Sunday, September 26, 2004

"Born To Buy"

I finished reading Born To Buy by Juliet Schor. Ms. Schor presents some compelling evidence that consumer culture in its current incarnation is bad for kids, causing mental health problems and social problems in children. But some of us already knew that, including most social conservatives. In fact, it is evident that Ms. Schor doesn't know very many actual conservatives. While the research exposition parts of her book are largely unbiased, she makes snide comments from time to time in the commentary parts of her book about how "conservatives" support the kind of predatory anti-parent marketing she decries in her book. Most of the conservatives and liberals I know favor the protection of children from such tactics. Favorite Husband's response to her idea that "conservatives" like him believe in corporate exploitation of children was to smile jokingly and say, "We gotta keep those kids on the couch and supersize them! Fatten 'em up so we can eat 'em!"

So what, according to Ms. Schor, is the solution to this clearly unhealthy situation? Of course... government, what else? She lauds one program, the Edible Schoolyard project from Berkeley, wherein the school runs a one-acre organic garden and the students learn lessons about all sorts of things biological and ecological, while at the same time raising tasty food. Maybe that sort of thing is new in other parts of the country, but here in Utah kids have this sort of experience at home. Half the residents here have food gardens, and the other half wish they had. Even people who live in apartments have balcony gardens, grow plants for food indoors, or buy fresh local produce. People routinely preserve food in jars. Culturally, it's the thing to do out here. And yet there's no government program compelling it, mostly because there are some people out here so right-wing that they think Clifford The Big Red Dog is a Communist plot. Like many liberals, Ms. Schor appears to suffer from the misperception of conservative people as wanting poor people to stay poor, kids to starve, etc. when in reality, they just don't want government to be the vehicle for the necessary remedies. Ms. Schor's book would be more persuasive to people on both sides of the aisle if it stuck to the cultural case for change in children's exposure to advertising instead of snarking at "conservatives" and advocating the belief that only government can enact social change.

Ms. Schor gives only passing mention to what I believe is the key non-governmental solution to the problem of toxic consumer kid culture: participation in the vibrant, wholesome aspects of local culture. Getting involved in local events makes you feel like you're part of a community, an actual community quite unlike the virtual community of hip kid consumers that advertising touts. I'm not going to launch into a "my kids exemplify this" speech because, well, my kids don't. They watch TV and movies (although they are only allowed to watch PBS Kids and parentally-approved movies, and a few network cartoons on Saturday morning). They see commercials for sugary cereals and violent toys. But our family is involved in our community, singing with the children's choir, participating in the Gardeners' Market, and patronizing the local opera. Their less-involved friends, whose parents feel church, school, and work provide enough socialization opportunities, all collect Yu-Gi-Oh cards and wear SpongeBob Squarepants merchandise, so my kids are exposed to these things at their friends' houses. But I've made it clear to my kids that certain messages tell us to buy stuff we don't need, and I try to model for them the decision not to buy things that are advertised because we just don't need them.