Finding Our Way Through Mass Culture

Living in the U.S.A. in the latter part of the twentieth century, it's virtually impossible to avoid mass culture and its influence on our socialization and values. Everywhere, children and adults are bombarded: TV, movies, video, radio, books, newspapers, toys, comic books, billboards, friends and neighbors, etc., etc., etc.. Through all of these media we are pounded with messages that glorify consumerism, reinforce sexual stereotypes, and trivialize and homogenize anything if it will turn a buck. We literally breathe in myths about beauty, success, money, sex, violence, power, happiness, good, and evil.

Few of us like the distorted sense of life that mass culture promotes. Many of us hate it--particularly when we see that our children are so susceptible to its distortions and lies. As adults, we too are affected by this culture. We may want a product that's the latest thing, but rarely with the intensity and concentration of a child who feels that life is just not worth living without it.

In can be hard to know how to communicate with our children about those values of mass culture that we find repellent--particularly if the child has already been seduced by the commercialized allure of a particular toy, fashion, or script. By this time, there may already be a values conflict. The load of unprocessed disgust that we may have about what the child wants at this point is rarely of use to a child who's already in the process of values formation. Our disgust can easily get in the way of any kind of successful communication.

I've been trying to figure out for years what to do about the junky little plastic toys that come into our house--as birthday gifts, from their friends, even as tokens from us to show that we're flexible on our values about quality playthings--and break on the second day. I HATE them. It's hard at the time to think of anything that I hate more. I hate how cheap and glitzy they look. I hate what they symbolize about the distorted values of our country. I hate how those people don't care what they do to children so long as they can make a profit. I hate how deeply disappointed my child gets over a broken piece of shallow exploitative junk, and how powerless I feel in the face of that deep disappointment.

There's nothing wrong with hating all of this, but what predictably ends up happening is that I take it out on the children. "I can't help it," I say, in a voice loaded with frustration. "It's a piece of JUNK! Of course it broke!" Hurt and confusion at their mother's unfeeling response is now added to the grief over having such a wonderful toy broken. I show no indication of caring either about his special new toy, or about his feelings at losing it.

I've only recently begun to figure out how to communicate both my passion and my values in this area without blaming my child or his choices. "It makes me so mad," I say. "The people who made up that toy just didn't care at all about how the children would feel when it broke. All they cared about was making a lot of money for themselves. I'm sorry, sweetie; I wish it weren't that way." My feelings haven't changed. My values haven't changed. But I've talked about it in a way that clearly indicates that I'm on the child's side.

The more I'm able to do this, the more information they'll actually be able to take in about how the commercialized culture operates and how they fit into it. It may not change their choices or wants in the present, but it will provide them with a larger context for making sense of their world. Most important, it will enable them to continue to use me as an ally as they try to find their way through this maze of conflicting values.