We’d have none of that. Our children would grow up in the sunshine of simple truths. We bought good, honest toys, a red metal wagon, some off-brand Lincoln Logs, a wooden truck, generic wooden blocks, a Mexican puppet, a wooden helicopter.
Laying new insulation in the attic the other day, I was wearing goggles and a bandana for the dust, and heaving around big rolls of pink fiberglass wool, when I turned clumsily and knocked over a box. Out of the top of it clattered a wooden helicopter. It had only one moving part, the wooden rotor; when you tap it, it spins. It once amazed a child.
My own child, actually. And I remembered an ideal that I’d nearly forgotten.
My wife and I once had every intention of raising children in a pure sort of way. We wanted to raise our children simply, quietly, honestly. Our children wouldn’t be slaves to the plastic, commercial, corporate, buzzing, beeping world. We would raise our children on a different paradigm, uncorrupted by a culture devoted to waste.
It may now seem quaint to talk about in the era of the SUV and the iPod and the Internet and the giant plasma-screen TV, with its hundreds of cable channels—that some people back in the 1980s thought there was already way too much. Even before all that, it seemed too much, and we wanted to protect our kids from it. As parents, we would give our children only simple toys. We had a stereo with a turntable, and decided that would be the highest-tech device in the house.
Maybe it was our generation, still clinging to the innocent ideals of the hippies and back-to-the-earth environmentalists. Maybe it had something to do with a now-unfashionable and nearly forgotten doctrine of Christianity, the one that preaches separation from material possessions. Maybe it was also just the natural alienation that sets in when you live without a credit card or a computer or a television and do all your shopping afoot, in corner stores. When you step away from it for a good long moment, commercial culture naturally comes to seem perverse, wasteful, venal, corrupt, and very, very corny. It seemed a big distraction from the real stuff of life, which was music and poetry, old Greek sandwich makers and all-day hikes in the woods and long conversations with friends in an honest bar. As young parents we were, essentially, boho-puritanical.
There seemed plenty to avoid: McDonald’s and its subversive Happy Meals: bad food made fun. They offered toys as a sort of rebate, a consolation prize for allowing them to fatten your child. Most TV cartoons were linked to products you could buy at Toys ‘R’ Us; Saturday morning TV was basically a barrage of long toy commercials—broken up by short commercials for other toys. I wanted to avoid conspicuous logos. I didn’t want my kids to be unpaid billboards for some corporation.
I was even skeptical of Sesame Street , because it was also strongly connected to the toy industry. But, more than anything else, I distrusted the Walt Disney Company.
Disney was the Great Satan, the manipulator of our youth. Disney had pioneered using TV and movies to market toys. I’d grown up thinking of Walt Disney as a benevolent grandfatherly figure, but as a young adult I’d come to believe the bizarre stories about him, that he was a cryogenically preserved anti-Semite who, once thawed, would take over the world.
I’d heard the strange stories about the dark bowels of Disney World; when, working for a magazine, I attempted to interview some employees of that theme park, I found that some of the rumors were true; Disney employees aren’t allowed to talk to reporters. What were they hiding?
I also shared the complaints simmering in the ‘80s, that Disney stories were sexist, picturing a world in which even the most heroic women’s chief role was to bring glory to some prince. Disney was, in that way, as sexist as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Southern Baptist Convention.
Worst of all, I had suspicions that much of the grief of modern America could be blamed on Disney. The company’s movies, in particular, promoted a belief that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.
How can you say that to a child and sleep at night? The Disney Manifesto, I thought, was far more dangerous than anarchism or jihad or the unlikely prospect of workers of the world uniting.
My theory—suspicion might be a more accurate word for it—was that America’s murder rate was so high compared to that of other industrialized nations not in spite of its famous optimism, but because of it. People were raised on Disney, and when they discovered their dreams didn’t really come true, they got mad and started blasting away.
Disney’s consistent happily-ever-after message was even more unrealistic than the old fairy tales it sugarcoated. The real Little Mermaid legend, a story beloved by the peaceful Swedes, has a melancholy ending, as most lives do. Most fairy tales are tales of disappointment or tragedy; they’re useful to children for that reason. Disney stories, by contrast, always apply the dreams-come-true manifesto. It was the moral equivalent of marijuana.
I thought the logical result of a nation raised on Disney stories was disappointment, bitterness, heroin abuse, adultery, and gunfire.
We had a friend in Sweden who sent us toys: a wooden dachshund on wheels, with a long leash. We got them rubber balls to play with, but not balls associated with any sport they weren’t old enough to play. Just plain rubber balls. Some had stripes. Their first stuffed dolls were brandless; some were homemade. We were proud that our son’s favorite stuffed companion was a homely bear that a neighbor, an elderly country lady, had made for him.
I found out many of the toys I pictured my children playing with—wind-up metal monkey drummers—had become illegal to use as toys, because they were associated with accidental bludgeonings or perforations, or asphyxiations. Same with old-fashioned rocking horses. So at length, we decided to let plastic into our lives. A plastic swing that clamped onto the top of an open door, a plastic rocking chair. But we found out quickly that the better quality toys and clothes had obvious logos. Little Tykes. Oshkosh B’Gosh.
It worked fairly well, for a while. But our philosophy was showing significant leaks by our son’s third birthday. Then there was the obvious problem that many of our friends and relatives didn’t quite follow our philosophy, and innocently gave our kids mass-market things with logos and TV tie-ins so pronounced you could see them through the wrapping paper.
It had never occurred to me how many friends and strangers find cause to buy presents for your kids. Should we call each parent of a kid who might be invited to a birthday party, and explain your no-corporate-logo philosophy? I actually did some of that. Some parents understood, implicitly, or had at least heard of people like us. Others seemed puzzled. (“No Disney? What about Smurfs?”)
As our kids tore into them, it was always an awkward thing to say No. That’s a bad toy.
One time it was easier. When our son was about five, someone gave him a Bart Simpson doll. Sam had never seen the show, and looked at the doll as you’d look at any particularly ugly yellow bug-eyed child. He didn’t protest when I took it to Goodwill.
At the time we were preparing for our first baby, we didn’t even own a television. But my grandmother had a spare she didn’t need. Gifts from grandmothers always carry the subtext of irrevocability.
I think I’d talked to her about how proud I was not to have a television, that I disapproved of them, that I’d read a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and was convinced TV was cheapening our political dialogue, among other things. Maybe she found that alarming. Anyway, as televisions go, it was not a particularly offensive one. A small portable, no remote control, just the four channels you could pick up with rabbit ears in 1985, one of them pretty fuzzy.
It sat there, unplugged, for a while. My wife and I didn’t watch it at all until we heard one of the stations was playing old Twilight Zone episodes late at night. I only barely remembered them, 30-minute nightmares from early childhood, and was curious. My wife went into labor as we were watching the one about the guy waking up in the empty city.
We weren’t really bourgeois if we were just watching the Twilight Zone for half an hour, late at night, were we? No, I didn’t think so. There weren’t any Twilight Zone action figures, anyway.
What got me to plug it in more regularly was one of the unanticipated mechanical realities of parenthood. Through a series of events, I was laid off from a failing magazine, my wife found a good job with benefits, and I was the guy at home all day with the baby. I discovered one thing fairly quickly: Feeding a slow-eating baby with a bottle is one of the dullest tasks ever devised by nature. You have a baby in one hand, a bottle in the other: you can’t play Scrabble, you can’t change a record, you can’t even read a book, unless you hold the end of the bottle with your chin as you lean over to turn the pages. I tried that.
Maybe, I thought, it wouldn’t hurt to watch a little TV while I fed the baby.
Convenience is the mother of philosophical revision. Our complaint wasn’t with TV per se, we decided. Maybe some shows could be educational or enlightening. Our main objection to Saturday-morning TV was a new trend: product placement, and toy products marketed symbiotically with a TV show. Kids want the toy because they see the TV show. They also watch the commercials, but the TV show itself is a commercial. A commercial with commercial interruptions.
It seemed merciless. We avoided Saturday-morning TV altogether.
I found a weekday-morning television show about the misadventures of two Italian brothers that I thought was charmingly weird; it reminded me a little of Abbott and Costello, and in tone it was somewhere between Captain Kangaroo and the Monkees. I didn’t realize for a year or so that it was more or less a 30-minute advertisement for a video game I’d never heard of, called “Super Mario Brothers.” Who knew.
Around that time, my wife and I would get up and watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse . We weren’t quite certain that it was appropriate for children, but it was very funny. So we’d be up watching Saturday-morning TV in our pajamas while our son slept. I’m not sure it occurred to us how weird that was.
Sometimes, maybe, our cultural quarantine worked; more often, it didn’t. Parents’ influence on children is, at best, something like a moist paper sack. Things seep in—from day care, from kids in the neighborhood, sleepovers, who knows. By the time he was three, our son was rebelling without even knowing it. He began to demand certain things he’d heard about—sometimes things we hadn’t.
Like “Trance Farmers.” That stumped us at first. I pictured zombies hacking sugar cane in Haiti. It turned out that what he wanted was something called Transformers, little plastic robot-like men who turned into vehicles.
I thought Transformers might be a useful metaphor to teach Sam the spiritual corruption of commercial America. I explained my theory. “American consumers are little plastic robots who are indistinguishable from their vehicles.” The only problem was, Sam thought that fact was exactly what made them cool.
I remember first hearing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from an NPR interview with the creators, who struck me as snotty postmodern dweebs. The whole concept seemed like an arch joke from the nerd dorm. It was a snotty trick on innocent kids, who had no idea what Ninjas were, never mind mutants.
We never watched the show, at least not at first. But Sam saw it on sleepovers, and soon enough, he was demanding the action figures. And we thought, what the hell. By 1990, the Ninja Turtle ditty was a regular part of our Saturday.
One thing a little unsettling about the Turtles is that, for no particular reason except nerdy impertinence, they were all named for Renaissance Italian artists.
“Who was the real Michaelangelo?” I asked, hoping he’d remembered something from our going over the plates in The Story of Art : the David, the Sistine Chapel, at least.
“He’s the party dude,” he answered, with what I desperately wanted to believe was budding deadpan humor. I thought about trying to come up with an alternative version of the Ninja Turtles’ plodding anthem to describe the Renaissance masters:
They’re the painters of the Renaissance
They’re Italians, not from Germany or France...
We tried to encourage reading; when I had time, I’d read to them. First just kids’ picture books, then the Pooh stories, which I’d never known were so clever. When I first mentioned it, though, my kid began singing the “Winnie the Pooh” theme, which took me aback: we’d never had it on television at home. Uncle Walt was creeping in around the edges.
We encouraged them to read on their own, too, with a sort of reward system. We set a bedtime of 8 o’clock; he could stay up later, but only if he would read. It seemed to work perfectly.
Sam was up reading every night, and seemed actually to look forward to it, even to the extent of going to bed early. One night when he was about nine I peeked in to see what story had so captivated him. And I found him poring over his favorite fantasy book. It was a Sanyo electronics catalogue. I didn’t even know where he found it.
Things materialize. There doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it.
And the kids started getting videotapes as gifts. We had several of them, accepted with gratitude, before we bought our first VCR. Most of them had a mouse-ear logo somewhere on them.
I had tried to give the kids a grounding in American history, but nothing can compare to blockbuster movies, especially the ones that feature really big explosions. The wicker box under the TV was more and more full of them after every Christmas and birthday. The kids watched some movies over and over.
I remember one Fourth of July, as we sat down to dinner, I asked both the kids what we were celebrating. My 12-year-old son was characteristically quiet. But my seven-year-old daughter explained to me, quite earnestly, that Independence Day was the day the aliens landed.
I smiled and corrected her. I told her about the colonists declaring their independence from King George III, that Jefferson wrote it and Washington and Franklin and the others signed it, and it included a declaration of the human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and how important that all is.
Rebecca listened with polite interest, but then said, no, she was quite sure it was the day the aliens landed, and were vanquished by the Americans. With the patience we reserve for dogs and morons, she described it all in historical detail, and added that she had the video to prove it. Perhaps having detected that her dad was not the most technologically savvy guy in the world, she said she’d be happy to play it for me.
You know what happened. By the ’90s, we were giving up the ghost. We were suckers for every trend that came along. You can look at big brown eyes and explain the insidious influences of corporate manipulation for only so long. So there commenced an orgy of roller blades, razor scooters, Barbies, Beanie Babies—I’ve hardly ever seen kids get tired of anything so fast. We were following the path of least resistance. A Buddhist principal, I liked to think.
By the time we hit the 10-year milestone, we were going out to see every Disney movie when it hit the theaters, and then buying the video during the limited-release windows, like all American parents did. I was tickled to get Mary Costa to sign a video of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty for my daughter, and planning a trip to Disney World. I’d expected to see Baghdad first.
Here’s where I’m supposed to say I’ve matured, and softened, and realized the errors of my doctrine. I haven’t, really. I don’t think we were wrong, at least not about everything. A lot of marketing toward kids is indeed underhanded and exploitive. I think raising kids outside of the agendas that monster corporations have for them would be altogether better.
My kids are almost grown. They both stay on top of the latest computer trends. They both play electronic games, they both IM—a term I learned approximately last week—they both have nothing against shopping at big chains or wearing corporate logos on their bodies without compensation. They’re fairly good kids anyway.
I’m not sure how much influence parents have on children’s values or personality. After 20 years, I suspect that whatever influence sets in is probably not deliberate.
Nobody likes to be manipulated. That was the heart of my original motive, and probably also the reason attempting to raise a kid outside of the mainstream in America rarely works. Nobody wants to think they’re the way they are because of a parent trying to make them that way. Compared to parental authority, the abstract manipulations of the marketplace probably feel like freedom.