched as a toddler tapped into shared notions of child development and entertainment with a sunny mix of alphabet games, live-action footage of kids, and puppet fantasies. In today's fragmented mediascape, targeted messages are much more essential. There are entire networks whose preschool philosophies involve the use of humor (Cartoon Network) or the importance of optimism (Discovery Kids). There are "play-to-learn" shows built on physical gags and unadorned fun (Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!), shows with math or science orientation (Peep and the Big Wide World), "preliteracy" shows (Between the Lions, Super Why!), live-action performance shows (The Doodlebops, Hi-5), hip-hop-flavored shows (Hip Hop Harry, Yo Gabba Gabba!), and shows whose main attribute is animation achieved by computers or the more old-fashioned means of clay or pencils. Noggin, one of the networks solely dedicated to preschool fare, even claims its broadcast day is designed around the elements of a day in preschool (circle time, snack time, show and tell, and so on), with a diversified programming slate to match.
Brown Johnson, president of Nickelodeon Preschool and a key figure in the success of shows such as Dora and Blue's Clues, believes the sheer number of options available today is a good thing. "More is always better for the audience," she told me. "A lot of people are trying to get in on it. Kids over six don't buy toys; they're turning to technology. They don't buy dolls, they don't buy plush. The toy market has gone 'pfft.' Commercially, people are trying to make that pay. Hits are hits in the preschool space, but you can count them on one hand: Sesame Street, Blue's Clues, Dora....Disney is making some great stuff and they're pouring more into making a hit."
After a pause, she expanded her business analysis to the broader society, adding, "There's another side to it, and that is that parents are just really busy. The median income of a household with kids is forty-eight thousand dollars. Sixty-five percent of moms work outside the home. Parents are under a lot of stress. I feel like we need to provide quality entertainment for the broadest possible access in order to support parents." Rosemarie Truglio, head of research for Sesame Workshop, echoed Johnson's point. "Adults are living a faster-paced, highly stressed time," she said. "So when they saw something that was something that did not involve them [i.e., television], they welcomed it. Past generations had a little more time, so there wasn't the same speed of adoption of media."
The debate about content invariably ends up back in the living room. The role of parents is an x factor that is nearly impossible for researchers to account for in their studies. Truglio and others are pushing for more ethnographic research that would take into account the environment of the home where media is consumed. As it stands now, most people look only at consumption and the only question that seems to resonate is, "Is the television on or off?"
"You can watch the world's worst programming," Johnson said, "but if your parent is sitting next to you saying, 'Oh my God, can you believe they make girls look like that?' or 'Oh my God, why don't they talk to each other instead of shooting at each other?' then it can do something positive."
Johnson was describing something that the industry terms "co-viewing," a shared experience between parent and child in which helping children process what is on-screen is a goal for the parent. The notion blossomed with the multimedia phenomenon Free to Be...You & Me, a project that sought to offer kids and their parents stories and folk tales that upended old gender and racial stereotypes. Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem originated the concept as an album featuring a who's who of guest contributors, from Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner to Diana Ross and Shel Silverstein. It then became a bestselling book, then a TV special, and, eventually, a play. At its center was the shared experience of entertainment, with the goal of parents and children benefiting equally.
In order to fully consider the potential for co-viewing, it is important to remember civilization's long reluctance even to acknowledge childhood as a distinct developmental phase. As recently as the mid-19th century, children were sent to work in factories when they might otherwise enter kindergarten, and no one ever celebrated their birthdays. The late critic Neil Postman argued that American culture in recent decades has been returning to a state of fundamental hostility toward the idea of childhood, albeit via a less physically taxing route. Instead of dispatching children into Dickensian mines, parents today are placing children on a hyperaccelerated track at an alarmingly early juncture in life.
Why? Guilt, Postman wrote, citing Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. In works such as his 1693 book Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke portrayed the child mind as a blank slate, or tabula rasa. "Like Freud's ideas about psychic repression two hundred years later, Locke's tabula rasa created a sense of guilt in parents about their child's development," Postman wrote in his seminal book, The Disappearance of Childhood, "and provided the psychological and epistemological grounds for making the careful nurturing of children a national priority." There has also long been an inherent conflict for parents about the degree to which they should expose children to the complexities of the real world. William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, illustrated companion books of poems published in the late 18th century, examine that loaded issue. In Innocence, the poems position pain and cruelty as forces held at bay by mother and father, who seek to preserve the innocence of the child. In Experience, the darkness descends and the world's ills can no longer be contained. One poem's narrator, in recalling her childhood, "turns green and pale" as children play nearby.
By the middle decades of the 20th century, amid the emergence of electronic media as a social force, child development pioneers Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky had each advanced the notion of young children's growth occurring in distinct stages. Piaget in particular wrote voluminously and vividly about the experiences of his own children passing through different periods of experience.
Acolytes of either Piaget or Vygotsky blanch at media created for infants and toddlers because of how it seems to obliterate the distinctions between a six-month-old and a two-year-old. That is where much of the recent reconsideration of their theories is rooted. But in his eye-opening book Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, social historian Peter N. Stearns offers a level-headed perspective. "The two major anxieties about children's entertainment developed at a somewhat different pace within the 20th century," he writes. "Concerns about monitoring the source and quality of children's toys and leisure activities go back into the late 19th century, as capitalist consumerism began to spread its tentacles to the American young. The idea of entertaining children as a responsibility, and particularly the power of the obligation to prevent boredom, surfaced gradually during the 1920s but emerged full force only in the 1940s and 1950s, when it became an integral part of what the sociologist Martha Wolfenstein perceptively dubbed the advent of a new fun morality." Over the last several decades, Stearns demonstrates, society has been convulsed at regular intervals with puritanical angst over the effect on kids of novels, silent movies, comic books, television, videogames, and the Internet.
Alarm bells over children being corrupted by media and popular culture have been ringing for decades, in other words. At the same time, though, it is worth noting that many of the reference points of recent history are, in the larger historical context, quite new. The word boredom became common only in the 19th century. The word toddler was invented by a department store mogul more recently than that.
But isn't the digitized, sped-up, while-u-wait 21st century fundamentally different from the horse-and-buggy 19th? Doesn't the array of electronic enticements for parents and kids make this a unique moment in the history of child development? I am writing this book in part to answer that question. I am not seeking to post a dire warning about the toxic effects of television on kids -- itself a long-standing literary subgenre that includes such splenetic entries as The Plug-In Drug and Endangered Minds. These books are so strident that the pages are almost too stiff to turn, and they became bestsellers by playing to the paranoia of modern parents about the threats that lurk around every corner. Consider the dedication page of 1973 tract Children's TV: The Economics of Exploitation, which reads, "To Children, especially Sue Marie, Sandy, Chrissy and Jill."
Nor is Anytime Playdate intended as a corollary to Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, to present a counterintuitive argument for the positive power of baby and preschool media. And despite the running references to my own family, it is not an addition to the burgeoning canon of navel-gazing parental memoirs.
This book is intended mainly as an examination of the boom's mechanics, the nexus of business, educational theory, and psychology at the heart of it. It is also a meditation on how television has defined two generations. Aside from being part of the first generation to have television at all, my father has worked in television almost since I was born. Having grown up not only as his product but as an acolyte of Mister Rogers and Sesame Street, I am now raising children in a dramatically more complex environment. One reason it is complex is that a "state of resonance" has replaced traditional communication, as Tony Schwartz, media theorist and Marshall McLuhan contemporary, memorably phrased it. "In communicating at electronic speed, we no longer direct information into an audience," he wrote, "but try to evoke stored information out of them, in a patterned way." Or, in the view of television critic Ron Powers, "Watching television...evokes a memory of television. Thus television becomes its own referent, its own test, its own standard for measuring validity."
In the pages to come, I will attempt to measure validity and evoke memories of raising children in television's third wave the best way I know how: by penetrating the secretive, sensitive process of making and marketing entertainment for babies and toddlers and also illuminating the struggle over entertainment's role in many households, including mine. I have gained access to the development of a preschool show on Nickelodeon's upcoming preschool schedule that is aiming to replicate Dora the Explorer's cross-cultural success, only with a Chinese heroine. The core audience is a growing population of Asian viewers as well as upscale viewers increasingly bent on teaching their little corporate warriors-to-be Mandarin, the language of 21st-century business. Called Ni Hao, Kai-lan (Mandarin for "Hello, Kai-lan"), it was scheduled to debut in February 2008.
Like most preschool shows, Ni Hao is employing a "multiplatform strategy," the current buzz phrase for delivering content wherever kids are interested in seeing it. Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, gave me an example from his stable that illustrates the modern imperatives. Sesame's planned revival of The Electric Company will debut in short episodes meant to be seen on a cell phone. It will then follow an increasingly common path, becoming a videogame, then a series of Web shorts, a DVD, and, finally, a TV show. This rollout is meant to address a pronounced, technology-driven shift in how children are guided through narrative stories. "People of a certain age, including many parents today, don't really regard it as 'technology,'" Knell said. "They just see it as stuff. Your daughter, for example, will not refer to a 'cell phone.' To her, it will just be 'the phone.'" I asked him if that meant that The Electric Company, originally intended for kids aged six, seven, and eight, would draw a lot of preschoolers, he noted that telecom companies are actively studying what is known in the trade as the "pass-back effect." That refers to what happens when preschoolers strapped into their car seats in the back clamor for adults in the front seat of a car to pass back their phones. Verizon Wireless carries "mobitoons" from Nickelodeon for just such a purpose. Sirius took note of that phenomenon in creating Backseat TV, a satellite service built into new cars by Chrysler, with programming from Nickelodeon and Disney. Knell pointed to the reality of "age compression," a trend that effectively makes the age threshold of most programs younger. Sesame Street has been one of the shows most vulnerable to age compression: its core viewers over the past decade have drifted downward from around four years old to two and a half.
The intersection of our household and the preschool industry revealed itself to me when a leaflet fell out of my daughter's Barney DVD case.
"You're invited to an Anytime Playdate!" it announced in a promotion for PBS Kids Sprout. The digital cable network, which launched in 2005, describes itself as "a preschool network where you'll find your favorite friends 24 hours a day." The leaflet is laid out to resemble a party invitation, with the following heading:
Where: Your TV
When: Whenever You Want
Who's coming: Barney & Friends, Bob the Builder, Angelina Ballerina, Thomas & Friends and more.
I started to wonder about all of Margot's playdates. She had formed attachments, learned lessons, and was sharing a meaningful portion of her life with characters I knew next to nothing about. DVDs and the DVR helped tide her over between live visits. I soon felt like a stereotypical parent, the kind I never envisioned becoming, worrying about my daughter as though she had just gone to the senior prom on the arm of a suspicious date. The leaflet also crystallized for me how the industry craftily manipulates an audience that could hardly be more vulnerable: kids under five and parents besieged by parenthood's many challenges. By adopting the role of friend or teacher, companies fend off criticism and gain trust. Noggin's official slogan is "It's like preschool on TV," and the network precedes episodes by explaining their many developmental benefits, in much the same way that sugary breakfast cereals used to advertise being "part of a nutritious breakfast." Wonder Pets!, one of Noggin's newly minted hits, "promotes phonological awareness," the channel asserts. (Oh, well, in that case...) It's a recipe for dependency. "Everything is fine as long as the dosage is right," says an executive who works with preschool video brands such as Teletubbies. "It's prescription drugs being given without a prescription. If you take too much, you get a stomachache. If you take the right amount, your headache is gone."
As they calibrate the dosage, executives and creators of preschool programs also comport themselves in the manner of Hollywood rivals -- typical for combatants on a multibillion-dollar business battlefield, but jarring given the age of their audience. "Curious Buddies is completely dead; they could never figure out how to sell it," an executive at Sesame Workshop dished to me about a line of Nickelodeon videos aimed at babies. A Nickelodeon executive shot darts at the Cartoon Network's preschool shows, promoted under the banner Tickle U, which debuted last fall. "It's a disaster in the ratings," she sneered. "How utterly stupid do you have to be to take the brand known for Adult Swim -- all these racy cartoons at night -- and try to do preschool? There's no way people are buying that."
This area of American culture and business is tracing the same boom trajectory that videogames did in the 1990s or that television itself did in the 1950s. From a societal standpoint, preschool media is at a more perilous juncture -- not unlike where the auto industry was before SUV safety became a public relations issue or where Big Tobacco was before the legal sieges of the 1990s. It's a business growing explosively despite serious questions about the effects of its products and its aggressive marketing tactics, which for most companies begin with direct mail to pregnant mothers. Only two legitimate, comprehensive studies of baby and preschool media consumption have ever been completed, in 2003 and 2006 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a private, nonprofit group dedicated to analyzing major health-care issues. Congressional calls to fund more research are stalled in committee, and there is a growing sentiment that it will be left to programmers and networks themselves to fund research, as pharmaceutical companies do with clinical drug trials.
The cone of ignorance that surrounds preschool entertainment results in some startling disconnects. Most producers of preschool content shrug at or openly ridicule the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that no child under two be exposed to TV, and the Kaiser study found that just 6 percent of parents had ever heard of it. "Parents are blowing through that recommendation, whether it is out there or not," Knell said. "Who is to say that a twenty-two-month-old may not gain something educational from a program that's billed for her?" That twenty-two-month-old is what sets today's environment apart from that of previous decades, even though parents have always expressed uneasiness about the commercial bent or violent streak of what their children watch on TV. Today's households offer exponentially more ways for programmers to reach kids, and the default assumption is that families are open to those messages virtually from the time the children arrive home from the hospital. In some cases, it starts immediately postpartum; BabyFirstTV is negotiating with several hospitals in order to have its programming beamed into rooms where mothers and babies recover from delivery.
Entertainment companies often feel that the best defense against corruption charges is a good offense. They retain child psychology experts who maintain that, far from being harmful, these products are actually essential ways to help kids learn, just as I convinced myself on the morning that Margot first saw Sesame Street. Today's time-pressed, goal-oriented parents are certainly susceptible to that spin. "Parents seem to be allowing it in the household, maybe pushing it in the household," Knell said. "It's part of the generation of parents who grew up on Sesame Street and other shows who don't have the same kind of barriers that their parents had about the educational uses of television." Moreover, they are driven to achieve vicarious success, not just when their kids start applying to colleges but practically from the moment of conception. "A lot of our society is accelerating children faster than they need to be accelerated," said Dan Gurlitz, vice president of video at Koch Entertainment, which handles brands such as Brainy Baby and Baby Genius. "These products may or may not result in accelerated learning."
I hear that commonsense caveat everywhere. Even Sascha Paladino, head writer of Ni Hao, Kai-lan, told me, "I don't think kids under two should even be watching TV. The TV as babysitter is really a problem. So I don't think there's any way we can go about creating this show with the under two-year-old in mind." Alice Wilder, a longtime researcher at Nickelodeon, said, "I have told people here I am not comfortable working on audiences under two" Still, despite the honorable principles of people creating these programs, financial motives prevail. The jury is still out regarding the effects on the audience, but the factories keep churning out profitable product on the assumption that it makes our kids smarter. They're letting the marketplace decide. "If parents find that something is inappropriate, they won't buy it," an ex-Nickelodeon executive told me. "But even with all this fear and anxiety, one thing remains clear: more and more parents are putting their kids in front of the television." What's at stake is clear. The outcome of this conflicted period will determine nothing less than the nature of the next generation: how kids learn, interact, and come of age. And the consequences will radiate out across American society.
My intention, in Anytime Playdate, is to explore exactly how content gets to the screen, something that has seldom, if ever, been examined. Consumers and parents have a right to know how multibillion-dollar empires are built on the whims of two-year-olds, and how American culture arrived at this odd juncture where media conglomerates effectively hang on toddlers' every syllable.
Before my daughter was born, I did not often dwell on how quickly the world would want her to grow up. That reality hit me full force when she was almost two, during a family shopping outing to Century 21, a giant discount store in lower Manhattan across from the World Trade Center site. The store, essentially a grand-scale rival to Ross, Loehmann's, or TJ Maxx, stocks some well-known brands and some obscure ones, but the quality level is consistently high. If you don't mind the crowds and a fair amount of disarray in the grimy-carpeted aisles, it's a great place to pick up a Hugo Boss sport coat or pair of Cole Haan shoes for a fraction of their original price.
Clothing for Margot, a consistent need during her weed-like growth as a toddler, was the main reason for our trip. Who, I thought as we entered the store, wants to jam the mall and reflexively buy the same Baby Gap ensemble that every other American family is buying? Why not, for the same price, pick up something a little more offbeat? This, of course, is the mantra of the $1,100 Bugaboo stroller pushers, the parents who want a less assembly-line childhood for their kids. Public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, California, has an on-air slogan that always makes me shake my head: "hand-picked music." The idea is to conjure a DJ combing through shelves of vinyl, compiling a completely original play list every day. The reality, of course, is quite different: a slick package of the latest offerings from well-known labels promoting a predetermined list of artists. But the "hand-picked" marketing has helped make KCRW a national powerhouse in music circles because what sells today is that which is "hand-picked," whether it's organic food or a customized entertainment experience.
Flipping through the racks at Century 21, I noticed something amazing: a vast selection of high-toned brands redirected to babies and toddlers: Armani Junior, Versace Young, Agnès B. Enfant, Sonia Rykiel Enfant, Lily Pulitzer, Moschino, Juicy Couture, and many more. A Juicy shirt for girls, available as small as size two, carried the capital-letter message (in case the point had eluded anyone) "Buy Me Stuff."
Clothing manufacturers have discovered what language tutors, ballet schools, and entertainment purveyors already knew: Generation X wants the best for their kids. That notion is centuries old, but my generation has put it in italics. We want the best in every sense, but especially in the material one. It would not do for kids to speak a single language or wear pants with iron-on patches. They should learn, speak, dress, and veg out on the couch just like their parents. This was the democratic new order of parenthood. Kids would come out of the womb bursting with potential, but, as optimistic as this view is on the one hand, it also leaves a yawning gap for exploitation on the other.
Tapping into a classic parental anxiety about nutrition, a New York entrepreneur has cannily developed a gourmet grocery store aimed at kids, called Kidfresh. Children push miniature carts around the scaled-down aisles, picking up tubs of hummus and baby carrots, or perhaps a packaged lunch with organic fruit salad, non-growth-hormone yogurt, and free-range turkey breast. As much as the store might "hand-pick" these ingredients for kids, the whole place is obviously geared toward parents, who are the ones footing the considerable bill. The feat of modern capitalism is making it appear as if it's all about the kids. For example, events called Baby Loves Disco, now held in twenty-one cities across the country, are full-scale disco dance parties for parents and babies, held in actual clubs with strobe lights and the usual trappings, only in the midday hours and with juice boxes replacing alcohol and drugs. The name says it all. Baby may not know what disco is, but he "loves" it mostly because Mommy and Daddy love the idea that they can still go out to a club.
To be honest, I must sheepishly recall a similar event my wife and I took part in, a rally organized by good friends when we lived in California. It was the spring of 2004 and the presidential election was just starting to heat up. Our friends, who were part of a baby group that we belonged to, staged a rally and designed T-shirts for all the kids that read "Babies Against Bush." We gathered on the streets of Santa Monica, a city known as the Berkeley of Southern California, and started marching around a three-block area, through an outdoor shopping mall, down to the ocean, and back again. "Babies Against Bush!" we all yelled. Cars honked in support. I felt uncomfortable then, and only agreed to wear the T-shirt and chant the chant because I truly did oppose Bush. Still, how do we know all the babies did, too? How would we know if they love disco? It's the power of projection inflated by the power of disposable income.
As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment, his still vital positioning of literary fairy tales designed for children, "Unfortunately, too many parents want their children's minds to function as their own do -- as if mature understandings of ourselves and the world, and our ideas about the meaning of life, do not have to develop as slowly as our bodies and minds."
And so it is with the vast majority of entertainment for babies and toddlers. The presumption built into all of it is that it will make your child smarter, worldlier, better at science, better-spoken when he grows older. That was precisely where my journey began, on the floor with my daughter and Big Bird and the newspaper and my sacred cup of coffee. As much as I wanted to hold on to that pleasant memory, joined with my own distant childhood and my parents' recollections of the wonder of that glowing box in the living room, there were suddenly plenty of reasons to doubt what I was choosing to do.
At a conference I attended on children and media, Stanford professor Thomas Robinson upended many of my assumptions. "There is no evidence that co-viewing works," he said, pausing in the silence that followed to let his stem pronouncement sink in. "There's not even a lot of evidence that families actually watch together, even if they say they do. If they do watch, they're staring at the screen, not interacting with each other. If parents watch with their kids, the kids watch less kids' TV" and instead see less appropriate content. Rosemarie Truglio, who designed Sesame Beginnings as a proponent of co-viewing, conceded that fifteen consecutive minutes of watching together is all she could ever expect.
"The thing that amazes me," Robinson added, "is that these companies never talk about proof. Everyone running media companies is data-driven. They don't get up in the morning without looking at market research. And yet they get up here and say, 'We think this is a good show. I'd like my grandkids to see it.' Well, how about proving it?"
I decided to demand proof from even the fixtures of my world I had long taken for granted, characters and concepts that I had internalized decades before. Instead of what Schwartz had described as a "state of resonance," I wanted television to make sense somehow, to be a more rational, controllable force.
Being sensitized anew to the layers of meaning in the everyday would not be easy, however. Out for a run in Central Park, I looked across the expanse of green and realized it was the exact corner of the park where Big Bird leads a line of children in the opening title sequence to Sesame Street. A song came on my iPod that I had not listened to for a long while, "Toys" by XTC. I had always sung along, but never since my kids were born. The lyrics resonated in a new way as they cleverly describe how children so readily imitate their parents. I thought of Margot on the living room floor, seeing Big Bird for the first time, and how happy and proud that had made me. Were parents like me rushing children through the most important stage of development by dressing them up in Armani Junior and activating these endless electronic playdates, or were we just pawns in a new multibillion-dollar game? Journeying inside the machine was the only way to find out. As a child, I had adored Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, whose every episode featured a trolley traveling from Rogers's living room to the Land of Make Believe. The trolley was a device designed to help young viewers understand the relationship between the real world and the realm populated by puppet princesses. As an adult trying to understand the reality behind this digitized make-believe world, I would have to ride the same trolley in reverse. The Land of Make Believe would never look quite the same again.
Copyright 2008 by Dade Hayes
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