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           Volume 10 |Issue 40 | October 21, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Brainwashing vs Blue Sky Thinkers

Farah Ghuznavi

Photo: courtesy

A friend of mine recently commented that it's hard to be a child these days. That statement made me think that it's really is a sad comment on the sorry state of the world, if the one stage of life that is supposed to be relatively uncomplicated is no longer so. And she was talking about relatively privileged children, who have none of the concerns of, for example, working children or children who have to survive without adult caregivers. But the truth is, the current generation of children belonging to parents who are part of the readership of this magazine are exposed to communications media in general - and advertising, in particular - in a way that was unthinkable even a couple of decades ago.

And that exposure shows up in all kinds of ways - from otirikto pakami, which is an increasingly widespread phenomenon, to a more general level of awareness regarding their surroundings and the behaviour of adults around them. Within these multiple and often unmanageable media influences that affect the majority of children today, I will confess to a particular hatred of consumerist advertising. While I'm all for people hearing about excellent new products that will genuinely improve their quality of life, I'm inclined to believe that the vast majority of the advertising that we are subjected to is expressly designed to convince us to want things that we don't actually need. In the slightly altered words of an early member of that industry, "It is our job to make people unhappy with what they have" (although to be accurate - unlike most advertisements! – Mr B Earl Puckett actually referred to women in the original version of this quote).

Perhaps the most cynical manifestation of this approach is the targeting of children of all ages with "suitably tailored" jingles and graphics, carefully tested on focus groups of small people to ensure that they are irresistible. And as any parent who has experienced the misery that is "pester power" from a child who wants something can tell you, IT WORKS! The late, great Erma Bombeck once said that in general, her children refused to eat anything that hadn't danced on TV. As a staunch non-vegetarian, the fact that we eat chickens or cows is not something I can say too much about; but pretending that the chicken or cows like being eaten (by plastering smiling cartoon versions of these animals over fried chicken and burger joints) is a particularly hypocritical human folly.

I have to say, I understand Bombeck's point about the attractiveness of dancing animals, as far as consumption is concerned. I recently came across a fantastic advertisement aimed at children, featuring dancing vitamin bears making squeaky noises. I will be honest with you. It is a very attractive advertisement. So much so, that I have been struggling not to buy a bottle of those. For myself.

Photo: courtesy

But vitamins are generally considered to be good for you; and even if multi-coloured dancing bear vitamins are absurdly expensive relative to the generic, boringly pill-shaped ones, that is certainly not the worst kind of advertising I have come across which is aimed at children. The kind that really gets on my nerves is hell-bent on stereotyping, for example, differences between boys and girls. So while little girls have always liked fairytales and (in most cases) pink things, the shamelessness with which manufacturers now make almost everything targeted towards girls fit the 'pink princess' image is quite maddening. How will children ever really know what they might like, when they are continually bombarded with images and products of what they should like?

There are frequently gender-based preferences that are exhibited by children almost regardless of attempts to influence them, and most parents will tell you as much. My friend Katy has twin boys, and from a very early age they have been fascinated by anything with wheels. So much so that Katy recollects, with a slight grimace, how her two and half year old son Chris - strapped into the child seat next to her while she was driving - wailed as he saw the bus driving alongside them pull away. "Bus, bus, come back! Don't leave me, bus - I love you, bus!" As Katy sadly pointed out when she told me this, up to that point, Chris had never told his mother that he loved her.

But these tendencies are by no means uniform, and such preferences can vary considerably from child to child; and not only on the basis of the sex of the child concerned. So my point would be just to let them decide for themselves. Sometimes that can yield surprising results. Another friend's son, Eirik, had two passions by the age of three: tractors and his mini-cooker, where he liked to pretend he was whipping up delicious dishes in possible preparation for a career as a chef. Eirik was lucky - nobody tried to persuade him that cooking was just for girls. Now, at the age of seven, his passions have shifted to football and artwork; and his parents continue to encourage him to pursue both.

But of course, getting back to the point of this article, children don't operate in a vacuum. And it's interesting to see how early the conditioning about what constitutes suitable gender roles - and the consequent battles over the issue - begin. Parents are not the only influence here, by a long shot; both media messages, and the attitudes of their peers (often shaped by the aforementioned media messages) play a very important part in determining what children consider cool or not cool. My friend's four-year-old son Magnus was recently scolded for deliberately snapping his toothbrush in half. After a new toothbrush had been purchased for him, his mother warned him that he better not repeat his transgression, or there would be dire consequences. Not particularly bothered by the threat, mischievous Magnus demanded to know what kind of consequences further toothbrush-snapping might lead to.

Recalling his refusal to play with girls at kindergarten and his recent revulsion towards all things girl, his mother had a brainwave which she decided to test: "If you break this toothbrush, the next toothbrush I buy you will be a pink one!" Sadly enough, as she had expected, the threat turned out to be 100 percent effective. An alarmed Magnus assured her that he would not - absolutely would not - destroy any more toothbrushes. Anything to avoid having a pink toothbrush.

It's clearly all about the messages that children receive from the various influences in their lives, and it's also about how they choose to internalize those inputs, and what they decide to take seriously. So another friend's six year old daughter recently came home from school, and quite seriously said to her mother, "You know, Mummy, it's not that girls always have to like pink, and boys have to like blue. Sometimes a boy might like pink too. And if he does, we mustn't judge him"!

Any case, the blue versus pink indoctrination goes deep, not least for those who are currently adults. And it is continuously reinforced. This became all too evident in the case of my friend Camilla. Her twins - a boy and a girl - until recently had a blue and a pink scooter that were not assigned specifically to each child. Interestingly, her son Ed liked the pink one, while Elise liked the blue one. According to their mother, she lost count of the number of times she received comments from people of all ages telling her they were on the wrong scooters (a disaster, of course)! Both the children have always liked pink, but only from the age of three has Elise begun liking pink 'more'. And this is due, in Camilla's opinion, to "the influx of girlie princess toys/propaganda". For the time being, the issue has been taken off the table, because the children have outgrown those two scooters, and now have larger, identical silver scooters.

Fortunately, in the interests of maverick individualism, there are always a minority of kids whose sense of personal preference is so strong that neither the social constraints imposed by the adults around them nor any amount of media messages can dissuade them from their convictions of how things should be. Like my friend's five-year-old in Bangladesh who came home and explained to her mother how she and her best friend, another girl, were going to be rocket pilots when they grew up. When she was asked about how her other friend - who is a boy - fits into this picture, she said without missing a beat, "He will be my co-pilot"!


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