catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 22 :: 2010.12.03 — 2010.12.16


Save the kids

On a gray Monday morning, my husband Rob and I were on our way to work, parked in the front of the line at the stoplight on 28th Street and the East Beltline.  The whole world seemed to be hung over from Thanksgiving and the subsequent shopping frenzy as I gazed across the street at the nearly vacant parking lot of Toys “R” Us.  To the left of the toy store, Krispy Kreme’s neon lights electrified the pre-winter gloom of southwest Michigan.  To the right, a vacant bunker of commercialism still bore the dirty shadow of a Klingman’s logo.  I tried to remember the last time I’d been inside a Toys “R” Us store.  No specific moment surfaced in my memory, but somehow the smell lingered — an unforgettable mixture of rubber playground balls, plastic packaging and sweetly-scented baby dolls, all churned together by a commercial air exchange system.  Propped up over a busy intersection in front of a dying mall, it struck me how pathetic the toy store appeared, even as it boldly proclaimed in bright primary colors our collective identity both in and as toys.  “Toys ‘R’ Us?” I thought.  “Really — are they us?  And are we toys?”

The past several months have been punctuated with conversations about branding — what it is, what it seeks to accomplish, what’s right about it and what’s wrong.  In the course of discussion, the anecdotes are disturbing, especially when they involve children.  In spite of living in an isolated rural area without a television, a co-worker’s three-year-old was somehow able to recognize the golden arches and know that they symbolized food and fun that he strongly desired.  A friend’s child returned from, of all places, vacation bible school to declare: “I want Skechers!”  Sky Jethani, author of The Divine Commodity, writes about how this early cognition is not just incidental, but encouraged.  His daughter returned home from her first day of kindergarten with a homework assignment: collect logos and bring them to school the next day.  The note from the teacher read:

Dear Parents,

Here is your child’s first kindergarten “homework”!  Please help your child find “logos” such as the ones displayed on this page to help reinforce the concept that he/she can already read!  They may be on bags, boxes, cups, cans, etc.  The children feel great about their ability to read them.  We will use them for sharing and also to create a display in our classroom.  Thanks for helping!!

On one hand, this assignment just acknowledges a reality that already exists.  Jethani finds that, without having been actively taught by him or any other adult in her life, his daughter can identify several of the logos on the teacher’s note, as well as many more around the house.  On the other hand, the assignment is a symbol of how global corporations have usurped the role of identity formation for our children — and we adults have allowed it to happen.  Jethani writes,

By choosing a My Little Pony or a Superman backpack, Zoe and her classmates are already learning to build their identities with brands, and this process will continue the remainder of their lives.  Why else would companies like Ford and Pizza Hut spend millions of dollars marketing in preschools?  Three- and four-year-olds cannot order a pizza or buy a car, but by planting a branded seed in the kids’ imaginations and associating it with positive feelings, these corporations hope to reap the fruit when these children begin to form their identities as teenagers.  This sort of brand marketing has been so effective that the average ten-year-old has already memorized between 300 and 400 brands.  When these children become adolescents, each with an average of $100 of disposable cash to spend every week, they will select from these brands to construct their identities — identities they can eat, drink, smoke, drive, play, ride, and wear.

Most of us are vaguely uncomfortable with this reality, but really, what are we doing about it?  One of the latest trends in righteous outrage — rightly so — is the global trade of children, especially from poor families, for forced labor and sex slavery.  This industry represents the most depraved side of humanity and we are right to condemn it and put a lot of resources into fighting it.  But where is our related outrage that children of so-called privilege are being sold into the slavery of consumerism?  We lure pre-schoolers to their vegetables with Sponge Bob silverware and teen-agers to youth group with Papa John’s and Mountain Dew, hoping that somehow the true nourishment of the act will outweigh the formation as a brand slave.  But perhaps we ourselves are so entangled in consumerism that we don’t even have the eyes to see what’s wrong with any of it as long as the kids swallow the Bible lesson along with the extra cheese.  Unfortunately, the religion offered can be as nutritionally vacuous as the soda and, once teens are full-up on fizz and sugar, they tend to look elsewhere for more sustainable satisfaction of their deep hunger.

My husband and I don’t have kids, so in some sense, it’s easy for me to be self-righteous and accusatory about the ways our society sells our children into brand idolatry.  However, as members of the body of Christ who have spoken words of promise at numerous baptisms, we bear legitimate responsibility.  In our “parental” roles within the Church, we are fortunate to have friends around us who model ways of parenting that seek to raise wise children whose imaginations have not been captured by bad branding, of either the corporate or the religious sort.  One such couple is Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh.  Getting to know their household has put flesh on the bones of their collaborative theological writing.  In a section of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, they write about the challenge of raising wide-awake kids who are both engaged and liberated in a brand-saturated society:

The issue here is not to isolate our children from the world but to expose them to the world through the liberating vision of a biblical worldview.  Precisely where the powers that be don’t want children to make connections, don’t want them to really see, we want our children’s eyes to be opened.  We want our kids to see through the targeted advertising of McDonald’s toys, games and playlands and recognize them as the manipulative come-ons they are.  We want them to see through the packaging and grease in order to see that the stuff being served is not food.  We want our little girls to be offended, not enamoured, by Barbie’s figure.

Brian and Sylvia are intentional not just unto some ironic un-brand captured in the spirit of things like No Logo sneakers or Buy Nothing Day, but unto the Kingdom of God and what that Kingdom looks here and now incarnated in the form of the family.  They write,

Parents, do not provoke your children, do not break them, and for God’s sake, do not offer them up for sacrifice before the idols of our age.  Model for them an alternative way of life, a kingdom vision with a lifestyle and daily habits that engender the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, gratitude, wisdom and worship.  Then, whatever they do, in word or deed, will be done in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Unlike the Keesmaat-Walsh girls who scorn McDonalds and I think understand why their parents raised them to do so, an eight-year-old I’ve gotten to know in my neighborhood asks me with an exaggerated grin almost every time I see him: “Will you get me some McDonalds?”  He’s quite young to have an intense discussion about brand idolatry, but I have seen his curiosity spark when we’ve shared French fries from Uncle Rhemus’ Place, a locally-owned restaurant just a couple blocks from his house.  Biking past the restaurant on a little field trip we took together, I pointed it out and made a connection with the fries he enjoyed earlier that day.  Now I suppose he could start asking me for French fries from Uncle Rhemus’ every time I see him — am I just trading one brand for another?  I run that risk, yes.  But then I picture him a few years from now with a couple of dollars in his pocket and an expanded radius of freedom, riding his bike to Uncle Rhemus’ where Grover greets him by name as he walks through the door of a business in his very own neighborhood; and I know there’s something qualitatively different.  It’s not about sheltering him or any other child from all branded desires and commercial transactions, but teaching them the wisdom to know the difference between worse and better, whether the pedagogy is a sit-down talk or a delicious sandwich.  It’s about cultivating a desire for a deeper kind of knowing and being known that can translate to many more aspects of life than just fast food.

In all things — from fast food to fashion, cars to churches — Christians are ultimately called to be branded by love.  Teaching our children to embody sacrificial love when other claimants on their affections are so much more well-funded requires abundant amounts of time, creativity and collaboration.  As Sylvia and Brian acknowledge, we Christians accept the task of creating social misfits out of our children, which might feel like a dangerous risk at first, especially for parents used to making choices based on their own fear of failing to keep up with the Joneses.  But when I picture the imaginative, witty plays the Keesmaat-Walsh girls stage with other young social misfits when we visit their family farm each summer, I know I’d rather raise kids who feel more at home with the dress-up box than in Forever 21 and more at ease in shadows of the woods than in the concrete jungle of Toys “R” Us.  The alienation I feel at the corner of 28th and the Beltline is not a comfortable sensation and I can sense despair lurking around the edges of the dead malls, but I know that the counterpart of this alienation is a true joy worth pursuing, both for my own sake and for the sake of the young ones entrusted to my care, now and in the future.

As the light turns green, the only way to go is forward — to get to work, to hear and speak the prophetic Word, to let grace take over when we reach the end of our own efforts.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus