Do media messages encourage people to have children to relive their childhoods? I'm seeing more and more advertising that seems to be enticing viewers to relive imaginary, idealized childhoods by having kids. For example, it's hard to avoid those cloyingly nostalgic black and white Rice Krispies commercials, running regularly on almost every channel these days.
We see a Mother (never a father) playing with a young child (usually a girl) and eating Rice Krispies. The imagery is primarily black and white. The characters are wearing clothes from the 1950's. The Mother and Child lift the cereal bowl in the air, listening rapturously to the "snap, crackle, and pop." A sentimental, yet very authoritative female voice says simply, "Childhood is calling..."
Who can resist this appeal? It's tough viewing for childfree and childless people - that syrupy, sappy authoritative suggestion that having kids is the ultimate experience - a ticket straight back to childhood. Ironically, people sometimes comment that people without kids never grow up. Yet, is emotional dependency on a child indicative of mature adulthood?
As kids, most of us lost teeth to sticky Rice Krispy treats, or ate the snappy rice pellets before heading out for school and like the product. But, what is this commercial really selling? My thought is that the product is just a vehicle for the idea of 1950's-style June Cleaver stay-at-home Motherhood - not childhood, not coupled parenthood. A father never appears on the scene. Once again, advertising targets women - elevating Motherhood over marriage or mature adult partnerships.
Many ads exploit the fact that adults living in stressful times naturally long for the perceived security of childhood and the good-old-days. The Rice Krispies ads are set in the coveted 1950's and are so perfect-looking they refute memories of cold war paranoia. The commercials push the idea that the best way back to that idealized security of childhood is to have a kid. Of course they do! American kids eat lots of cereal.
Psychologist and author Erica Burman writes, "Children and rural landscapes have long connoted 'naturalness', goodness and health...They evoke in the adult purchaser a nostalgic recollection of consuming this product as a child and thereby recovering a romanticised version of their childhood either by consuming it themselves, or by providing it for their children's consumption." (1)
Don't get me wrong. I don't think there is anything wrong with appreciating our childhood memories, or immature in embracing our "inner-child." Artists often seek out the powerful insights, spontaneity and joy of un-self-conscious, childlike creativity.
Many revered artists tapped into the mysterious spirit of childhood. Think of the bright playfulness of the work of Chagall, Miro, Haring. The creators of the magical Curious George series of children's books, Margret and H.A. Rey, were happily childfree, while managing to capture the imagination of generations of children.
But, advertisers are not interested in nurturing creativity - other than procreation. They are interested in selling products. More kids equals more good little consumers. Kids greatly influence parental buying decisions. And, ironically, advertisers don't care if a product is particularly good for kids, or the environment.
I found the following statements on a toy store website, "We can now reconnect with our childhood by buying children's toys for the little ones in our lives...We can gift them the best children's toys and relive our childhood days."
Where is the responsibility here? Bombarding people with advertising imagery of idealized, idyllic child-parent relationships makes parenting attractive as a psychological blockade to a host of adult fears and responsibilities. The people most receptive to this pressure are the most insecure and troubled among us - the ones least able to function as responsible parents.
And what about parenting is childlike or childish? Parenting means (should mean) endless, constant worry and responsibility for a helpless being. Responsible parents are strong role models for their kids, not needy, clinging co-dependent adults. Deciding to have a kid to remain a child seems to me one of the worst decisions someone could make.
I was talking with a high-school friend the other day - now a happy parent of a really kind, patient teenage girl. Her daughter is on the verge of leaving home to attend college out of state. My friend and I meet at her apartment for coffee or lunch while she waits for her daughter to come home from school. I leave soon after, and they settle in to share an afternoon of her daughter's interests and activities.
My friend quit a stressful job before giving birth and deliberately retreated to a safe, familiar childhood world (literally, the basement playroom) - experienced entirely through the eyes of her daughter. As I leave her apartment, she often looks at me sadly and says, "What are you going to do for the rest of the day? I feel so bad you are alone."
This woman can't imagine life or relationships outside of the realm of her protracted childhood world - kid's TV, kids books, parties, toys, homework. It doesn't matter what sorts of jobs, activities and other relationships I have. She thinks adult life without kids isn't really real - in her mind I am alone.
Yet, how genuine is living solely through the experiences of another person? When I ask my friend about her plans after her daughter leaves home she looks fearful for a moment then replies, "Well, we're going to spend the first year visiting Katie every other weekend, and on other weekends she'll be here, so there's all that traveling to plan for..."
I wonder if my friend will someday find a way to fill her days with her own activities, or will she anxiously await grand kids so she can immerse herself in a sheltered childhood world yet again. Is there a product out there somewhere that can fill the void while she waits?
1.Burman, E. (1994) 'Poor children: charity appeals and ideologies of childhood, Changes: An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, (1), pp. 29-36.