28 September 2011

Reasons for parental censorship

Follow-up to Censorship.

There are a lot of ways to be a dad. As always, what I’m writing here is meant as a partial explanation of what I do, never a rebuke of any other parent.


The Merch.

Unfortunately this graphic got squunched when Penny Arcade redesigned their web site.

This is, of course, not to be taken seriously. It’s an insane exaggeration of American kids’ media diet. But it’s still recognizable, right? It’s really only about ten thousand times worse than the real thing. The punch wouldn’t land otherwise. There would be no joke.

This is my mutant power: I am ten thousand times more sensitive to people cynically manipulating my kids and monetizing their innocence than any normal human being. So my gut reaction to ordinary ads is like your reaction to the Merch.

I’m not the only one.


My analysis of the situation is like this.

  • Ronald McDonald exists to market unhealthy food directly to kids. (Of course it’s the parent’s job to limit McDonald’s visits to harmless levels, but the fact remains.)
  • It works. Ronald really does get kids to talk their parents into going to McDonald’s more often. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t buy the ads.
  • The guy is not even a compelling character. The Trix Rabbit has more going for him, and that dude is pathetic. This is the real nail in the coffin.

I honestly didn’t set out to be this harsh, but seriously? Maybe nobody should tolerate Ronald McDonald. Just a thought.

The reason I banned Ronald is not because he is loathsome (though I am unsurprised to find, on closer consideration, that he is), but because I try to minimize my kids’ ad intake.


Maybe I should climb down from the word censorship here, because I think the word itself might have been the main problem the initial post poses. But I think it is basically the right word, so I’m not going to do that.

Anyway I want to counter the impression that what we’re doing is fantastically weird. It’s not. All kids live in mediated environments.

If your kids have a healthy diet, it might be because you let them choose all their meals and they have taken the responsibility to heart and make good choices. If so, good for you—you rock, and your kids are amazing. But maybe, like all parents I know, you’ve been practicing some amount of food censorship. OMG you Nazi! Me too.

It’s the same way with media, only instead of their bodies, media feeds their minds. We don’t eliminate french fries entirely from our kids’ diets, and we don’t entirely eliminate ads. But we moderate. In both cases we just think they’re better off that way. That’s all.

Every parent selects the stuff their kid is exposed to. That’s the job. Not making a choice means you’re making the default choice for your community, and you can do it that way—but to the degree that you choose not to, you have to somehow make that choice stick, which means constraining something.

Most of us do take most of the defaults; that’s what it is to live in a particular culture (though for that matter I think it is a totally fair choice to retreat radically from that culture and reject most of the defaults, as some families and fringe subcultures do). But most of us also have particular non-default parenting policies on things we care about. That is normal.


On average, advertisements are bad for you.

Some are designed to make you want things, and want is a sorry state.

Many are designed to get you to associate a brand with a good feeling for no rational reason whatsoever, a tactic I think I should find insulting.

And many are actually designed to deceive or misdirect, which is even worse.

The ones targeted at kids are worse again.


Our kids lead actively curated media lives. When we go to the library, I spend an hour picking out the books that we’ll take home. I want to find books that are near their reading level, stuff they’ll really get into and which will challenge them. I want both fiction and nonfiction. I want stories from other places and times. That is not censorship. But I do sometimes set a book aside because it’s dumb. Or because it’s about the Super Friends. That is censorship.

The TV is not always on in our house. Right now it’s not even plugged in. We do use it from time to time, but what our kids watch is pretty limited. That is censorship. (Come to think of it, every parent I know censors their kids’ TV intake.)

And as I mentioned, our kids see fewer ads targeted at them than most kids.

Why bother with all this? These three things are of a piece. Books chosen with taste, less TV, less advertising. I want kids with active minds and bodies, with things worth thinking about in their heads. Now it is possible that J. will occupy himself with whatever trivial thing is at hand, whether it’s put in his head by an ad or a book or game. It is, in fact, possible that no choice I make as a parent matters, and that the unforgeable signal of my own long-run behavior is the only contribution I can hope to make. That’s what Stephen Dubner thinks: it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. Maybe. But it’s a mistake to give too much weight to any generalization about parenting. There are a lot of variables. I’ll hedge my bets and keep doing things.


If I went with the flow in every instance, I would be doing totally generic American parenting—the straight-up propagation of American culture as it is. I don’t quite do that, because there are a few things about American culture that I do not like.

There’s a lot to like, in my view; but of course there are also things like sexism. Racism. Callousness. Commercialism. Media sensationalism. Conspiracy theories. Partisanship. The question with all these issues is not if but when.

It would be an easy question except that it seems like there is such a thing as too soon, if you want to encourage your kids to think the issues through for themselves. We went to the Pink Palace and saw the mechanical circus. If you have never seen this thing, you should go. It’s based on real circuses that traveled the South in the 1930s. The artist, Clyde Parke, worked full-time for thirty years whittling, painting, and animating all the little figures. Anyway—I figured J. is old enough to know about racism, but maybe it undermines that statement that right after I pointed out the segregated wooden crowd at the wooden circus, and explained why it was like that, I made sure to tell him exactly what I think about it. Which at this age is the same thing as telling him what to think about it.


You can take Fancy Nancy the way it’s intended, or you can take it as a revolting celebration of stereotypical feminine superficiality. Maybe neither view alone is sufficient. Anyway, Fancy Nancy stuff we get as gifts goes straight to Goodwill.

I don’t want to censor what a fifteen-year-old reads. That would be silly—by then whatever I’m doing here will be over. But I’ll be quietly fighting the soft sexism of low expectations at least until my daughter is old enough to consider new things critically. If she’s not a starship navigator when she grows up, that is going to be her choice. It’s not going to be because at a tender age there was a sparkly book that taught her A is for Accessories.


If our kids did watch a lot of TV and were up on current events in consumerland, they might be better able to blend in with other kids their age.

But you know... that’s a sucker’s game.

Everyone likely to read this remembers being different as a kid, and I imagine most of us remember trying to blend in. How did that work out for you? Did you successfully blend in by having and liking all the right things? Are you still trying to? If not, why not? Maybe because it’s stupid?

Inevitably, as my kids get older, they’ll find out all about Barbies and Ronald McDonald. The key thing here is, when that happens, it doesn’t mean I lose. The question is what happens next. Maybe my kid will think, “I can’t believe my dad never let me have this wonderful thing. I was so deprived.” If so, fine, I shouldn’t have bothered. I’ll admit it. But if they think, “hmm, that’s kind of dumb,” it’ll mean my country has one more person in it with their head on straight.

Our approach is neither thoroughly researched nor consistently
carried out. We’ll see how it goes.

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