Protecting our Children – from our own nasty habits.

What could be wrong with wanting to protect our children from rampant
commercialisation and inappropriate sexualisation? Even the most
die-hard opponent of current government reform must – surely – approve
of the new measures pre-announced in the press today to “stop
retailers selling inappropriate clothes for pre-teens and to shield
children from sexualised imagery across all media”?…

Well, call me a knee-jerk oppositionalist, but I’m not sure that I do.

(I suppose I shouldn’t pre-empt the actual report, but as the
Government these days seems so determined to use the media to announce
policy, rather than parliament, I’ll comment on what’s in front of me.
I’ll eat my words later if I misjudged.)

Problem 1: the proposals are too narrow. “Retailers would be required
to sign up to a new code preventing the sale of items for pre-teens
with suggestive slogans, which the prime minister has repeatedly
criticised.” Aside from the fact that I don’t want to live in a world
where the definition of unacceptability is ‘things the prime minister
has repeatedly criticised’, I am as offended by T-shirts that
stereotype boys as dirty little mischief-makers and girls as
attention-seeking, hysterical divas as I am by the ones with overt
sexual messages. So an approach which properly addressed sexual
stereotyping (which is part of what enables subsequent objectification
and sexualisation) would cover much more than T-shirts saying ‘future
gold-digger’, or pre-teen padded bras.

Problem 2: the proposals have no teeth. A robust approach would do
rather more than ask retailers to sign up to a (voluntary) code, or
expect the ASA to ‘discourage’ inappropriate advertising close to
schools and nurseries (because of course, children never go to shops,
or stations or sporting venues or any other public spaces).
Pre-watershed viewing already generally excludes images of sex and
violence (though I do agree that many music videos are grotesque in
the way they objectify women) but even after the implementation of
proposed new arrangements pre-watershed viewing will still, no doubt,
include adverts for Lelli Kelly shoes (Grrr!), fatty, sugary or salty
foods, adverts that breach the WHO code of practice on breast milk
substitutes etc. and adverts which promote ridiculous gender
stereotypes. If we are serious about protecting our children from
commercialisation and sexualisation, we should seriously consider
outlawing all advertising during programmes aimed at children (and
yes, I know the argument that we will only be able to afford to make
children’s TV if we can generate revenues from advertising to them;
we’d find a way, if we tried).

Of course, it’s possible that the proposals don’t actually need teeth
because I note, by the way, that in keeping with the government’s
general rigour about evidence-based policy-making “Ofcom currently has
no figures on the number of complaints made about pre-watershed
material by parents.” Hmmm.

And there’s the futile suggestion about age verification on internet
access. Of course age can’t be verified over the internet! I don’t see
how it can. Are we going to chip and pin our children at birth, so
that their internet usage can always be checked as ‘age appropriate’.
Most children I know who are accessing sites above their age range
have been initially supported in doing so by their parents. I may not
agree with all their judgements, but I do agree that it is their
responsibility to judge when their children are old enough to access
particular content.

Problem 3: the new ‘vested interests’. There’s a proposed website – of
course! a website – to “act as an interface” (or as I call it, “to get
in between”) parents and regulators. So, yet another government policy
which includes an IT project. And this one, we’re told, Mumsnet have
offered to host. That’s Mumsnet, with whom the British Retail
Consortium has held a consultation (as opposed to holding one with a
broader range of parents), and Mumsnet with their campaign slogan “Let
Girls Be Girls” – as opposed to, erm “Let Children Be Children” (or
anything else non-stereotyping). Let me say that I don’t have anything
particular against Mumsnet, but like David Cameron, they don’t speak
for me.

The real problem: isn’t with the proposals at all, despite the flaws I
have outlined above. The real problem lies with many adults,
including, in some cases, parents. The Guardian says the report finds
that “some parts of the business world and sections of the media seem
to have lost their connection to parents. We are living in an
increasingly sexual and sexualised culture although it is far from
clear how we arrived at this point. Many parents feel this culture is
often inappropriate for their children and they want more power to say

Parents have the power to say no. We can switch off the television; we
can refuse to buy the products that are pressed on us so solicitously;
we can be good role models for our children. It is not ‘far from
clear’ how we have arrived at this point. It is obvious. As a culture
we have allowed the demands of business, and in particlar the
profitability of business, to be seen as a greater good than the needs
and interests of our children and the adults we hope they will become.
We – the adults – are the consumers of this stuff, though we appear to
be ashamed of it and want to hide our habits from our children. I
don’t want ladmags concealed in brown paper wrappings in the newsagent
because they are not suitable for children. I want them off the
shelves entirely because the casual objectification of women is not
good for adults of any gender. If we think we can facilitate a
commercialised and sexualised world for adults, and that corporations
whose only interest is profit will voluntarily protect our children
from the consequences of that, we are fools.

I don’t want David Cameron dictating what slogans my children wear on
their T-shirts and I don’t want Mumsnet as an ‘interface’ between me
and the regulator. I do want to see a less commercialised and less
sexualised world for us all, not just for children. I don’t believe
any voluntary code of practice will deliver that. So I will remain
responsible for my buying decisions, and I will take positive steps to
help my children process and deal with the barrage of confusing images
they are subjected to. I urge other parents to do likewise.


8 thoughts on “Protecting our Children – from our own nasty habits.

  1. I can’t comment on the guidelines until I’ve seen them but I completely agree with your points regarding advertising to children and that parents have the power to say no. Sadly it seems parents are so desperate for their child to conform with their peers, that No is rarely used. After all we don’t want little tabitha and tarquin getting upset and making their parents look bad to the outside world.

  2. I’ve had some positive comments about this blog, many along the lines of "you’re right, there’s no need for regulation, parents just need to get better at saying no".It is true, parents do have the power to say no to children, we don’t always exercise this power actively or responsibly (me included) and we could all probably become wiser and less consumerist in our ways. BUT… the main point that I wanted to make here was that all adults – not just parents – are creating an over-commercialised and over-sexualised environment. If we feel we want to protect our children from that, we should ask ourselves why we want to conceal these attitudes from our children. I am suggesting that this culture is pernicious for adults too. And we know it, which is why we don’t want children to be exposed to it.So it may be that I am in favour of regulation if it were framed in the right way. Just not regulation that prevents children from seeing what we are like as adults. We adults need to get better at regulating our own behaviour, so that we do not feel exposed when our children see us as we really are.

  3. I’m obviously a knee-jerk oppositionalist too!My daughter was around 6 years old when David Cameron announced to the world that his children were banned from listening to Lily Allen; her reaction was "But you let me listen to her – and Amy Winehouse!". Whilst this probably makes me a bad parent in the eyes of Cameron, it actually led to a fascinating conversation about censorship and parental responsibility, and how it’s possible to like the music an artist produces without necessarily advocating their lifestyle choices… (and, incidentally, why the version on my ipod is different to the version she hears on the radio!)There are very few "right answers" in parenting, so I try not to get too annoyed at David Cameron for saying No to his kids in this case. I think parenting is about your own priorities, and should be value-led. My daughter is excited by and passionate about music; that is far more important to me than worrying about occasionally dubious word choices (words she hears anyway – not at home, but when playing with the neighbours kids – again, I think it’s more important that she has kids to play with than to worry about whether they say bad words).Our children may grow up and rebel against us. They may reject our values and our lifestyle choices. But they should at least know that we have values, and that we made our choices for reasons which were important to us at the time. We cannot do that without showing our children who we are as people (rather than just being "Mum/Dad"). And that does involve making a stand sometimes,and saying no. As long as we are willing to talk about why we are taking a stand, why we are saying no, and talk honestly to our children.Banning stuff because it appears bad doesn’t solve the underlying problem – talking honestly and openly about the problem is surely a more constructive option. And if we begin to ban things we (or the govt.) don’t approve of, we will lose many opportunities for random and interesting conversations and, ultimately, many opportunities for teaching our children about our own values, and influencing theirs.

  4. Hit the nail on the head.It’s not just our children – it’s how society chooses to behave. It is easy to blame the US rappers and pop stars, but until the likes of Marks & Spencer, who are continually putting up their lingerie posters in the centre of towns and TV commercials, realise that they’re "part of the act" then we won’t achieve anything. This is more than clamping down on a pair of toddler’s high heeled booties.

  5. I’m not a parent (not by choice) but it does alarm me that government (mainly wealthy white men) feel that the know best for parents than they do themselves. I agree that these tshirts with sexy slogans (actually I live in an indedibly poor area of N London and have never seen the "wag in training" tshirt on a child that was spluttered about in the Daily Fail) are inappropriate, but the example that shocked me was banning of black bras.1. I have mostly black sports bras. Less sexy garments cannot be imagined.2. Black girls and women often choose to wear black bras under white tops- the contrast with skin colour of a white bra makes it very visible. It is not the colour of the bra that matters at all. Why should young girls wear only plain white bras? Utterly preposterous.

  6. Lots of crazy banning talk and not much commonsense about. And of course, skin colour makes a difference to what you choose to wear and why should men be obsessing about underwear anyway….*sigh*

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