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The children you live with also inhabit another world, a world that parents and teachers don’t control or amply appreciate.

That parallel universe, children’s culture, has its own values, styles, customs, tastes, interests and traditions.

In no domain can we better observe children’s voice and agency than in children’s culture—the meaning-making and expressive activities that include children’s imaginative world, such as their folklore and humor; their social relationships, including their friendships and interactions with peers; their play, including games, sports and computer and video games; and their consumption of commercial popular culture, whether books, television shows or movies.

But for many adults, children’s culture is terra incognito. Only a handful of scholars, including Indiana University’s William A. Corsaro, Northwestern’s Gary Alan Fine, Yale’s Dorothy G. and Jerome L. Singer, and UC Berkeley’s Barrie Thorne have systematically studied the secret spaces of childhood and the dynamics and functions of children’s culture.

To a striking degree, the academy has left children’s culture to poets and novelists.

There’s the view associated with Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie, which depicts children’s culture as a realm of fantasy, make-believe, magical thinking and the fantastical. There’s also the perspective exemplified by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which portrays children’s culture as a Darwinian world marked by taunting, teasing, bullying, aggression, sadism and the pursuit of status. In addition, there’s the perspective represented by Mark Twain, which depicts a childhood culture of subversion and rebellion that revels in dirt, noise and vulgar language and that demonstrates little regard for private property or the proprieties upheld by adults.

Throughout history, adults have tended to treat children’s culture dismissively or contemptuously, as a trivial, inconsequential world of fun and games that stands in stark contrast to the supposedly rational, sensible, practical and sophisticated world of adults. Yet we shouldn’t be so flippant, for it’s within children’s culture that new sensibilities are formed and new identities are constructed.

Today’s contempt for children’s culture is rooted in nostalgia and guilt. Adults on call 24-7 contrast today’s era of childhood obesity and ADHD and an overpressured, overorganized, hypercommercialized children’s culture with an idealized image of a time when kids amused themselves playing hopscotch, marbles and stickball, and chasing fireflies.

But contempt for children’s culture, in fact, has a long history. During the Progressive era, adults were agitated by kids idling on street corners or playing in streets, “doing nothing.” The Great Depression sparked fears of a “lost generation” that would fall into crime and be susceptible to the appeal of demagogues. Hysteria over youth gangs, black leather jacket–wearing juvenile delinquents and even comic books flourished during the postwar era. The introduction of every technological innovation—beginning with the movies and pinball machines—has provoked apprehension, anxiety and alarm that this would adversely affect children’s development. Perhaps you remember psychologist Jerome L. Singer’s denunciation of TV:

“If you came and found a strange man teaching your kids to punch each other or trying to sell them all kinds of products, you’d kick him right out of your house, but here you are; you come in and the TV is on and you don’t think twice about it.”

Today, there’s a widespread tendency to view children’s culture through a lens of decline or declension. When adults compare contemporary childhood to the one that they remember, they regard today’s world of childhood as a pale, watered-down, barely recognizable imitation.

Today’s children’s culture is subjected to unremitting criticism. Violence, sexism, consumerism, bullying, exclusion and disrespect, we are told, are woven into the very fabric of contemporary children’s culture.

Criticism of contemporary children’s culture doesn’t simply come from moral traditionalists, outraged by the fact that childhood is no longer regarded as a special space that needs to be insulated from adulthood realities of sex, drugs and violence and offended by the kinds of entertainment even young children are exposed to. It also comes from progressive parents, who fear that traditional children’s culture has been overwhelmed by television and video games’ prepackaged fantasies. They worry that contemporary society is immersing kids in a world of images, simulacra and virtual reality, sucking out their imagination and subjecting education and parental authority to blistering attack.

Many fears that free, unstructured play, unsupervised by adults—where kids once learned lessons in independence, teamwork, rule making and dispute resolution—has been supplanted by Sesame Street, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, which, with their fast pace and flashy graphics, supposedly shorten children’s attention spans, blunt their creativity and foster passive, hyperactive and violent behavior.

Meanwhile, marketers prey on the young with all the wiles once reserved for adults, producing brand-conscious kids who define their identities in terms of commercial products. The commercialization, commodification and colonization of children’s culture are watchwords of contemporary cultural criticism.

It’s certainly true: today’s children spend much more alone, engaging in solitary play and sitting in front of screens—TV sets, computers, tablets and video-game players. They bike less and read less than their predecessors and, as a result, the geography of childhood and perhaps their imagination have narrowed. Despite various laws and regulations that are supposed to protect children’s privacy, their data are relentlessly harvested, while their imagination is heavily influenced by commercial popular culture’s commercials, toys, videos and video games.

Many progressive parents also decry the sexism and violence and the taunting and teasing, hazing and bullying, that are still very much a part of kid culture and denounce the corporate colonization of children’s imagination. In the words of one observer, “Parents fear that popular culture is poisoning kids’ minds, producing violence-prone sons and passive, appearance-obsessed daughters.”

I’d be the last to dismiss the argument that we are witnessing a corporate assault on childhood. In one commentator’s words,

“Corporate predators are preying on our children, tempting them with junk food, violent programming, overmedication, isolating virtual reality, social media and much more.”

After the deregulation of advertising to children in the 1980s, marketing expenditures shot through the roof. During the first decade of the 21st century, companies spent about $15 billion annually on advertising targeted at children under 12, up from $7 billion a year a decade earlier, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The average American child now sees about 40,000 advertisements a year. Meanwhile, children wield more consumer power than ever before, receiving allowances that average more than $30 a week. According to a 1997 time use survey, kids spend two and a half hours a week shopping, five times as much as they spend playing outdoors.

Over the past four decades, we’ve witnessed the proliferation of junk foods and advertising in schools. Now, marketing via the internet has allowed marketers to penetrate spaces that were previously off-limits. Trusted organizations, including the National Boys and Girls Clubs, the National Parent-Teacher Association, UNICEF and PBS have partnered with commercial companies in aggressive marketing campaigns.

We’re all familial with the techniques that aggressive marketers deploy:

  • Age compression: targeting marketing of items previously sold to teens or older children to young kids.
  • Tie-ins and spin-offs: taking characters from movies, TV shows and video games and turning them into toys and other objects to be sold.
  • Trans-toying: taking commonplace utilitarian objects and turning them into toys.

Then there’s one of the most striking developments: the creation of “safe” entertainment spaces for kids. While some, like children’s museums or science museums, are nominally nonprofit and educational, others are profit-making, ranging from fast food restaurant playgrounds to birthday party places (like Chuck E. Cheese and laser tag) and water parks.

But maybe the disparagement and denigration of children’s culture is grossly exaggerated.

No compelling evidence suggests that children’s resourcefulness, imagination or ability to play independently has diminished over time, nor is there any empirical evidence to suggest that children are less outgoing or socially competent than in the past.

Since the early 20th century, children have constructed their identities and formed their culture out of symbols, images and stories out of the raw materials provided by popular culture. While many adults assume that children’s consumption of media is purely passive, mind-numbing entertainment, in fact many interactions with media are playful—spontaneous, unstructured and exploratory.

Video games serve a compensatory role in a society in which children’s freedom to roam has been constricted by nervous parents, allowing “home-bound children … to extend their reach, to explore, manipulate and interact with a more diverse range of imaginary places than constitute the often drab, predictable and overly-familiar spaces of their everyday lives.”

Video games also give expression to a new kinds of narrative that is becoming increasingly common in various cultural genres: narratives that “lack the focus on characterization, causality and linear plot development which defines classical storytelling and instead focus on movements through and the occupation of narrative space.”

In addition, children’s increasing engagement with electronic media has heightened adults’ awareness of aspects of children’s play and fantasy lives—especially the violent, the sadistic and the scatological—which have long existed but were previously hidden from view.

In fact, video-game playing and other uses of electronic media are not nearly as isolating as parents sometimes fear. Not only do video-game players often compete against one another, but their game-playing experiences provide the basis for many of their conversations with friends. At a time when individual households and neighborhoods have fewer children, cellphones, instant messaging and apps like Instagram and TikTok provide ways that the young can form and maintain meaningful and supportive relationships and express themselves creatively.

Are there any broad generalizations that we can make?

  • Children do have greater access to commercial entertainment and products than ever before, and marketers do devote much more money and energy to cultivating kids than in the past. Yet, while there can be no doubt, as the Canadian scholar of communication Stephen Kline has argued, that consumer culture shapes children’s experience, from the toys they play with and the media content they consume, and has had a profound impact on their identities, desires and social interactions, children aren’t the passive recipients of popular culture.

Instead, as the Canadian children’s writer Kathleen McConnell has quite rightly observed, kids draw upon popular culture and combine it with other sources of inspiration, including fairy tales, classic myths and works of children’s literature, to create their own imaginative narratives.

  • Although the nature of children’s play and playthings have undergone profound shifts for a host of reasons, including falling birth rates, heightened parental fears for children’s safety and a greater emphasis on early educational enrichment, children’s play still serves its historic functions: to promote kids’ physical development, including their coordination, balance and agility; their social development, teaching kids how to share, take turns, read social cues, navigate problems, develop empathy, cope with frustration and solve problems; and their cognitive development, creating stories, characters and scenarios and making sense of the world around them.
  • It is true, as the late Brian Sutton-Smith insisted, that, over time, children’s play has become less autonomous, self-directed and unstructured and has grown more rule-bound and adult supervised, while toys have become less open-ended. It’s also the case, as Howard P. Chudacoff has demonstrated, that play activities are much more likely to take place indoors or in commercial spaces, that the toys and games that children play with are more likely to be manufactured and promoted by marketers and that the number and range of participants and the degree of self-direction has narrowed.

But play has always been the product of a particular social and cultural context. Children today will enter a world that differs radically from their parents—more digital, technologically mediated and dependent upon virtual connections and cross-cultural interactions. That’s the world that today’s children’s culture is preparing them for.

  • As the psychologists Jerome L. Singer and Dorothy G. Singer have argued, imagination, daydreaming and fantasy play a critical role in children’s cognitive and emotional development and help them understand their environment, work through problems, cope with stress, experiment with different roles, understand other people’s perspectives and develop creativity, social skills and a sense of agency.

Thus, we should be careful before we are overly judgmental or hypercritical or captious. As Kathleen McConnell has persuasively argued, in a society that historically has given short shrift to girls’ experiences, girls’ play, with its emphasis on friendship, fairy princesses and talking animals, tends to be “girl-positive,” placing girls’ interests front and center.

Somewhat similarly, boys’ culture, with its emphasis on competition, quests, adventure and often on violence, is “an attempt to grapple with the whole notion of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of good guys and bad guys.”

  • The commercialization of childhood can be restrained. It appears that the most affluent, best educated parents have been quite successful in reducing their children’s level of consumer involvement. Their kids watch much less TV and are much more engaged in noncommercial activities. Poorer parents, unfortunately, have fewer opportunities to find alternatives to excessive television viewing and video-game playing. Evidence suggests that grassroots activism is effective in combating the commercialization of childhood and some societies, such as Sweden, have been far more successful than the United States in restricting advertising to children and in integrating outdoor recreation and free, unstructured play into schooling.

Today’s society may not have the full-blown filial rebellions and Oedipal conflicts that racked many Victorian families, but it is still the case that relations between today’s parents and children and teachers and their pupils are often tugs-of-war involving negotiation and struggle, with children challenging and contesting parental and teacherly authority through argument and various acts of outright or passive resistance.

Much of contemporary children’s culture is subtly subversive of the values of the adult world, providing a critical perspective on the world that adults have created. It tends to invert the values of adult society and to free children to be disobedient and disrespectful of authority. It is, as Kathleen McConnell has shown, a culture filled with bathroom humor and a fascination with bodily functions that adult society hides. It is a culture of “moron” jokes poking fun at stupid and incompetent adults. It is a culture that takes delight in using “dirty” words and fascination with all that is gross, slimy and ugly.

It is also a culture under siege.

Even as many American kids enjoy electronics and privileges unimaginable a generation ago, their childhood has also become more regulated, regimented, monitored and managed. Kids are indulged but also marginalized, segregated and juvenilized.

For a generation, adults have engaged in cultural cold war with their own kids. And this war is all the more unsettling because it is motivated by a deeply held belief among adults that it is waged for children’s own good, that it will make children safer, promote their cognitive development and make them more competitive in a global economy.

The spaces of childhood have become more circumscribed, and children’s freedom of movement has diminished. Some of the daring and danger of childhood has been eradicated. Fun-free playgrounds have proliferated, stripped of jungle gyms and hiding places and even swings, impoverishing childhood by removing some of its risks. Rough-and-tumble play has been banished from school playgrounds in order to protect children from bullying. And adults increasingly intrude in children’s everyday interactions in order to discourage teasing, scapegoating and exclusion. Meanwhile, playthings with prepackaged fantasies have multiplied.

Ours is a culture that claims to love children, but the reality is much more ambiguous. Upper-middle-class parents tend to treat their own children as a project, who need to be protected and perfected, while regarding other children as a problem. In particular, children’s culture is treated as problematic. Rather than giving children the time and space that they need to play and improvise, there is a tendency, at least among the upper middle class, to overpressure, overorganize and overstructure their lives and impose excessive demands for early achievement.

To be sure, children remain capable of finding joy, companionship and a degree of autonomy. Still, it is a sad commentary that American society’s most privileged and best educated parents, who, for the most part had unprecedented opportunities for free, unstructured play, have lost sight children’s fundamental task: to develop the social and interpersonal skills and imagination and creativity that they will need throughout their lives.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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