Good Childhood

by Harry on February 10, 2004

Kevin Drum’s seemingly innocent question about why kids don’t walk to school anymore has prompted some interesting discussions about what makes for a good childhood. This is a discussion liberals often like to avoid because they don’t want to appear to be judgmental about other people’s parenting practices, and especially fear accusations of being racist, elitist, or culturally imperialist. For example, the claim that so-called ‘middle-class parenting practices’ (which include talking to your kids, reasoning with them rather than demanding blind obedience, ensuring, if one is divorced, that they maintain contact with their other initial parent) are responsible for success in school is often criticized not for being untrue but for blaming the parents (or the poor, or racial minorities).

But this is one of those areas where we have to make value judgments. We make them personally in our own decisions about how to raise our own kids, because we want to give them better rather than worse childhoods. And we have to make judgments about what makes for a better rather than worse childhoods for policy purposes. One comment in Keiran’s thread noted that new housing developments frequently have no sidewalks. The zoning board, in those cases, has assumed either that it is ok for children to be entirely restricted to private spaces, or that they will be so restricted anyway so why force developers to waste money on sidewalks? It is right to criticize the zoning board (not the developer) for failing properly to incorporate quality-of-childhood issues into their decisions.

How to think about what constitutes a good childhood? The Children’s Society of the Church of England recently ran a series of Good Childhood seminars that I was lucky enough to attend. They were surprisingly lively occasions, fraught with disagreement between paternalists (like me) and liberationists, but also between conservatives (again like me) who think there is an objective basis for saying whether childhoods are good or bad, and what I thought of as postmodernists who were very uncomfortable with making value judgments. (I think, but can’t say for sure, that in these cross-cutting disputes it was the Christians and the old left versus the rest). One exchange was very suggestive. One of the Children’s Society social workers waxed nostalgic for his own working class Liverpool childhood in the 50s when kids played for hours in the street, unsupervised by any particular adult; and said how frustrating the (very deprived) kids he works with find it that they don’t have safe public spaces in which to be unsupervised. He was rounded on for two things — nostalgia (‘we’ve moved on since then — what’s the point of looking backward’); and insensitivity (the 50s might have been good for white boys, but it was lousy for girls, ethnic minority kids, etc).

But it seemed to me that he was doing exactly the right thing: trying to think about different kinds of childhood, and isolating the particular features that were good about them; and then thinking about how, in contemporary circumstances, we might be able to replicate them. Lots of roads were safe public play spaces in the 50’s. They never will be again, but they haven’t been replaced by anything else; and as new houses get bigger, and physically farther from each other, and as the fertility rate plummets, it gets harder for kids to have that kind of benefit in their lives.

Recognizing that perfectionism about a good childhood doesn’t always commit us to blaming the parents can help get the conversation going. I can see why people are reluctant to say that it is better for kids to have a parent at home when they get back from school than if they return to an empty house; it smacks of anti-feminism or blaming single parents. But it just is better, other things being equal. Not because it keeps the kids out of trouble, or helps them with their homework, but because it is better for parents and children to spend time with each other. Saying this could equally well imply criticism for working fathers (a favorite theme of Keiran’s) or for employers who fail to institute flexible working hours.

None of this says much about what actually constitutes a good childhood (though I do say a fair bit about it here). But I do want to prompt a discussion about one thing — the exposure of young children to commercial culture. Evangelical Christians in the US seem to have developed a kind of counter-culture for kids which shields them from the worst aspects of commercial culture (as well as some of the better aspects of secular liberalism, no doubt). But I’m amazed at the scorn that secular leftist pour on them for this. It seems to me that they are doing what any sensible person would do (and I try to do with my daughters). Popular culture is infused with values that nobody would deliberately teach their children. It just isn’t good to spend your life trying to make lots of money; to use your sexuality for personal gain, to idolize sports stars, celebrities, the rich, or to indulge one’s desires without judgment or self-restraint. Like the evangelical Christians, secular leftists hold contrary values; and like the evangelical Christians they want their children (and all children) to learn a different set of values than those which corporate America has a material interest in spreading. In fact all (or almost all) parents, in fact, resent the efforts of large corporations to manipulate their children into bugging them for more toys, more fast food, more candy, more, more, more.

(An aside: my experience of deeply religious Christians in the UK is that they are as likely to be on the political left as on the political right; and my experience of them in the US (which is intimate, but not extensive) is that their commitment to right-wing economics is not at all deep, and caused in part by a sense that the left is deeply anti-religious. Russell Arben Fox feels like an outlier in American political debate, for good reason — my guess is that he wouldn’t feel that way in most of Europe).

Of course television is the most obvious medium through which children are exposed to this influence. But non-TV watching children get it to, because they are influenced by their peers and what goes on in their friends houses; because the public schools themselves mediate the influence, and because it pervades our physical space (billboards, for example). My own TV policy is simple: my children watch no TV at home (where all TV is commercial; as I’ve said before in comments, PBS KIDS devotes more minutes per hour to commercials than do the commercial broadcast channels in the UK). The cost of this is that I have to devote considerable energy and effort working out what videos they will enjoy. This has become an enjoyable joint task with my elder daughter (7) who understands that her family life is unusual, but does not object. If I were an evangelical Christian I’d be able to buy into their counter-cultural product-lines, and, of course, most of our kids (in the US) have some acquaintance at least with the bizarre VeggieTales which went mainstream toward the end of the 90s. Fortunately, with the advent of DVD technology (and the advice of a friend that UK DVDs will play on any computer) I have access to some of the culture of my own childhood, which now looks like counter-culture.

My own TV policy is quite unlike that of my parents. My own TV watching was pretty much unrestricted during children’s hour, with the qualification that my mother ridiculed us mercilessly for watching commercial TV (which, given her acid tongue, significantly raised the quality threshold needed for us to watch ITV). But there was, I think, a big difference. The programming was controlled by paternalists whose primary interest was in providing high quality education and entertainment, not in capturing market share. Sure, some of it was crap, but none of it was aimed at instilling materialistic values in me, or prematurely introducing me (or, more pertinently, my sister) to adult sexuality.

The problem — the way in which commercial culture makes childhod worse than it would otherwise be — has two aspects. We usually focus more on the (empircially unproven) claim that it is mis-shapes our children’s future characters, by inculcating acquisitiveness, a sleazy attitude toward sexuality, etc, in them, let alone making them obese. But less tendentious, and equally problematic, is the fact that it makes their childhoods worse — they could be having richer, more enjoyable, better, experiences. I don’t have any great policy solution. But I do think its worth having a discussion about what a good childhood is, and to do so in a less restricted way than secular people often do, especially in the US; in particular I’d welcome more of a mutually respectful dialogue between the secular left and the deeply religious on this.

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04.18.05 at 6:26 pm



Chris Martin 02.10.04 at 4:30 pm

If you want to explore the subject of media and children further, I’d suggest The Faces of Televisual Media: Teaching, Violence, Selling to Children by Edward L. Palmer (Editor), Brian M. Young (Editor). Two of the experts in this field are both named Edward L. Palmer and all of their books are commendable.


brayden 02.10.04 at 4:44 pm

This is an excellent topic of debate. Unfortunately, as you’ve said, for many liberals in the U.S. it has become quasi-politically incorrect to embrace issues of family values, etc. I’m aware of why this is so – the conservatives have captured the Christian-right and have effectively polarized the values debate. But at a base level, liberal and conservative parents care deeply about values. Those values are just sometimes different. I tend to think that they overlap more than we’d like to admit. As you said, no one wants their kid to grow up and sell their body for material wealth.

The question then seems to be one of, what are the appropriate values that we should instill in our children? Liberals perhaps need to be more actively engaged in this discussion. I don’t think it’s enough to say that we hope they grow up to respect others’ beliefs, although that is important. They need to cultivate their own set of beliefs.


Joel B. 02.10.04 at 5:31 pm

(An aside: my experience of deeply religious Christians in the UK is that they are as likely to be on the political left as on the political right; and my experience of them in the US (which is intimate, but not extensive) is that their commitment to right-wing economics is not at all deep, and caused in part by a sense that the left is deeply anti-religious. Russell Arben Fox feels like an outlier in American political debate, for good reason — my guess is that he wouldn’t feel that way in most of Europe).

This opens up such a large can of worms, but hey, that’s what blogs are for…
Harry, I think you are absolutely right, in the U.S. Christian Conservatives feel a strong anti-religous sentiment from the left. This polarization has made it so that rational tax and social policy discussions get marginalized.


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.04 at 5:36 pm


Thanks for the kind words and the insightful thoughts. And bravo for refusing to allow your kids to be sucked in by PBS, which–while I’m willing to defend it in small doses (especially if you record programs and show them to your kids without the commercials, which is what my wife and I have been doing for years)–is unfortunately really no different these days from Nickelodian or any other “kids-oriented” programming. Incidentally, I’d like to think that what you say, Harry, about “most of Europe” is true, as Melissa and I certainly wouldn’t mind if our family could enjoy the advantages which social democracy (usually) provides those who aren’t particularly interested in, and are willing to accept the costs of eschewing, our world’s reductive winner-take-all marketplace rat-race. However, my (admittedly limited) exposure to life in Germany (and Canada) suggests to me that being an openly religious social conservative (opposed to abortion rights, endorsing public prayer, trying to get rid of pornography, etc.) gets you labeled either a fascist or a kook by the dominant culture pretty much everywhere, no matter how progressive your politics are otherwise. I’d love to be proved wrong.

As far as child-rearing goes, what this really boils down to for me is whether or not you understand yourself as being “on the clock”–your performance, in the home or on the job or anywhere else, as always being measured and assessed according to some kind of literal or metaphorical “productivity” scale. This is, I’m afraid, about as far as most conventional liberals (and I mean that in the philosophical sense: both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. are implicated) go in terms of actually judging their own or others’ parenting styles–assuming they even do that much, which they often don’t. Quick: what are your kids learning, doing, saying, and how will it benefit them? Are you getting them into the right schools? Are you prepping them for the future? Are you spending “quality time” with them? And so on. The idea that “quantity time” is actually a hell of a lot better than programmed “quality time,” the idea that, maybe, one’s parental responsibilities should involve more and more frequent involvement with one’s children in the mundane and primitive (imaginary play, hikes in the park, household chores, reading out loud), rather than pushing them towards the cutting-edge and presumably “advantageous” (the best soccer league, the latest computer games, the most attractive clothes, the costliest tutors), strikes too many as appalling and backward, as turning one’s back on what’s “best for the kids.” It’s not easy to handle that kind of social opprobrium, which is perhaps one reason why many of those who feel compelled to such an approach–because of their faith, for example–turn their back on society entirely.


Brian Weatherson 02.10.04 at 5:39 pm

Just to add to Harry’s comparison b/w UK and US, many of the leading churches in Australia routinely promote left-wing causes. The impression of churches as forces of the left has receded a bit with George Pell’s rise through the Catholic hierachy, but for years it was common to hear right-wing complaints about how religious figures should stay out of politics because any such entry led to an attack on the right.


Sebastian Holsclaw 02.10.04 at 5:57 pm

“I’m aware of why this is so – the conservatives have captured the Christian-right and have effectively polarized the values debate.”

Perhaps, but I suspect there is more of a feedback loop than this explanation suggests. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the left in Europe was reacting against (among other things) the institution of the Catholic church. The left in the US adopted many of the same anti-religious ideas, but they were employed against far more community-based religious outlets. These more loosely affiliated church groups (they would be called non-denominational or evangelical today) are all over the map in terms economic leanings, but they saw the anti-relgious fervor of the left and rejected it as they were rejected by it. There has been a long-time argument in Evangelical circles about whether they should withdraw from or engage the secular world. I think the current idea is to engage, but have a parallel set of structures as a retreat, to recharge your energy and feel safe in your own community. Being gay I can certainly appreciate the idea.

I think my mother is an excellent example of the tension we are talking about. She strongly believes in helping individuals and small communities. She spent almost a decade in a downtown area quelling gang power, teaching Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants to read and write in English, and generally helping the young children in a drug-infested hopeless area to have a chance at lives outside the gangs. She was very careful to have separate teaching and religious groups so that she could help those who didn’t want religious instruction, and so she could take volunteers who didn’t want to be involved in the religious side. Still she faced massive resistance from the city because she wasn’t following ‘the proper model’ and had lots of trouble coordinating with other groups because they “couldn’t be associated with a religious outfit”.

You would think she would be a Democrat. But you are wrong. She hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Carter. She says that the Democrats have lost their focus on people, and now see only groups. She says that the left can’t accept her help because they hate her too much.

She is right.


Timothy Burke 02.10.04 at 6:17 pm

Well, you’re absolutely right about the contradictions, even incoherencies, that marks a lot of middle-class parenting in the US, especially among the highly educated. Many parents believe strongly in what they’re doing as parents, but run screaming from any attempt to connect the practical day-to-day landscape of their parenting strategies with any larger philosophy of childhood or society, and avoid any public enunciation of a belief that their strategies are best (while often privately believing that to an intense degree). I agree that we’re generally ill-served by the way that these contradictions make public discussions of childhood difficult or impossible.

On the other hand, I disagree profoundly about your views of commercial culture, though you’re perfectly right that at least one sector of the secular left ought to actually admire or agree with evangelical strategies of child-raising given that they also wish to shield or protect children from exposure to mass culture. (Before I get dogged by the usual truth-squad that tells me that my sense of the “left” is hopelessly generalized, let me stress: ONE TENDENCY of the secular left. Not the whole magilla.)

That alignment goes deeper than childhood: there is a rejectionist strategy towards the public sphere, mass media and popular culture that broadly links the cultural right and the cultural left in the US, even if they completely disagree on the values that ought to exist in distinction to public culture.

My attitude towards parenting and popular or commercial culture is (I hope) consistent with a larger set of beliefs:

First, that much of popular culture is in fact desirable or likeable or positive in ways that the cultural left often fails to appreciate, in part because of a Frankfurt-School style anti-capitalist hangover.

Two, because I believe in the intrinsic rationality, intelligence or human adaptability of children in opposition to many forms of paternalistic assumptions about their prelapsarian innocence or ‘blank slate’ status–and I also challenge the conventional wisdom of strong developmentalists who think that whatever a person is, they’ve primarily become that in the first three or four years of life;

Three, because I think the worst possible way to develop habits of critical thought and skepticism about commercial culture, consumerism and mass media is to be strongly protected from them until adulthood, for the same reason that the usual case of first-year college student alcohol poisoning occurs in the kid who has been raised by teetolers;

Fourth, because I don’t find the alternative vision of culture advanced by the cultural left any more appealing than mass culture, with its sackcloth-and-ashes pieties and frequent sleight-of-hand substitution of respectable bourgeois pleasures for universal norms of human satisfaction. (Example: Judith Schor, when speaking at Swarthmore, was asked what people would do with all the leisure time they would gain in her vision of minimal mass consumption and shorter working hours. Answer: everyone enjoys gardening! And also we’d learn to be better human beings to boot. No thanks.)


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.04 at 6:45 pm

Sebastian: it is experiences like your mother’s which have made so many moderate religious Americans sympathetic, even against their better judgment, to Bush’s “compassionate conservativism.”

Timothy: do you really think the “cultural right and the cultural left in the US…completely disagree on the values that ought to exist in distinction to public culture”? Obviously there’s a lot of disagreement, sure (the cultural left is, even in talk about “solidarity,” mostly liberationist, whereas the cultural right is basically traditionalist). But complete disagreement? If the material and social aspects of cultural production are deeply implicated in one another, then it would seem that there would have to be significant alignment between the content of their two critiques. Aren’t both the right and left all about local and communal patterns of consumption (whether food or media or entertainment), for instance? It seems to me that a counter-cultural reaction to the indistinguishable, invasive “mass” is a pretty value-laden alliance, whatever other differences may exist.

Incidentally, your points about childhood development, the “blank slate,” and teaching critical thinking are all good ones, but don’t make the supposed cultural isolationism of religious believers or the cultural left into a bogeyman. As any viewing of Veggie Tales will demonstrate, no one is trying to entirely escape or close down the liberating, open-ended connectivity (with song, history, humor, visual arts, etc.) which modern popular culture makes possible. Rather, the aim is to re-establish control over that culture, so you can bring it inside the home, into your family, deliver it to your children, in a responsible and “conservative” (in the best sense) way.


Timothy Burke 02.10.04 at 7:28 pm

Actually, that’s a good point, Russell. You’re right: the cultural left and cultural right, broadly speaking, may actually share not just a position on mass culture but even a vision of the alternative regime of values they would like to see practiced in opposition or contradistinction to it.

I also agree it’s possible to make a boogeyman, but I don’t agree with your assessment of “Veggie Tales” or even the proposition that gaining control over the culture is an objective that is compatible with the liberating, open-ended creativity of commercial culture. I think those two visions really are in tension, and “Veggie Tales” or many other consciously prosocial works of children’s culture are a perfect demonstration of why. Rather than proliferating meanings, ideas, possibilities, and truly opening the imagination, most prosocial entertainment for children gives lip service to a plurality of ideas, creativities and ways of thought while heavily circumscribing their boundaries. It’s not quite as bad now as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when virtually the only prosocial value which could be articulated in children’s media was “always cooperate”, but it’s not far from that, either.

What I find especially bad about “Veggie Tales” and many other prosocial works is that they have a very tight conception of the relationship between representation and practice–a general philosophical conceit shared by the cultural left and cultural right, that to represent a practice or value is to summon it into being, for good or ill. Just empirically, that seems a very dubious description of the lived relationship between representation and practice–but even ethically, I question it. In fact, it seems to me that this belief is centrally opposed to the conception of imagination I find liberating for myself and for children–it proposes that we are what we see, and that the social ills of our day can be banished by a counter-culture which shows us alternatives. Real imagination, it seems to me, is about envisioning a much more mysterious set of pathways between the world and the culture, between ideas and action, between images and life. I have much more faith in the ability of children to imagine a great many things with what they see in popular culture and consumer society than either the cultural left or right do.

There’s also a problem with prosocial entertainments in that they often actively deny children’s culture the ability to correspond to children’s experience. There’s been an argument knocking around for a while that the cultural rage and alienation found in US counterculture from about 1956 to 1963 had to do with the utter lack of resemblance between something like “Ozzie and Harriet” and the domestic lives of many young people.

Well, the circle has been closed and we’re back to that, perhaps this time from a different political vector. The kinds of children’s media (including books) that some on the cultural, communitarian left love best strike me as having the same surreal lack of resemblance to the lives of children. For example, they offer little violence or dramatic conflict (something that even children raised in completely benevolent, loving environments know a lot about, merely because the toddler will is so consistently thwarted by parental authority–and because the social world of toddlers relating to each other is often fascinatingly amoral in the way violence interjects into it).

Prosocial entertainments always strive to close the loop on “negative” emotions and show pathways to turn them positive, but usually unrealistically or immaculately so, or by assuming that anger or rage or envy or jealousy or disappointment have their foundations in completely arbitrary, irrational reactions to events. (I was struck just yesterday at a little segment on “Sesame Street” that did just this: a kid gets his toy fire engine crushed by some bully who sneers indifferently, and then talks about how he just swallowed his anger and felt good again, because everybody gets angry–as if the child’s anger was unfounded or typical or an ordinary part of being human, rather than being rationally righteous in response to a wrong being done).

In fact, to follow on that, the notion of individual acts (as opposed to collective states) being meaningfully right or wrong actually tends to drop out of the prosocial entertainments that the cultural left looks to, because this would suppose the need to make judgements on individuals and act accordingly. But every child even in the most indifferently parenting household, is struggling to operationalize what is good and bad, right and wrong, and to do it in both collective and individualized ways. The natural corollary is to turn around and consider those judgements in the wider world. (My daughter loves to tell me when I’ve done something wrong, like swear, because it extends a principle I’ve communicated back to me.)

Prosocial entertainments banish the actuality of family life, its disappointments and conflicts and mysteries. Death and fear disappear. And so on–so much of the substance and mystery of lived childhood is sanitized out of existence, put off until children are “old enough”, or managed into some soothing, sopoforic form that bears little resemblance to what children actually see and know.


jonathank 02.10.04 at 8:03 pm

Perhaps Pope had it right, that hacks should not have access to the printing press. For we now see that the reading, viewing and doing public may have less taste than Pope feared.

People who respond to arguments regarding better ways to live aren’t the vegetables. Walk to school, get out and shovel the walk, climb a tree (accept a little danger), all good things that take more effort than the TV/game boy/computer.

Turning off TV for a week only makes it worse. Turn it off for a month and the child begins to find things to do, things that are inherently more interesting than watching, watching for a few seconds of titillation.


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.04 at 8:04 pm

Damn, you’ve thought a lot more about Veggie Tales than I ever have.

I agree with much of what you say; your invocation of children “envisioning a much more mysterious set of pathways between the world and the culture, between ideas and action, between images and life” is brilliant. And you’re right that both left-wing and right-wing cultural alternatives can both force a closure of the development of such pathways. Relying solely on either Veggie Tales or Sesame Street (and their ilk) to provide one’s kids with “safe” pathways out of the welter of media and corporate messages which surround us is foolish. I’ll defend Veggie Tales (and Sesame Street–and incidentally, let me disagree with you, and say that I think SS was a whole lot better back in the 70s, when the program was less structured, Oscar was a lot more anti-social, and Mr. Snuffleupagus was a not-entirely-reliable pseudo-imaginary friend) this far: in their place, they can serve to help parents strike a balance between directing what their children are exposed to, and what they oughtn’t have any direction regarding. I can’t, and shouldn’t try, to control my daughters’ imaginations, but I can, and should, be selective regarding which images and stories spark their imaginations. They cannot, and should not, replace those stories and entertainments which embrace, as you put it, “the actuality of family life, its disappointments and conflicts and mysteries.” But given that, in my experience, very little age-appropriate programing does in fact respect those realities, you’re going to have to pick your poison (or reject the tv entirely, as many of the home schooling parents I know, including some in my immediate family, have done). I shouldn’t represent to them some approved form of “free play” regarding how things ought to be, but I am responsible to establishing the enviornment within which they do play. Kids should draw their own maps, but as Harry said in his original post, it’s us who are supposed to take authority and exercise judgment over the ends towards which their maps direct them.


Josh 02.10.04 at 8:06 pm

The idea that “quantity time” is actually a hell of a lot better than programmed “quality time,” the idea that, maybe, one’s parental responsibilities should involve more and more frequent involvement with one’s children in the mundane and primitive (imaginary play, hikes in the park, household chores, reading out loud), rather than pushing them towards the cutting-edge and presumably “advantageous” (the best soccer league, the latest computer games, the most attractive clothes, the costliest tutors)

I have to say, the notion that it’s parents who are pushing kids towards the latest computer games and the most attractive clothes strikes me as at minimum unusual. Not that I disagree with your larger point…


harry 02.10.04 at 8:12 pm

Timothy (or Tim?), I’d like to respond to some of what you’ve said, and add a further thought. I agree, of course, that complete shielding from commercial culture is not a good way of preparing kids to deal with it. But few of us completely shield them, as I said; they encounter it at other kid’s homes, in their schools, and simply walking around (if we let them walk around). And as Russell says, the counter-culture is in various ways parasitic on the mainstream (as always). Also, though, the crass commercialism of popular culture could be mitigated in various ways by public policy. E.g., we could make granting broadcasting licenses conditional on providing 2 hours of commercial-free children’s TV per day, and place a burden on broadcasting companies to show that those hours are costing them at least 75% of their average per-hour expenditure. I simply don’t see that anyone has a legitimate interest in advertising to kids, or that kids have an interest in being exposed to advertising.
Now, that said, of course I agree that there’s a lot of good in popular culture, even for kids. But there’s a lot of bad. So parents have an obligation to manage their kids’ access to it. That burden might diminish as the kids age (because, as I agree with you, it’s important for them to be exposed to it so they can enjoy what’s good, discriminate between the good and the bad etc). But the burden is serious, and heavier than it was when more conservative social norms constrained the content of public culture. And of course, there’s the slightly different issue (different from what I posted on) that with so much stuff around sorting out the high quality form the low quality is a major task for a 7 year old. And no-one is going to help her except her parent.
I don’t particularly like the idea of producing a left-wing counter-culture for kids, and find most of the efforts in the 70s in the US to do so at best quaint. So I agree with a lot of what you say in your second post — but I don’t see how commercial culture scores better on these grounds really. Most of it bears little relationship to the child’s lived experience and provides little scope for the imagination. Harry Potter (which, I confess, I haven’t read, but for a very good reason) stands out as doing the latter. Its first print run was 1,000 copies. The truth is that there are golden ages of children’s cultural production — for the US certainly the 30’s would count, for the UK the 60s/70s, for Germany whenever the Grimms lived. We’re not living in one, and I think that fact isn’t entirely unrelated to the regulation of children’s cultural production by unfettered capitalist values.
Do you disagree, though, with Russell’s other point — about the desirability of quantity time with kids, and the dominance of an unhealthy kind of future-adult-oriented set of norms governing day-to-day interactions with children? Rather than what’s-good-for-them-as-kids people focus on what’s-good-for-the-adults-they’ll-become, where that good is understood as something like ‘maximizing expected lifetime income’. So there’s this weird kind of neglect (what would you do if a guy came to the door and said he’d entertain your kids for free, but would spend 10 minutes an hour trying to persuade them to persuade you to spend money on things that wouldn’t be good for them or you?), combined with a heavy-handed attention to their percevived future interests. I’m partly reacting to my observation that lots of deeply religious parents (not just the evangelicals) de-emphasize the value of acquisitiveness both in themselves and their children, and value childhood as a period that is valuable in its own right. And I’m bemused by the secular left’s hostility (though I am completely in the secular left myself).

Finally, you may think of gardening as an approved bourgeois activity. Where I come from it’s class-neutral. But I take Juliet Schor on the contrary to be impugning standard bourgeois norms. I don’t know what people would do if they worked and consumed less, and wouldn’t prescribe; but I certainly agree with her that people would lead more flourishing lives if they did work and consume less. Was the questioner seriously suggesting that we’re better off working long hours to buy more things?

What’s the further thought? Just this — that what a parent should do with a kid will depend on that kid. My 7 year old is sufficiently connected to her peers that I’m not worried about her being isolated by her eccentric home life, and sufficiently independent of her parents that I know she will push against us when she needs to (and there will be some give). If she were different the regime would be different (partly because I accept your point about teetotal parents — in fact, we even started drinking a little after they were born solely so that they wouldn’t grow up in a teetotal household) A colleague of mine says that his kids were both so shy and obedient of authority that he promised them money if they were naughty enough to get sent to the principal. The point is just that while we discuss principles and social policy in a general way, particular policies in particular families will be sensitive to the diverse needs of different children. I assumed this in my post, but its worth being explicit about it.


mikemudd 02.10.04 at 8:42 pm

I grew up in rural Australia, raised by very intelligent middle-class parents with a high regard for visual arts and a love of reading. During my late teens, both of them turned to pentecostal religion and have remained so for the last 30 or so years. I sampled and rejected it as what I saw was ultimately an extremist organisation clothed in biblical and millennial rhetoric.
My own three children grew up entirely in a big (for Australia) city and only saw the countryside during frequent camping and water skiiing trips.
Their upbringing was as different from mine as I could make it and as alike as mine as I could make it. The set of values we attempted to pass on to them were simple: honesty, tolerance, responsibility for their actions, the value of hard work, a love of music and the arts (two of them are talented musicians), and a keen desire to travel. Their political values are almost identical to mine – in american terms a liberal, in australian terms a little left of centre.
We also took the view that you need to raise your children to deal with the economic and social conditions of the time. Sheltering them from realities of the world seemed nonsensical to us, although living in middle-class comfort in Australia does not expose you to extremes of anything except via the visual media.
We could (as most parents must admit) have been kinder at times, more tolerant at times, stricter at times, more nuturing at times. But such are the vicissitudes of bringing children into the world. Blame is a word not used often in our house…


Timothy Burke 02.10.04 at 9:18 pm

I don’t disagree about quality time, except to say that the very term itself is part of the problem. It imposes the productivism that an anti-commercial secular left claims to want to evade, the notion of trying to fill a child’s life with activities which accomplish something concrete.

Prosocial children’s entertainment is one of the most resplendent examples of that: everything has to serve some educational or ethical purpose, where the content and the output are perfectly and transparently aligned.

That’s why in some ways I’m much happier when my daughter sits on my lap and we play together one of MY computer games, one that’s just about a story of adventure and conflict and purely ludic, purely about pleasure and leisure. Then we don’t have to wrest pleasure violently away from some do-gooding productivist ethos that demands that the time children spend be to some good developmentalist end or even be spent on somehow becoming a fuller, better person. And I find the questions she asks about the iconography of “bad guys” in my computer games, or about the meanings of fantastic violence, to be much more interesting than the questions that consciously prosocial entertainments contain or suggest.

In this sense, I would say that a rejectionist project of raising children entails so much anxiety, so much desire to save children from something that I’m not even clear they need to be saved by–I don’t especially regard advertising as a horrible intrusion into my child’s life–that it will inevitably inflict on a child that productivist ethos, that need to make childhood and parenting and family life serve some purpose. To me, quality time means hanging out with my family, kidding around, playing games, making silly noises, telling stories, reading books, watching television together (with all our usual backchatter about it), playing computer games, going for walks, and so on. To interrupt my own engagements in the culture–which I do not see as antithetical to my ethical being, but consonant with it–in order to produce in my daughter some more exalted state of future being strikes me as a violation of quality parenting rather than the fulfillment of it.

As for Schor’s observation, I might note that to turn our future leisure time to gardening (which I also like to do) rather presupposes gardens to do it in. Green and pleasant England really is different in that way than the US, I think: to offer here that gardening would be the utopic form of leisure in a liberated society seems fundamentally suburban. More to the point, I shudder in general when we are told that we must stop living the way we live now in order to achieve some future state of being whose pleasures and fulfillments are unimaginable but also systematically better than what we have and are. The questioner (who was me) was wondering, “So we work less and consume less–and Schor specifically imagines that we would consume less television, fewer computer-mediated entertainments, less music, and so on: what would we do with all that time? What would be fun?” The reason I wonder it is that I’m actually having a lot of fun right now with television and music and books and the Internet and computer games and gardening and cooking and–you get the picture. What is this better life, this culture yet to be for which we should make drastic changes in our lives?

My colleague Barry Schwartz has recently argued that the overabundance of choice makes us all unhappy; as I understand him, he argues for constraint on choice to produce greater satisfaction. It is the actualities needed to produce the condition of constraint, whether for children or adults, that I wonder about. That simply feels to me like the impoverishment of the world, the diminishment of fecundity, the containment of the delights of the world. And I wonder a bit if people are asking that others be restrained so that they may achieve the special conditions of their own spiritual enlightenment. If I can come to an ethical self–and bring my daughter there as much as I can, as wisely as I can–what’s to stop others? If mass culture doesn’t contradict my possibilities, why does it contradict the possibilities of others, and if it does, isn’t that their problem?

Which of course brings us back to a structured withdrawal from the world, a sheltering of children and families from its outrages and offenses. And I’m fine with that, right up until we get into the discussion of which way of raising children is best–at which point I have to say that I think sheltering is comparatively unwise, if understandable, cogent, and worthy of my respect. Wouldn’t stop me from enjoying the company of a shelterer and admiring their beautiful kids, but since the point is to get past middle-class politesse about the soundest ways to run the parenting railroad, I will still say that I’m happy with the track my train is travelling on.


brayden 02.10.04 at 9:48 pm

Reading this thread, I’m realizing that my parenting style is more similar to Timothy’s style than to the “protectionist” crowd. I’m inclined to agree with him that as a parent I’d rather confront the ideals and values of the culture or the counter-culture (which places me where??) straightforwardly in my home. I’d rather watch tv with them and talk to them about differences in beliefs and ideas than shelter them from those things and expect that they’ll get enough of that outside the home.

I don’t really think that’s what Harry and Russell are suggesting though. The question seems to be: is the television (as one example) the best medium for conversation stimulation in a household? Probably not. Okay, definitely not. Books, radio, newspapers, and the internet are all media that likely work more effectively than television, but I’m not sure I can force my kids to read the newspaper for an hour a day. I’m not sure I want to encourage them to listen to the radio for an hour a day.

The second question though seems to be, what is the best set of values the Left should teach their children? Most on the Left find little in common with the extreme Right in this area. That is, the secular left isn’t keen on seeing their children grow up to be rightist Christians. Fair enough. But what is the alternative ethos that the secular left instills in their children? If I read Harry’s comment correctly, he seems to think that many in the secular left have replaced religious training with “standard bourgeois norms” where the end-goal is income maximization. I find that vaguely unsettling. Even if the left is teaching their children to be “compassionate” capitalists; this still seems like a less than satisfactory end result from parenting. Or perhaps that’s the outcome of living in a world where one must bridge capitalist values with leftist ideals.


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.04 at 10:23 pm

Timothy, you write (again, very eloquently): “It is the actualities needed to produce the condition of constraint, whether for children or adults, that I wonder about. That simply feels to me like the impoverishment of the world, the diminishment of fecundity, the containment of the delights of the world.”

Since Brayden has put this in straightforward “protectionist/non-protectionist” terms, let’s translate your observation into praxis. On the level of raising a child in the home, I assume such actualities would mean parental restrictions on television watching or reading material or a child’s purchasing power; that is, it would require the parent to exercise positive authority through outright restraint, persuasion, example-setting, explicit signaling, and so forth. I can see how you might criticize the specific ends that those actions are directed towards achieving, but are you actually worried about the actions (the “actualities”) themselves? If so, how then are we to move towards exactly that kind of judgment which Harry (rightly) accuses most of the secular left as being unable to exercise? For judgment must have a positive component, mustn’t it?

On the adult (political, economic, social) level, such “actualities” might be…what? Borders, presumably. Laws and restrictions of various sorts. The social contract, even if imagined as purely a self-interested, individually directed arrangement, in nonetheless filled with positive actualities. More specific to the discussion, since popular culture is overwhelmingly known in its commodified forms (I assume you didn’t personally write the code for the computer games you enjoy, just as I didn’t personally build my bike), the actualities involved in the establishment of constraints on consumption would be tarrifs, trade barriers, age-appropriate purchasing restrictions, hunting limits, licenses, copyright laws, unions, collective production agreements, and so forth. Again, the ends any of these might be directed towards can certainly be criticized. But are you actually bothered about the fact of such constraints themselves? If so, aren’t you actually embracing the neoliberal orthodoxy of contemporary corporate power: uninterrupted growth is good growth?

Your language is beautiful, but I can’t help but think you’re saying more than you actually believe. Heaven knows I don’t have an easy solution to all the problems which imposing constraints in the name specific (economic, social, or moral) ends entail. But if such limits feel to you “like the impoverishment of the world,” we have very different intuitions; a world that isn’t bounded in some way doesn’t seem to me like a world I (or my child) can get their hands on at all.

(Incidentally, just so no one gets the idea that wanting to establish a cultural context for one’s children is the same as wanting to goose-step them through it, Harry’s comments prompted me to retrieve part of an old essay of mine on my own blog, on the important connection between “believing” in creating appropriate alternatives, and thereby becoming able to be a “slacker” in regards the dominant (again, as Brayden put it, income-maximizing) one. See here:


Ayjay 02.10.04 at 10:56 pm

Not a substantive contribution, but an observation: this is one of the best — that is, one of the most intellectually serious, genuinely thoughtful, and even surprising — threads I have come across here at CT. and there’s a reason for that: Harry’s original post took a familiar set of questions and put them in (what is for many CT readers) a new light.

This is why I come to CT — to find really thoughtful discussions of realy significant issues. Too often, especially lately, the Timberites’ posts (I’m thinking at the moment of Chris’s citation of David Bernstein’s loopy comment on Volokh Conspiracy) have tended to feed the trolls rather than spark substantive debate. Harry really got this one going in a useful direction.


Timothy Burke 02.10.04 at 11:00 pm

Yeah, ok, Russell’s got my number. I’ll cop to saying more than I actually mean. I’m not letting my 3-year old squat and drop feces anywhere she likes, and I’m not letting her watch “Last Tango in Paris”. (Though in fact she is, like many children, effectively self-censoring, in that programs or culture which is way over her head bores or alarms her anyway, and she’s quick to turn it off herself.) And so on. All good parenting involves the imposition of parental power with the desire to produce disciplines and constraints on children, and sometimes that power is even imposed (thankfully) arbitrarily or sternly, as prohibition and dictate. I’m as dictatorial as the next Dad, and I find the notion that I could reason with my daughter about everything she needs to do and know silly.

But that isn’t where we started, and it’s not really what this discussion is about. This discussion, as I see it, is about a much more culturally specific vision of “the good childhood”, and Harry’s assertion that his self-described paternalism in pursuit of that quite specific cultural vision is a Good Thing–and more, a thing whose goodness he would like to see inform public policy and public suasion about good parenting, rather than an entirely private lifestyle choice.

And I agree that what we regard as “good childhood” should inform public policy, and that we shouldn’t just fall back on “whatever floats your boat”. So I’m specifically saying that my sense of what makes for a good childhood is in some way different than Harry’s. If we’re just talking about whether we should always have sidewalks, we’re in agreement. If we’re talking about what kinds of models of media and culture make the most sense for kids, and which sensibilities should be supported or endorsed by policy, I think we’re radically in disagreement. And in the history of the last forty years, Harry’s views are much more likely to have been extensively catered to by policymakers and politicians than mine, with what I would say have been some rather bad consequences, ranging from the politically correct bowdlerization of children’s culture to actual regimes of cultural restraint exercised by local and national states. Children’s media is not and has never been a cultural free-fall zone: more’s the pity. Though right now there’s a wider diversity and richness in children’s television and films than there has been for three decades, and all of that supplied by the market, not by publically-financed television. I’m actually quite happy with that state of affairs–and it seems to me that Harry is not.


Russell Arben Fox 02.11.04 at 1:00 am


I hope my comments didn’t come off as condescending or accusatory; my apologies if they did. I just find it important (if only for my own peace of mind) to clarify what strike me as continuities or discontinuities between theories (whether of politics or parenting) that are (too often, in my view) labeled simply “protectionist” or “authoritarian.”

To me, the essential common factor here is the necessary role of positive action in creating and preserving environments, even “free” ones. I want my girls to be free to walk to school, and to take their time along the way, to play in the street and sneak over to neighbors’ homes when the mood strikes them. That means there has be sidewalks. But there is economic pressure (coming from all sorts of different directions) to get rid of the sidewalks, and instead have these mini-manors without porches or connecting paths. And so, there has to be collective action–intervention, if you will, through zoning or whatnot–in the open vacuum of social policy and economic growth in order to create a “more free,” better physical environment.

Is the dynamic entirely the same if I want to create a moral or intellectual environment, in which my daughters can surf the internet without encountering porn, or watch tv without viewing snuff films, or listen to the radio without being assualted by hate speech or misogynistic music? Of course it’s not ENTIRELY the same: such “inner” environments simply don’t operate the same way material ones do, and in any case, the goods one draws from a moral or intellectual context are never unambiguous or clear. And there are personal harms associated with such constraints that aren’t ever really experienced directly in the case of, say, making a construction company absorb (some of) the costs of sidewalks. So it’s hard, and requires caution and care. But that doesn’t mean the same basic point isn’t still relevant. So long as the dominant media is primarily in the hands of distant corporations outside community influence, I like Harry’s idea of making broadcasting licenses contingent on providing X number of hours of commercial-free children’s TV per day. There is no neutral ground here, especially in the media; someone (usually some profit-minded entity) is always “intervening.” Why should the economic power of advertising not be countered by the collective power of parents?

You’re absolutely right that the history of these sort of policies isn’t especially inspiring, and I also am grateful for creativity and diversity of recent years. But I guess my ideal is not a society empowered to disaggregate itself culturally; I’d prefer it if, whenever possible, we could actually be brought into the same (or similar) spaces. Harry brought up the example of evangelical Christians (whom I share a lot with) not, I think, to suggest that the left necessarily imitate their strategy towards culture-creation and child-rearing, but to ask whether and to what degree those insights could be applied more broadly, and I agree with him that that’s an important question to ask.


Another Damned Medievalist 02.11.04 at 1:50 am

Well, I’m definitely on the Left, and have no problems with Christians per se, and am conservative in terms of child-rearing. Where does that put me? I have no theories, here — just the stuff I can take from my won experience as parent and child, and from hanging out with my friends and watching their parents in action.

What I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  • TV will not kill kids if you read to them as much or more than you let them watch TV. My mom and many older relatives read to me until I was around 4, when I started reading to my little sister. She’s also a reader. So are her kids. So’s mine.
  • non-kid TV is best watched with parents
  • There’s plenty of harmless TV out there, and frankly, it’s the ads I worry about. Me, I want a clear watershed back in the US, and the return of Schoolhouse Rock and a ban on ads that sell junk food and TV show product tie-ins before the watershed. Give me government intervention.
  • Quantity and quality time are not mutually exclusive. And having to help out with the minor things in life is much more like most of our ancestors were raised. We shopped with my mom, went to the laundromat (where we got to have chips and soda and played cards while waiting — all treats), did chimp work in the kitchen, and pitched in during manic phases of major housecleaning at bizarre hours of the day. The latter also included board-game playing marathons, sitting up into the wee hours singing show tunes and watching classic films. I admit, not normal, but it instilled the very healthy idea that families do things together and rely on each other. I also learned how to do laundry, how to cook, how to compare prices, etc. So did most of my friends.
  • There’s private behavior and public behavior. My parents were pretty lenient about noise and mess levels and building forts under the dining table at home, as long as we were exceptionally polite when we went out.
  • kids need bedtimes that ensure decent amounts of sleep. If there were regular shows that were on past the kid’s bedtime (for example, non-icky mysteries that started after 9 p.m.), we’d record them and watch them the next night at 7. I still do this myself, since The West Wing is on too late for me.
  • Tim’s colleague is right: too many choices make for unhappy people. OJ or Milk? not “What do you want to drink?”
  • hierarchy in the home is not necessarily bad.
  • living somewhere safe enough to play unsupervised is good. I’m pretty sure that being allowed to take the bus and BART into the city or to hang out in Berkeley all day with my best friend when I was 14 or so is one of the reasons I feel comfortable in new places.
  • No parties without parents within shouting distance
  • Cars are not a birthright, and grades are more important than jobs
  • Encourage your children to save — you never know when you might have to borrow from them! But seriously — we put part of all income into savings accounts, and I seem to remember regularly going through toys to give to charity — not the books though. Breaking book spines, drawing, writing, and coloring in books all hanging offenses. It took me years to let myself make notes in the margins!

I’ve rambled too long, and apologize. I guess my point is that to me parenting is having a set of basically sound rules that can be adapted to the different personalities of your kids without making you seem wishy-washy. I’m pretty sure all the CT readers/contributors all have the intention of being excellent parents, and most of us have or will screw up royally many times.

I do think parents need to spend less time providing the “things they never had” and just teach them by day-to-day example — and I think that one of the best examples is being flexible and willing to admit you’re not perfect. Oh — and to teach then that they have an obligation to vote, pay taxes, and care about their fellow humans. And as early as possible, teach them how to pick up the dog poop and clean the litter boxes — that’s kids’ work!


Laura 02.11.04 at 2:50 am

I’m a little late to this party. There’s already been a peaceful resolution to the controversy. But I would just to chime in my support for the overall discussion.

I can’t shelter, and probably shouldn’t shelter my kids, from outside influences. As Tim says, they have to learn to sift the good from the bad. And it’s impossible anyway since he picks up all the Power Rangers garbage at school anyway.

But I do think it’s important that we help set some standards for the kids at home. To tell them what is important and giving them some values to help them as they sift the good from the bad.

And then we just need to horse around with them. Play video games, roll in the grass, and dance around like fools to techno music.

A side note. I started watching the evening news with the kids. At first I was worried that my 4 year old would be disturbed by stories of the body count in Iraq. No, all he has picked up so far from the evening news is that he has arthritis and he needs some Alleve to take care of it. The power of commericialism.

I also really liked what Harry wrote about thinking through what makes a good childhood. This is a valuable exercise. I would like to see more public policy decisions based on those thoughts. Not only do we need more sidewalks, but more accessable playgrounds, shorter workdays or flex time for parents, yadda yadda yadda.


harry 02.11.04 at 3:07 am

Thanks Ayjay for the encouragement. I’m a light blogger, and am a little in awe of my colleagues. I am a little slow in responding to things because I’m having to think hard (as well as because I spend too much quantity time with the kids). And, having thought out a response along Russell’s lines I log on and he’s already said it all… Thanks Russell.
But three things. I was aware when constructing the post that it might seem to imply a kind of monism about good childhoods: there’s just one kind, and it’s the kind I’m giving to my kid. But obviously I don’t think that — there are many kinds of good childhood. And, taking a leaf from Berlin, I’m aware that measures that make some available might make others unavailable. Hence my caution about recommending particular policies. But one thing all of the discussants seem to have in common is jobs that allow us to spend a good deal of time with our children. Not everyone has that, and many people have no choice about whether they have it. Unregulated labor markets drive out good parenting, and that’s one of many reasons they should be regulated. As well as the recommendations about sidewalks and ad-free TV. Also, I realize that my lament about one policy area has shaped the discussion rather.

Second, there is a complexity that we’re all aware of but not talking about. On the one hand I think that our values should shape our lives and our parenting. On the other, none of us has the right to try to inculcate them in our children. I am an atheist socialist — whether my child turns out to be one will probably be influenced by that, but I have an obligation to ensure that it does no more than influence her; to ensure that she has plenty of exposure to values that are different from and conflict with mine. I have no problem with that (it’s a major theme of some of my writing in fact). But I do have a problem with her being exposed to values that aren’t really anybody’s — that are promoted as a side-effect of someone else’s desire to make lots of money. And I also have a problem with the fact that public schools repel deeply religious parents, so that my kid is less likely to mix with their children, so that she can get real insight into the lives of her deeply religious friends and their families, which will give her a much better basis for judgment than anything I, or some teacher of social studies, can give her. (I realize that the blame is shared between the public school authorities and the deeply religious parents, but I feel that the former, and not the latter, are in some sense accountable to me).

Third: latching onto Brayden’s point about Television. I simply disagree (with Timothy) that markets have done well at producing good television for kids, and I think they have done worse as they have been freed up from the prudish constraints of my own childhood. I jokingly linked to a DVD of The Singing Ringing Tree (East German, produced in the 50’s) which fulfills all the criteria Timothy uses, and brilliantly. Buy it. Books, that’s a different matter entirely. Its very hard to say anything persuasive in support of either thesis without degenerating into lengthy analyses of the relative merits of Alf, Barney, and the Magic Roundabout (though, judging by your comments, you, Timothy, might have a book in you about this). But markets seem to work differently well for different things. I don’t think it’s accidental that they work better where there is no advertising involved, and that TV is better where there either there is no advertising or where the broadcaster has to compete with a commercial-free competitor (as British ITV used to). Not that I want me, or any government body, to prescribe the precise content. Timothy’s comment that *Children’s media is not and has never been a cultural free-fall zone: more’s the pity* at first appalled me. But then it occurred to me that maybe I am calling for more of a ‘free-fall zone’ for television; let’s have it shaped by a much wider array of interests and voices than those of people whose only interest is in selling things to our kids (and through them, to us).


Matt McG 02.11.04 at 3:22 am

Much of “another damned medievalist”‘s post chimes strongly with me.

My parents were self-described anarchist (atheist) hippies so a world away from the Christian right – and yet I think a lot of the values and structures were shared.

The lives of my sister and me were far from unstructured. Some strict rules were imposed – bed before 9; our TV viewing choices were controlled; almost no junk food ever; we were expected to wash the dishes and starting around 12 or 13 to do a substantial amount of the cooking; household chores were not things we were rewarded for or bribed to do (unlike some of my more conventional middle class friends) but rather were things we were supposed to do as members of the family – you didn’t get any ‘points’ for doing chores, it was just something you OUGHT to do and no excuses were allowed; any misbehaviour or bad things that happened through the misbehaviour were our responsbility and pretty much no excuses were accepted – if we messed up it was our fault; absolute politeness was expected – especially to people in a service capacity (bus drivers, shop assistants, etc.);

However, at all kinds of other levels we were given near total freedom to roam free all day in the summer (helped by living in semi-rural Scotland), come home late at night (as long as our parents knew where we were), go drinking in the pub wth out friends in our (relatively) early teens as long as we were responsible enough not to get too drunk or behave in an irresponsible way, dress any way we wanted, wear our hair any way we liked, read whatever we wanted, experiment with ‘soft’ drugs as long as we were careful, bring home boyfriends or girlfriends to stay the night (after the age of 16), etc.

The major emphasis was on feeling part of a family collective, sharing duties, taking full responsibility for any wrong-doing, making choices based on full information, being polite and mature and so on.

The end result was that we were (on the whole) well behaved, polite and responsible.

There’s nothing specifically right or left, or theist or atheist about responsible parenting.

Children need structure in their lives even if elements of that structure vary from family to family. [I’m not sure many conservative parents would have approved of some of the freedoms we had as teenagers, for example, but they would still have recognised the basic structure of responsibilies, rights and duties involved…]


Timothy Burke 02.11.04 at 3:27 am

Well, er, *cough*, I already got the book in me about this issue out my system. But some of this extends the span of the analysis in that project forward a bit into the current environment. When I stack up contemporary American kids’ TV against the American kids’ TV of the late 1960s and 1970s, my heyday, while I have immense fondness for my own televisual past, there’s no question in my mind that the contemporary scene is vastly–like a thousandfold–better. There’s more styles of animation and live action, a broader range of templates and narratives, a wider range of aesthetics and themes and so on. Not just more but artistically and imaginatively better. As Malcolm Gladwell observed, you can see just how tired “Sesame Street” is when you watch it alongside “Blue’s Clues”, and that’s only scratching the surface of the change.

And really, those were changes produced by a cultural marketplace, and became possible only after the parental advocacy groups of the 1970s and their prosocial allies lost their deathgrip on kidvid content. See, if I’m skeptical about the idea of tying broadcast licenses to provisioning non-commercial children’s television, it’s because we already went down that road, and the result was a creative wasteland, the worst marriage of commercial cynicism (leading to creative evasions of broadcast restrictions like defining GI Joe as ‘educational’) and mind-numbingly awful and correct ‘educational’ and prosocial programming that no kid in his or her right mind would want to watch.

Somewhere along the line in the 1990s the previous generation of cultural commissars lost their grip, and the FCC’s regulatory approach on kidvid slipped away, and the result honestly was a serious improvement–even in the programming that has prosocial aspirations. There’s a huge difference between what you see on Noggin today and the PBS lineup circa 1988 or so. You still see something of that difference when you compare the Noggin/Nick Jr. shows and the kind of nauseatingly prosocial, highly moralizing programming that shows up on many PBS lineups like “Jay Jay the Jet Plane”.

One of the reasons I specifically credit the cultural marketplace for this is that after many years of TV producers and moviemakers understanding programming for children as a kind of market ghetto, as a kind of structured condescension–a condescension in which parental advocacy groups were their enthusiastic allies–there was a sudden discovery that if you made films and shows that were truly for families, that parents watched with children not as an act of bored parental duty but willingly and enthusiastically, and that even people without kids might want to see, you made big bucks. Disney found that out with “The Little Mermaid”; the television marketplace took a bit longer. But the results were good for everyone, a rising cultural tide that lifted all boats. In contrast, when prosocial interests had their greatest degree of influence over kidvid, they tended to produce material that absolutely conforms to all the negative characterizations I’ve offered in this thread.

So this is not hypothetical, or about the culture-yet-to-come: it’s my reading of the culture that we’ve just overcome.


Senescent 02.11.04 at 4:19 am

I have doubts in the possibility of any “improvements” in children’s TV being accomplished by public policy. For one thing, the networks aren’t really in the kidvid business anymore – they’ve been supplanted in large part by Nick, Disney, Cartoon Network, and the rest of cable, not to mention video games, the internet and the like, and you’re not going to get anything done there with broadcast licenses as carrots.

Second, at the risk of being the rain on the counter-capitalist parade, if money’s no object (or rather, will likely remain at exactly 75% of average no matter what), and the networks aren’t allowed to sell commercial time, what’s the incentive to make those two hours any good? Why even try to make the kids want to watch? There’s some lead-in value, maybe, and the possibility of cross-promotion as long as network promos aren’t banned alongside commercials, but I question whether the networks are going to be so hungry for that shrinking slice of the kidvid pie that they’re going to produce all that much children’s programming beyond what’s mandated, and I’m getting a vibe that some of you wouldn’t be all that thrilled if the networks used their kid shows as “bait” to get the audience to roll over to their more “adult” offerings.

Let’s not forget that the it was the pre-Reagan kidvid regs, with the 10 mins/hour commercial limits, prohibitions on product-based shows, and educational requirements with at least a few teeth in them that gave us the unrestrained Hanna-Barbera crapfest of the ’70s. Transformers, G.I. Joe, and the like may not be golden classics (a friend got the first two seasons worth of Transformers on DVD this year, and after a thorough examination conducted in multiple modes of sobriety, I must yield that it was a complete stinking pile), but for those of us in the target audience of the time, it was a wonderful improvement from the status quo ante – if still somewhat formulaic, the plots got less stale, and most importantly, the new shows were *fun*, something you might actually want to watch.


harry 02.11.04 at 4:04 pm

OK, Timothy, you’ve got at least one extra sale, and if its half as good as your discussion here I can’t wait to read it. Sorry not to have known already (if I’d known, I’d probably already have read it).

I accept there’s a incentive problem senescent. Some regulations work well, others don’t. The inordinate market power that the UK government has handed to the BBC is an unremitting good, in this and many other areas. Maybe in an era of cable and satelite its impossible to regulate effectively; that’s a possibility.

What I want from Timothy, though, is a comparative book. Is it another case of American exceptionalism? I don’t know other markets except that British and the American, and concede the general lamentableness of US kids TV (with some brilliant exceptions). My general thesis holds, I maintain, for the UK at least.

BUT more importantly, my claim about the intrusion of popular culture into children’s lives is not restricted to issues about TV, and also there may be a big difference between toddlers (much better catered to than before, perhaps: at least, I’m with you on Blues Clues versus Sesame Street) and older kids who, though older, are still kids. Thoughts?


Russell Arben Fox 02.11.04 at 4:55 pm

Some (relatively) quick notes.

Timothy and Senescent: You make a good case, and may force me to rethink my position on programming for kids. (And thanks for the kind words on your blog, Tim.) Still, like Harry, I’d like to push this argument a little further, into comparative and historical specifics. For example, the “prosocial” media movement, which created the wasteland you (with some fairness, I’ll admit) decry, was hardly monolithic, was it? Isn’t it perhaps more accurate to say that, in 1950s and 60s, there was NO media in the U.S., and especially no children’s programming, which didn’t have a commercial premise to it, and socially concerned television was a reaction to that? The early promoters of educational programming (Jim Henson and his ilk) were a whimsical, ironic bunch, who just wanted to create spaces where kids could be spoken to and entertained by something other than a cowboy selling cold cereal. Perhaps the vapid programming you and I remember was more a result of the prosocial agenda going sour; having been hijacked by “expert” psychologists, perhaps, as well as oh-so-senstive bureaucrats made paranoid by the U.S.’s lawsuit-happy culture. All I’m saying is, maybe the attempt to positively construct a media environment in the U.S. faced, as Harry suggests, “exceptional” externalities.

Laura, Matt, A.D. Medievalist: I like and agree with all your comments. (Except that you’re right, Matt, that parents like myself would consider the idea of letting one’s kids invite their boyfriends and girlfriends over to spend the night to be simply nuts–but I’m Mormon, so I would think that.) The mix of freedom and responsibility, of horseplay and standards, of special occasions and regular duties, is likely to be different in every family, but differences aside the principle of such mixing is crucial to, as Matt put it, “feeling part of a family collective”–which I’m convinced is something every child NEEDS to feel. Bravo.

Harry: Thank you for getting this thread going, and thank you for reminding us that concerns about media and cultural environments, while important, are only one aspect of a much larger issue. I like very much how you put it here: “But one thing all of the discussants seem to have in common is jobs that allow us to spend a good deal of time with our children. Not everyone has that, and many people have no choice about whether they have it. Unregulated labor markets drive out good parenting, and that’s one of many reasons they should be regulated. As well as the recommendations about sidewalks and ad-free TV.” Like you, rightly or wrongly, a tend to view these economic and social concerns as an interconnected package. Along these lines, I wrote on another blog: “Time-controlled, stick-’em-in-front-of-the-tv child-rearing strategies are easy to criticize, unless you’re a poor single mother who has to take a bus an hour each way to get to your ten-hour shift at Wal-Mart, while hoping your unreliable across-the-hall neighbor takes the time out from her kids to check in on yours on occassion; in those cases, such strategies may unfortunately be the only ones available.”


maurinsky 02.11.04 at 5:43 pm

Interesting discussion. I have never taken a philosophy or ethics course (I dropped out of college ny sophomore year when I got pregnant, as a matter of fact), so some of the terms you are using are over my head, but I’ve been jotting down some bullet points that I want to respond to.

brayden said that the “left” has found it politically incorrect to embrace family values. I agree that the term “family values” has been disparaged by liberals in the U.S., but my impresson is more that the term “family values” was hijacked by politicians who were promoting a socially conservative agenda. I think all parents embrace family values, but the values my family embraces may be different from the values George Bush’s family embraces, for example.

joel b wrote that the left exhibits a great deal of anti-religious sentiment, an idea that is echoed by sebastian holsclaw. I don’t disagree that many on the left are anti-religious. I do think that much of that is related to the fact that religious organizations have morphed into political and/or corporate organizations that are engaged in fighting the ideals that liberals support. And there has been an increase in fundamentalist Christianity in this country that has contributed to the divide. It’s not one-sided – religion is moving away from liberals as much as liberals are moving away from religion. I think Christianity provides a good base for a value system, but I admit I shy away from the supernatural aspects of religion. My younger daughter, who is 6, loves Jesus Christ. I would be disappointed if that translated into denying people rights because of their sexual orientation, or if she worked to dissolve the separation of church and state, because I think those are inherently unChristian ideals.

The abortion topic is an interesting one for me to think about as a mother. It’s hard, having felt life kicking around in there, to imagine making my womb the site of someone’s (a potential someone, anyway) death. But I don’t think banning abortion is an effective way of eliminating the need for abortion. I think the way the right deals with this issues is simply to ignore the reality of what happens in life. I have moved around a lot on this position, from being vehemently pro-life as a Catholic teenager, to being vehemently pro-choice as a young adult, to the present day, where I am pro-life and but pro-choice – I guess I put the life that is currently here on this earth ahead of the potential life. Obviously, the key moment to make a decision about abortion is before you have sex, but since I got pregnant while on birth control pills and while my husband (then boyfriend) was using a condom, I know that life sometimes throws you a curve. (Incidentally, after getting pregnant unexpectedly while using 2 different methods of birth control, I then experienced years of infertility when I wanted to get pregnant a second time. Ah, the rich irony of life.) I think sex is one of the greatest things life has to offer, and I don’t believe that people should have to be married to have sex (although I do think that if one is married, one should only be having sex with one’s spouse).

russel arden fox discussed parenting productivity – this is something that I don’t think is really divided along political lines. I work a full time job and a part time job, the last thing I want my family time to be is productive. We spend a lot of time playing games and going grocery shopping and cleaning the house and cooking meals. My two girls also have scheduled activities, but those are activities that they chose and enjoy. To me, a successful life is one where you are happy and feel like you made a choice to be where you are. Maybe that means you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, maybe that means you’re a stay-at-home mother. I think there is some institutional feminism that thinks that one of these choices is better than the other, but I consider myself a feminist and I know that having a choice is the key.


Timothy Burke 02.11.04 at 9:19 pm

The book is, I must stress by way of lowering expectations, uneven.

But Harry is right that this is American exceptionalism, at least when we’re talking about children’s TV. I think there’s more cases than just the US vs. the UK/Western Europe–Japan throws another history altogether into the mix.

Children’s media in the broader span of things is less bounded to the US (or UK) and so is maybe an easier thing to talk about. If you compare Disney films that were made to be “safe” for parental advocacy groups from the 1960s-1970s with the Disney/Pixar oeuvre from “The Little Mermaid” to “Finding Nemo”, you can see the difference. Whatever my complaints about Disney’s work and about Disney’s commercialism (and brother, believe me I have some complaints about the latter), there’s not much doubt in my mind that watching “Toy Story” is a lot more fun than watching “The Apple Dumpling Gang”.

On the issue of older kids, Harry may also have a point, or at least it’s a different kind of discussion. In part, I’m almost inclined to take a number and get back to you when I have a nine-year old girl instead of a three-year old, and see how I react when she wants to wear some slutty, sexualized outfit to school. I’d like to think that some of the protectiveness there is equally as problematic as the kind of protectiveness I *know* I’m critical of–but I have a sneaking suspicion that it may look different when I arrive at that point.


T. V. 02.11.04 at 9:26 pm

Some random friction for the wheel.

1. The early incarnations of the Christian channel mostly showed westerns, with lots of point-blank-range killings per hour, and there has always been a peculiarly freewheeling acceptance of violence in the Christian-scrubbed zone so long as it was in the context of oldtimey gender roles and/or in costume. Evangelical campaigns against violence seem to have been campaigns about–what–only “modern,” “urban” violence? Hard for me to figure out, but sex was clearly the worrisome taboo and maybe the only one that really mattered.

2. The problem is movie ads. Outside of the zones designed for kids only, there is literally no safe, friendly show you can watch anywhere on cable at any time without an ultraviolent movie ad literally depicting a murderous, throat-cutting, helicopter-blade-chopping, defenestrating act of sneering sadistic torture within the first 2.5 seconds of the commercial break–well before you can hit the mute button or switch the channel. Even Tim uses an extreme sexual instance (Last Tango in Paris) as the point where he would draw the limit, but it’s the flash images of denarrativized sadistic killing that I don’t want my three year old watching every ten minutes. It can’t be filtered by a parental lock, or even by you sitting right there in the room with the remote. Short of ponying up the money for Tivo, which I don’t have, there’s no control that can be exercised here. And when we all pony up the money for Tivo, they’ll find a way to make the ads intrude into the program time, the way screen-corner popups are being experimented with now. I can imagine a little ad for the evening’s Tom Clancy movie popping up in the corner while we’re watching Frazier at suppertime, with a mercenary drawing a knife across a woman’s throat. “Tonight at nine.” I’ll waive complaints about indoctrination into consumerism and gender roles, and I’ll let my kid watch Brando’s butter scene, if I can get rid of the frigging sadistic movie ads. Tim’s glorious free market ain’t going to solve this; it’ll just look for further “penetration,” and it will bankroll, directly and indirectly, lots of predictable polemic that fussy objections to movie trailers are pussified political correctness and/or Pat Robertsonism and/or the lingering socialist anhedonia of the Frankfurt School.

3. Doesn’t someone need to say that a lot of this conversation is probably just projective nonsense? We have no idea why kids like what they like or what they carry away, and I’m not sure we want to listen. The objection to Barney or Dragontales or The Wiggles being saccarhine and insipid, while true, comes from the parents who can’t stand to watch them for the umpteenth time–just as the hipass attitudinizing of Nickelodeon cartoons are directed at teens and adults, even if they’re projected into the animated bodies of kids. (Please, please, can’t we watch Shrek? say the parents. No, the kid says, I want to watch Berenstein Bears. O God please, no, the parents say, something from Pixar? At least Wallace and Gromit?) “Insipid” means “insipid to adults,” which further means “insipid to adults who have been socialized into late 20c. affective structures of hip irony.” Remember the old Burl Ives Rudolph special? There was an oldster discussion over at Invisible Adjunct about how horrible it is, compared to our glowing childhood memories, and some new parents were bragging that their kids were bored by it. Well, mine wasn’t. He liked it. Should I be embarrassed? To what extent is that just another competition, for having the hippest kid? Pierced tongue, little leather jacket. Less different from the productivist scheduling of soccer lessons and toddler premed camp than you might like to think.

4. The supposedly “saccharine” cooperative affect of prosocial programming has to be judged in a context. If it’s an alternative to some perfect full-bodied taxonomy of affect and ethical situation and narrative resolution, then okay: yuck. But television is very mean-spirited, and is becoming more so. Reality shows are all about rehearsing kill-the-loser screw-the-safety-net social Darwinist attitudes, encouraging radical selfishness as a preparation for an coming economy of scarcity. Hakim Bey once said that all the movies on the shelf of the video store give you only the choice of being a victim or a cop. Judged against that, prosocial programming looks a little less objectionable–at least the instant sniff at its “goodiness” starts to become suspect, if you can’t point to places in your culture where those affects are being trained in some better way. Phil Fisher (Hard Facts) once argued, correctly, that diatribes about the icky sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are hopelessly ahistorical because its intense melodramatic techniques were battling a loud proslavery propaganda campaign trying to prevent sympathetic identification with slaves from forming at all. The rhetorical excess only becomes available to us because the sentimental techniques succeeded in their historical task, by defeating the opposition–by making the extension of full humanity to slaves seem normal. It’s dangerous to think that advances in common citizen sympathy are permanent, that they can’t be rolled back. I get my dander up when academic lefties mechanically rehearse tired attacks on bourgeois sentimentality. The right is mounting a deliberate scorch-and-burn campaign to decivilize the public sphere for political and economic gain right now, and I think the snarky leftist attitude toward the “positive affects” is anachronistic and often thoughtless these days when such affects are not so much being used as a fake control tactic as being shown the door entirely.

5. An important contribution to the more general debate about culture & kids (audio file download, 2MB).

(from Hapless Dilletante)


carla 02.11.04 at 9:50 pm

My upbringing resembled the medievalist’s in significant ways (hey–I usually see you at Invisible Adjunct!). My parents are atheists and working class (by origin and by their own education and experience) and far-left politically. However, there were definitely RULES in our household. We did chores. We took responsibility for our actions. We were honest. As a result, my brother (who’s not nearly so far left) is teaching my nephews that the three things they don’t do are lie, cheat, and steal. And my nephews–who are 4 and 6, I should add–can tell you what those rules are.

I, on the other hand, am a part-time stepparent of a 6-year-old. Mom is sending the kid to catholic school, gets the kid the latest Disney videos, and lets her dad take the kid to movies that I definitely would not. And fighting Mom strikes me as a bad idea, especially for the kid. So we make it clear: here are the rules in our house. We insist that he help with chores (when we do them)–and even if he fusses at first, he actually gets into it, leading me to suspect he likes being involved in the life of the household. I’m teaching him to cook (neither Mom nor Dad cooks much), and he loves it–he totally gets into learning new stuff, and reading the recipe, and so on. It’s really cool. I expose him to movies that don’t clearly delineate good and evil (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away particularly entranced him). We read to him. And he and I had a very serious discussion about whether there is a god or not. He got upset when I said I didn’t believe there is one–he thought I was saying he was lying–so I tried to explain that different people believe different things.

And I agree: Milk or fuzzy water? not What do you want to drink? (Actually, these days, he can get it himself if it’s fuzzy water (club soda); the milk is in a heavy glass bottle.) I agree about the sleep, and I would add the necessity for some exercise (in the form of just plain running around is fine).

Sorry; much rambling here. But I think good parenting–whether one is the biological or full-time parent or not–is about setting concrete rules and being willing to enforce them–AND being willing to demonstrate them. Honesty is important for everyone in our household, not just him.


Timothy Burke 02.12.04 at 12:51 am

Yow, a six-year old and “Spirited Away”. Now that’s bold–but damn cool too.

I agree, sort of, that we don’t know why kids like what they like, and it is precisely that which leads me to argue that I have a root level trust in the intelligence, imagination and adaptability of children. On a great many things, perhaps not just media, we worry too much, and hubristically believe too much in our ability to programmatically produce desirable life outcomes by adopting carefully designed strategies of parenting. To some extent, we ought to regard childhood the way Geoffrey Rush’s character in “Shakespeare in Love” looks on the success of the performance that comes at the end of the film: “it’s a mystery”.

I do think that there are ways to understand, a bit. Some of it involves a genuine attempt to remember our own childhoods experientially–a book that I find oddly, remarkably moving in that regard is Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even though it is about a childhood radically unlike my own–I just admire the clarity with which Fuller recreates her childhood voice and frame of reference. Another book I found to be fascinating and powerful was Under Deadman’s Skin, which is about how children use violence and images of violence in their play in creative ways.


Thomas 02.12.04 at 7:34 am

I didn’t have an unusual or unusually happy childhood. But when I think back on it, many things about my childhood were wonderful, and those things are difficult to re-create now. The challenge for me, as a parent, is to translate those experiences, or the opportunity for such experiences, into this age. For example, I walked to and from elementary and jr. high school. Early on, I walked with my older brother, and in later years, I walked with friends. I enjoyed that–we walked unsupervised, on the edge of supervision. The neighborhoods now just aren’t set up for that. There’s always the old neighborhood–but the suburban attitudes seem to have invaded there as well, based on the long line of minivans and SUVs waiting at the end of the day. How do I go about translating that small taste of freedom on the edges of the structured day into today’s world for my daughters? I don’t know–I worry that I can’t, and I worry that my kids will be cheated (and I also worry that my fondness for that part of my childhood is misplaced or unusual, and that my kids wouldn’t enjoy it anyway).


carla 02.12.04 at 2:12 pm

One of the few advantages of being a stepparent (and part of the noncustodial household, at that, though he does spend Wednesdays and every other weekend with us) is that there’s no point to me trying to “programmatically produce desireable life outcomes,” as Timothy so accurately puts it. Mom and Dad have way more say than I do, and because Kid lives with Mom most of the time, Mom has the most say. Dad is extremely involved, though. In any case, all I can do–with Dad’s assent–is try to provide Kid with tools that I think are useful and that he may not be getting elsewhere in his life. (And Mom has ceded to me the responsibility of teaching Kid to cook and teaching him athletic-type stuff, which is fine with me.) The fact that the two households have different beliefs in some arenas–and I’m pretty damn clear about what my beliefs are–provides him with information about variety in the world. And I think he trusts me to not lie to him, and not to push away questions that are inconvenient or difficult. About a year and a half ago we had a very intense conversation about the Trade Center attacks–clearly no one had talked about it to him before. After I talked a bit, we digressed a little, and then he said, “I want to talk more–you go first.” Amusing though that was, it told me that he’s capable of getting some of this stuff. The same with the god conversation. And trying to make my core concepts understandable to a six-year-old is an exercise in really knowing what concepts are important–my brother’s formulation about not lying, cheating, or stealing is very helpful in that regard. And, lately, I’ve been challenging him to evaluate his own behavior in light of the standards he knows we have in the household, which is interesting, too.


carla 02.12.04 at 2:15 pm

And, Thomas, I agree. One of the things I remember from my childhood, though, is going to the Y and to the local Youth Center and just . . . doing stuff. (I walked to school, too, but lived in a small town.) We had backyards to play in, etc. Maybe your daughters can go to the Y or something like that?


harry 02.12.04 at 2:23 pm

Maurinsky, there’s no entrance fee here, and as you can tell knowing lots of technical terms in no way qualifies anyone better for participation! I agree with so much of what so many people have said. And the various comments from Matt, Maurinsky, t.v., Russell, Laura and adm illustrate well the plurality of good childhoods. I’m really finding what people are saying interesting. There’s way too much to respond to, so I just want to add a couple of comments.

I suspect that the protectionists are less protectionist than they sound in this conversation, just as the non-protectionists are probably more protectionist than they sound. It seems to me that excessively non-protectionist practices abound, and my conjecture was that in order to get similarly good experiences for my kids as my parents got for me I have to be much more protectionist than they were. Obvious things like letting the kids play in the street or dawdle home form school (in which I was a master); and less obvious things like letting us watch TV as and when we wanted.

Something that most of you have revealed is that you share your own particular enthusiasms with your own kids. I suppose everyone does this. When some aspect of popular culture is your particular enthusiasm its entirely possible that participating in it with your kid makes it very different from them than when they are thrown into it. I feel, personally, deeply alienated from the cultural world I around me, and have been able to inhabit a slightly different one (enabled, of course, to do so by modern technology). I’ve always loved listening to radio drama, documentaries, and comedy, and my elder daughter shares a lot of that with me (though within the genre she has certainly developed enthusiasms that are specifically hers — viz, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and the Great Gildersleeve). Its good in itself, and its good because its part of the relationship. Cooking too.

I think that for most (but certainly not all) kids the reality of the news is much less disturbing than the kinds of thing that t.v. talks about (as Laura’s anecdote suggests). Honesty and straightforwardness are important in exposing them to the reality of the world — war, death, poverty, etc. It is, again, hard to know how to expose them to the news — mainly, for me, because of the quality issues, not the protection issues. I’d happily have her watch the TV equivalent of the Economist. But not the drivel they actually show.

On the topic of childhood reminiscence I recommend Michael Foreman’s lovely two-parter *War Boy* and *After the War*, both published in the US, about his childhood in East Anglia during and after WWII. It’s short, a bit rambling, beautifully illustrated, and completely accessible to kids 6 and up I’d say. I read it to my daughter about a year ago, and there is one fantastic passage where he describes a typical day in which he and his friends played on the sand-dunes and in the underground passages which had been dug for soldiers resisting potential invasion. He says something like this: ‘We were allowed to play on our own all day long, without adult supervision, because there were no cars, and everybody knew who we were’. My daughter just sighed and said ‘I wish my life was like that’ and then added, very quickly, ‘well, without the rationing’. I think most kids long for the freedom that Thomas talks about. In fact, in some ways, the protectionists among us are only partly protectionist — we want to shield the kids from the worst aspects of popular culture, but we are pissed off that the physical (and social) environment has been made such that we cannot allow them the kind of freedoms and responsibilities that we ourselves were granted as children.

Finally, I agreed so much with t.v. about so much, which is so brilliantly articulated that I thought ‘who the hell is this?’, went to his/her site, and found Patrick McGoohan giving me the brilliant answer.. My younger adores the tiresome Berenstein Bears (who make me sick); but otherwise I am delighted by my two’s enjoyment of the quiet, non-sassy, non-clever, stuff. And I guess I should just be more honest and say that I think lots of kids (and lots of adults) would benefit from more so-called bourgeois values. Bourgeois values are, of course, not bourgeois values; they are the values that my working class great grandparents and grandparents held.


amelia 02.12.04 at 2:26 pm

As many have already said, what an immensely fascinating discussion. It’s also a discussion that makes me feel dangerously close to my own childhood.

Many of you are parents already, but I think it’s very interesting that most seem to have one or a few young children. I wonder how long you have all been parents, and how that experience changes with time. Professor Burke, for example, notes that

“I’m almost inclined to take a number and get back to you when I have a nine-year old girl instead of a three-year old, and see how I react when she wants to wear some slutty, sexualized outfit to school.”

Here’s another time problem: what happens as parents gradually become more affluent, more able to participate in consumer culture? Will they be able to “hold the line,” as it were, when their kid feels alienated without, and knows there are means to provide, some stupid or disgusting piece of consumer culture? I am young enough to remember being deeply and genuinely miserable about my lack of Barbie dolls in the late 1980’s, and old enough to know that playing with them really wasn’t any good for me.

Living in a consumer culture, as most of us must, means that (especially from the child’s perspective) a “good childhood” exists in a fairly constant state of tension. On the one hand, there’s a social world saturated with consumer items and appearance politics and weird gender norms, and we need to be able to live there in a certain amount of peace. On the other, living too much in that world means that we (and perhaps, I would venture to say, especially we girl-children) have a smaller chance of being healthy, well-adjusted, priorities-straight adults.

Like this: since my parents were poor teacher-folk at the time, I grew up largely without television, so missed completely quite a bit of the commercial socialization that goes with TV. Somewhat relatedly, I was socially miserable in elementary and middle schools. My nine-year-old brother, on the other hand, came along after my parents’ careers were well-established. He lives in a house with two TV’s, multiple DVD players and computers, a VCR, some video games and lots of commercially licensed toys. He has lots of friends because he looks and acts and plays the same way that most boys his age do (loudly, in a Spiderman mask, as it turns out)…and he has attention problems in school, is less curious about words and concepts than his older siblings were, reads less, plays less music, and is snobbier about brands and the way things look.

Parents, especially reasonably affluent parents, are faced with two related difficulties. First, where do I put my kid in that delicate balance? Second, what does that choice imply about my sense of the purpose of childhood? What is it for? The choice has been expressed in this thread as “enjoyment/discovery versus adult competencies.” However, kids, as amply noted above, can enjoy and discover lots of things that adults find awful or boring or insipid, and most aren’t going to grow up to be soccer players or concert pianists or any of the other things that parents seem to spend time programming. Instead, I might frame the problem as one of present happiness and adjustment versus (present and) future critical analysis and cultural independence. Despite mom and dad’s best intentions, I think their choices are going to be constrained by the amount of money they have, and the way that changes over time.


Russell Arben Fox 02.12.04 at 4:03 pm

Amelia, that’s an important dynamic you’ve articulated, and you did so very well; thank you. For what it’s worth, my oldest is now seven, and all this year (as she has ended second grade) my wife and I have noted the building up of the sort of pressures which you identify so well. “Protectionism” changes–must change, should change!–in relation to one’s socio-economic position and how one’s children are (or aren’t) internalizing the ways that position situates them in the world. Look around and you can find hundreds, thousands of stories of people who, at a certain point looked at what the world is doing to their children (and what their children are doing in the world) and say: “The previous arrangement isn’t working, I’ve lost control!” And then they pick up and move or do something radical, and good for them: they’re putting the kids first.

Harry, thanks for the wise, moderate words on “protectionism” in general. Of course no one who takes these kind of issues seriously is a tyrant in the home (I hope), just as no one here would let their children run entirely wild in the name of “independence” (or so I trust). If there is any real disagreement (as opposed to diversity; there’s plenty of that), it probably comes down to how one wants to, or thinks one ought to, collectively apply your observation that “excessively non-protectionist practices abound, and…in order to get similarly good experiences for my kids as my parents got for me I have to be much more protectionist [of both] obvious things like letting the kids play in the street or dawdle home form school…and less obvious things like letting us watch TV as and when we wanted.” This can lead to some heated debates, but it does suggest that ultimately we’re all debating with shared goods in mind.

Also, ditto all the good things you said about t.v.’s wise words. T.V., you nailed perfectly the degree to which the efforts of those of us who stress about getting “the good stuff” to our kids are, as you put it, perhaps “less different from the productivist scheduling of soccer lessons and toddler premed camp than you might like to think.” Touche! My oldest is moving on in her reading habits to a lot of the fine stuff my wife has collected as part of her passion for youth literature (we recently read Burnett’s “The Little Princess” together, and she loved its, yes, crudely Victorian and sentimental but nonetheless powerfully moral story), while my middle daughter is still quite the fan, like Harry’s son, of the Berenstain Bears. Is it simplistic bourgeois stuff? Damn straight it is, and more power to it. The Victorian bourgeoisie were wrong about a great many things, but they got a lot more right, especially in regards to the family, than the left ever gave them credit for.


carla 02.12.04 at 5:30 pm

I have to throw my two cents in about TV. My mom restricted the TV viewing of especially me and my sister; she was more lax w/ my brother, mostly because he’s younger. And i don’t watch much now, I have to say–I just don’t have time. But the Kid watches TV, at Mom’s, and Pop’s (her dad, who watches Kid after school), and sometimes at our house, too, and he plays computer games and Nintendo (I still say a 6-year-old does NOT need a PlayStation or a Nintendo, but I had no say in that matter). I can’t do much in that battle. So I do what I can, which is read books before bedtime, and read longer books when we can (hard, cause we don’t have him enough for that), and see movies that are more challenging, and Dad and I both try to involve him in other stuff–cooking, writing his own stories, go to the lake in the summer (we live two blocks away), even housework. Basically, expand the horizons beyond the world of TV, and do what we can. he also sees how we live, and I hope that helps, too, as he gets older and more aware. But probably I’m just trying to reassure myself here . . .


harry 02.12.04 at 6:05 pm

That’s interesting Carla. As I say, we watched a lot, but it was good. I watch less than I would like to now, partly because of busy-ness, and partly because of paucity of easily available good things to watch. Our library has a fantastic on-line search capacity and I’ve used it to supply my kids with videos of old TV shows (some of which are, they and I both think, fantastic — Top Cat is much better than I remember it, Pink Panther is as good, and (not TV) we’ve been indulging in old Popeye cartoons which they love (but makes me break into a cold sweat because of the hieghts involved). My 7 year old absolutely has loved watching Life on Earth and The Living Planet. The other thing is listening to kids stuff on the radio — go to
and explore.


ginger 02.14.04 at 2:34 pm

It just isn’t good (…) to use your sexuality for personal gain, to idolize sports stars, celebrities, the rich, or to indulge one’s desires without judgment or self-restraint.

But if you don’t get to do at least some of those things while you’re young, you’re going to spend your whole life regretting it ;)

Seriously, I think it’s a matter of measure, as in all things.

Excessively spoiling kids and buying them everything they want is bad, but too much parental control can be even worse.

I don’t even think the society we live in can be characterised as only a matter of consumerism and money-grabbing materialism. I see far more pros than cons to it. Certainly I don’t see how the kind of shielding done by religious fundamentalists can provide a good alternative to free individual experience. If you’ve given your kids some values, and trust your own ability as a parent, then you’ve got to trust them to develop their own personalities on thier own terms. Which includes acting silly, exploring sex (it doesn’t have to be such a traumatic or purely exploitative experience, does it?), idolising celebrities, and dealing with consumer and peer pressure. It’s not a war against some dark powers of totalitarian control. It’s about growing up, today as fifty years ago. Kids need rules but they also need some unrestricted outlets all to themselves.

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