Monday, December 11, 2006

This be the verse

Jackie Ashley on child-rearing in the Guardian:

Everyone, it seems, agonises about the condition of modern childhood. ... On all sides there is a ferment of interest in the childhood question.

Some of that is useful, some less so; but it omits the biggest influence on modern children, which is not the school curriculum, the lectures of the faithful, panics in the press, ministerial initiatives or even family ethos. No, the biggest influence is marketing; the power of brands that invades the minds of the youngest. If you think that's a bit of an exaggeration, try this finding by the National Consumer Council: 70% of three-year-olds recognise McDonalds but only half of them know their own surname. Or how about this, from the same research: the average 10-year-old has internalised 300 to 400 brands?

I looked Ms Ashley up on Wikipedia. It says she went to Oxford and has three children. So I'm surprised she could she write such a load of old nonsense.

Did she know her surname when she was three? I'm not sure I knew mine. I'm fairly sure I couldn't even pronounce my first name properly ("I'm Cwiffer"). And so what if a 10 year old has internalised 400 brands? What difference does that make? I knew about Transformers, Star Wars and He-man when I was that age, but that didn't mean I got given the toys (some hope). I just learned to make friends with boys who did. If anything, such "internalisation" suggests a good memory for facts or names, which could be harnessed to store useful pieces of information such as the countries of the world or cathedral cities of England.

Obviously toy companies and junk food manufacturers want parents to buy their products. But come on, if you're a parent and you don't think you're the biggest influence on your child, then you should look long and hard at your position. How much time do you spend with your little one? Does the family sit down to meals together? Do you go out together at weekends? Do you leave your kids for hours every day with a childminder? Or on their own? Do you let them watch as much TV as they like? Do you ever say no?

Very young kids might recognise McDonalds, but they can't really tell the difference between that and Burger King. The thrill they get when you take them there is not the delicious taste of a Happy Meal (although they are, er, yummy) but the fact that you are with them. Would they enjoy it if they went there without you? I doubt it - the best bit is watching mummy eating a hamburger with her hands and slurping milkshake through a straw. Spending "quality time" with your children is much more influential on their world view and personality than brands and expensive toys.

Ask anyone (not just adults, but young people too) what the biggest influence in their lives is. Or who they look up to most. Or even, who they most want to emulate.

I bet most will still say their parents. Even Philip Larkin. And I haven't even mentioned genetics (which probably influences more than anything else).

No-one would say parenting is easy, especially given the long hours that most people in Britain seem to work these days, but to blame your child's bad behaviour on branding seems a bit lazy to me. As long as we live in a capitalist society, companies will find ways to market their products to potential consumers, even children. That's a fact. Rather than try to change that, why not try to expand their mind without succumbing to the dreaded corporate dollar? If you think there are too many adverts, chuck out the telly from little Jack or Chloe's room and take your kids for a nature walk instead. Show them how to identify trees or native birds. Or buy them an atlas and test their knowledge of the countries of Africa. I bet a ten year old will know more than you. Or ask them to find ten things beginning with 'W' in the supermarket next time you go shopping. That might stop them chucking a wobbly.

Branding is ultimately targeted to people with money - i.e. adults. As adults, we can vote with our wallets and eschew the Bratz dolls and Ninja Turtles, because we know that they're overpriced plastic tat. Let the friends have the toys and send our kids round to play with them if they really want to. We should try to spend as much time as possible with our offspring, and spend it wisely. If we do so, they will probably thank us in the long run.

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