Speaking up, and speaking out, to let children be children

Every now and then, a provocative voice comes along that quietly commands attention and respect. Intelligent and eloquent, it rises above the din of clichés and talk-show shouting matches, offering a moral imperative that whispers: Listen. Heed.

These days, that voice belongs to Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England. Concerned about the well-being of children, he launched a strong attack last week on the ways in which a consumer society affects the lives of its youngest members, stripping them of their childhood.

He laments a pervasive marketing culture that "openly feeds and colludes with obsession." He mourns the premature sexualization of children. He objects to expensive computer games. And he opposes the commercial tie-ins that link movies and television with toys, comics, and food. In particular, he singles out the Walt Disney Co. for developing this to an "unprecedented pitch."

Disney officials refute the charge, claiming that they strive for "community, decency, and optimism."

Dr. Williams, the current Archbishop of Wales, initially outlined some of these concerns in "Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement," an essay on modern culture published in England in 2000.

For him, such family-centered concerns are far from theoretical. He and his wife have two children, ages 14 and 6. Their presence, in fact, will mark the first time in 120 years that children have lived in Lambeth Palace, the archbishop's residence in London. In another reality check, Williams is also a fan of "The Simpsons" on television.

His is hardly the first voice to lament the loss of childhood. Twenty years ago, social critic Neil Postman mourned the decline of innocence in his bestseller, "The Disappearance of Childhood." And David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University, has explored similar themes in "Reinventing Childhood" and "The Hurried Child."

Today, Professor Elkind says, parents face a difficult role. Until several decades ago, society supported parents. The education system was child-centered, he notes, and adults routinely screened books, TV, and radio to make sure children were not exposed to inappropriate material.

"Now we've gone the other direction," Elkind says. "It is no longer possible for parents to expect other institutions to support healthy parenting, whether it's the schools, media, or advertisers."

As a result, parents must be proactive. Rather than simply waiting and reacting, they must take the initiative and make choices about television and food. "They have to fight the advertisers who are selling kids foods that are not healthy or clothes that are not appropriate."

Elkind calls on advertisers and the media to be more responsible. "We've been so concerned with violence and sexuality that we've ignored the fact that childhood is commercialized. We're teaching children to be purchasers of all sorts of things which are unhealthy."

Parents remain the ultimate gatekeepers. But they – we – can be unwitting conspirators with marketers We wring our hands in dismay. But then, weary of the "nag factor" and "pester power," we cave in, reach for our wallets, and buy. After all, we reason, that's one measure of parental love, isn't it?

Consumerism, like charity, begins at home.

A London Times reader, praising Williams in a letter to the editor, suggests a partial solution. He writes: "It is high time for thunder from the pulpit."

It will take more than ecclesiastical thunder to change the tactics of sophisticated marketers who cleverly lure even toddlers into their lair. But the letter writer is right. If clergy members, parents, and teachers all began to shake off timidity and oppose the excesses of consumerism that affect children, the results could be heartening.

The archbishop's comments may be well timed. The roller-coaster stock market, rattling Americans' belief in unending prosperity and forcing a measure of belt-tightening, could aid his anti-consumer mission.

It is impossible to insulate children from the world around them. But the archbishop's remarks, echoing through the voices of other concerned adults, just might embolden parents, giving them courage to take a stand against the acquisition of more, more, more.

However unpopular it might be, that tiny, two-letter word, N-O, judiciously used, can still produce powerful effects.

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