September 5, 2010

Intrution of the Machine

Holy shit! I try not use “bad” language too often here at the Flame, but Holy Fuck! I mean Holy shit. Holy fuck. There are no other words to express how I am feeling right now. I am speechless and angry and scared and spinning out of control. I feel powerless, guilty, and disgusted with the world, myself, and everything else there might be.

I just watched Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. Let me start by saying that is a very well made documentary. According to the website:
Consuming Kids throws desperately needed light on the practices of a relentless multi-billion dollar marketing machine that now sells kids and their parents everything from junk food and violent video games to bogus educational products and the family car. Drawing on the insights of health care professionals, children's advocates, and industry insiders, the film focuses on the explosive growth of child marketing in the wake of deregulation, showing how youth marketers have used the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to transform American children into one of the most powerful and profitable consumer demographics in the world. Consuming Kids pushes back against the wholesale commercialization of childhood, raising urgent questions about the ethics of children's marketing and its impact on the health and well-being of kids.
Let me just say that this is a must see for anyone who deals with children at any capacity. It is easy for me to be thankful that I don’t live in the USA and that my daughters are somewhat shielded by certain aspects of the relentless advertising saturation that surrounds most people, simply by living overseas, but after watching this film I am not sure how well of a job I am doing, even having isolated myself in far off lands for the duration of my children’s lives.

I like to think of myself as a petty well-informed and aware father, so why do I feel so powerless? Do I need to move my family completely off the grid in order to be able to live a life free of the intrusion of the global capitalist machine?

Don’t get me wrong; much of my guilt and shame is not derived by playing the victim. This film has made me realize how I have often encouraged much of the behavior I abhor. It is easy to sit and judge far off parents for the choices they make, but it is disillusioning to think that I have made some very bad choices myself.

I am not only writing this post to help change the bad habits I have noticed in my daughter, but more importantly to help identify my own habits and behaviors that have influenced her.

  • Number one! Less screen time! I don’t mean just TV, because Kaia actually doesn’t watch too much TV, but I have noticed that it has become a crutch for her boredom. Keep in mind that there are no commercials on the TV here, but the fact that she has become infatuated with Dora, Mickey and others is cause for concern. I can see that many times when she is bored she reverts to watching TV.
  • But when I said less screen times I didn’t mean just for her. That means me too. I need to spend less time online, on my computer during her awake hours. I am not comfortable with the amount of times in a day I say things like, “ I will be right there, let me just finish this, or post that, or check this.” I pledge to spend more time working on projects, creating situations where we have creative play, and time using our imaginations.

  • Too often because I am tired or not in the mood, I simply expect her to entertain herself, and while I no there is value in that, I need to be able to structure more creative activities for her, rather than letting her veg out in front of the TV. When given the choice she will always choose playing with me over TV, I cannot say how much longer that will last.
  • I have allowed the mosquitoes to keep us hostage in the house, but I pledge to spend more time outside. One of the reasons I wanted to leave Doha so badly was because I hated what we saw outdoors. Now we live in a beautiful compound with massive trees, grass, and flowers. Time to get on the bike and head outdoors.
  • Do my best to buy as many products that are character free as possible.
That feels like a manageable list and I will stop for now. What do you do to help balance your child’s peace and quiet with the world that is assaulting their sense on a daily basis?

What this film helped me realize is that, we are dealing with a bigger problem than just having kids want to eat this cereal or that one. We are dealing with an assault on human values and family beliefs. I can, and think that I do, try my hardest to create an authentic, organic, and real experience for my daughters but how much can I do? How much can I shield them from a value system that encourages them to believe that happiness comes from things, when I myself am consumed by things?

Perhaps this post is a bit pre-mature and I need to let the ideas settle. I am sure I will get a few comments telling me to calm down and that I am overreacting again. Well, I am tired of that response. My kids are the most important things in my life and if I am not gonna freak out about it who will?

Perhaps I need to watch the flim again and talk about it with my wife, but I felt the need to write something right after watching it. I felt the need to invite you to join the conversation. You can watch the film in its entirety, broken into segments on youtube starting with Part One. I encourage you to watch it and leave your initial thoughts in the comment section below and help talk me off the edge. Help me find a way to move forward and not be terrified of the signs of a creeping consumerism, I can already see in my daughter at the age of four.

Here is the trailer:

and part one:


  1. The consumer mentality is strengthened the most inside of schools. Anytime my kids hang out with school kids they come home asking for the latest item. They compete with each other about who has "the most" of the latest collectible.
    You can have less screen time, no cable, etc but the biggest influence is kids influencing each other. Just when we thought they were going to school to learn their academics, we find out that through "socialization" they become big time consumers and their self esteem and confidence depends on it to survive and feel worthy within the institution they are raised by.

    Much thinking here for me to do too...


  2. Anonymous12:21 AM

    I haven't seen the video but this is also a concern for us. We too feel like the boys are sheilded to some degree by the fact that we live outside the USA and don't have TV commercials. As a result, many fads have just past us by even if the kids have heard about them. We have tried an unplugged night a week, when neither the kids nor Ben and I get any screen time (until they are in bed). The flip side of this is that when we return to the states the boys at time feel totally out of place because they don't know all the latest things. I know that this will pass, but we try to strike a balance and if nothing else make sure that they always have new books and follow some of the more popular series for our bed time reading. Finally, I think that one of the areas that we need to work on is understanding that we don't need the latest thing ourselves. This will be hard to convince our kids of when we have so much stuff (ie, laptops, ipads, ipods, smart phones, etc)

    love to the girls, Anita

  3. Anonymous1:47 AM

    As someone in the process of exiting the 'consuming kid' stage and entering the 'consuming adult' one, it seems to me that some of the claims in the video are either exaggerated, untrue, or, perhaps, inapplicable to me as a result of my foreign education.

    In my limited experience, there is definitely a pressure in schools to keep up with the latest consumption: but this in terms of fashion mostly, as our appearances essentially define us. Laptops, ipads, ipods, blackberries and iphones all come into the category of non-essentials - things that may be useful, that we're quietly (or not so quietly) proud of when we have them, but certainly nobody makes fun of the guy who has an ancient (more than 2 years old) phone. I think in a normal environment with reasonable kids there's the implicit understanding that consumption is limited by means, and it's unlucky rather than shameful to be poorer than somebody else (although sometimes I think it's really a stroke of luck).

    Most of my friends never watch TV. We surf the internet all the time but rather than turn us into raving lunatics it has 'hardened' our skin, so to speak, made us immune to most of the advertisement around us. In fact we're so consistently surrounded by ads that most of the time we fail to notice them, except if they have artistic or humorous merit.

    It's only when an external force is unmoderated by an internal one - when kids watch TV without knowing their parents' opinion about it - that things change. Maybe what we are seeing is not the over-saturation of kids' minds with advertisements but rather a decline in the quality of family life that children desperately need.

  4. I have seen the phenomenon Anita describes in a lot of kids--kids who are disconnected from their peers because they aren't part of their peer culture because they have been too sheltered. Here are my responses to this problem:

    1. I sent my kids to preschools and elementary schools that had less consumerism in their cultures.
    2. Fight advertising of all kinds in the schools. (It's insidious and preys on the fact that schools are underfunded.)
    3. Teach my children about how advertising works. This is hard to do if they never see any. From a young age, my kids would say, "That's just a commercial." "They just want you to buy something." "They make it look so cool because they want to you buy it." My kids recognize lots of the ways they are being sold to.
    4. Let them make mistakes. Each of my kids has, at some point, bought something with their own money only to realize that the thing was deeply disappointing. They are much more wary now and can see many of the traps advertisers set for them.
    5. Surround them with a creative and thoughtful family culture. We read, we talk about issues in the world together, we create. This summer, our extended family put together a circus. (Photos at Have to be seen to be believed.) When kids have activities like that in their lives, consuming media becomes rather dull in comparison. They still do--it's hard to maintain that level of creativity all the time--but their heads are full of other exciting ideas that they feel empowered to bring into reality.
    6. Choose non-commericial, non-character branded products where possible.

    I know these are all things you are already doing. Try not to be too dismayed when your girls turn out to be products of the world, with all of its good and its bad. Teach them to navigate in the world they live in rather than pretend that world doesn't exist.

    I have seen many examples from my kids that the values I have taught them have trumped the values they learn from the media. I really think the media takes over only if there is a vacuum of other influences.

    I know your girls will grow up to be wonderful, well-adjusted, happy young women who will see the world around them clearly enough to be able to make a positive difference.

  5. Thanks again guys for keeping me sane and walking me down from the ledge. It feels good to know I have a group of readers who help me deal with my angst and neurosis on a regular basis.

    In a way my reaction reminds me of the crazy right-wing people who freak out over any talking point. It is imperative that I look at these things and see the positive steps I am already taking.

    Critical thinking, lots of family, and well-balanced look at childhood. Got it!

  6. Anonymous1:16 AM

    This feels a little bit like fanning the flames, but I thought this article might be the sort of thing you cover. With emotion, maybe sometimes a bit exaggerated emotion, but also with warmth and meaning:

    How do we deal with these people?

  7. I just watched the movie. Thanks for sharing as I enjoyed it quite a bit. Not a lot of "new" information per se, but always good to keep being critical of our culture.

    I also struggle with the idea of raising my kids in this world where they are preyed upon in so many legal, accepted ways. When I step back and look at it, it is people like you that are helping through your influence in your kids and their friends as well as the work you do to teach your students to think and dig deeper for "truth".

    I worry, but I think we are fortunate and well armed to work towards raising our kids to be aware of some of this consumerism gone wild...
    Thanks again.