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Consuming creativity

The other day I wrote about “media values” — making sure that the media you allow your children to use reflects your family’s values. That made me think more in-depth about one value that my husband and I share that is probably deeper than almost anything else: we want our kids to be creators, not consumers.

Just watch a little mainstream media for a while to get an idea of what mainstream culture wants our kids to be: consumer, shopper, audience, viewer, buyer, fan…

The words that advertisers use, and that many politicians use, to describe us imply that we are passive. We are here to accept what is given. Advertisers try to figure out what they can get us to buy. Politicians try to figure out what we believe so that they can say what we want to hear. Entertainers try to be the Next Big Thing. We are seldom asked to think for ourselves, to excite our individuality, to question our values, to give back.

We are consumers. We consume.

The problem is, we aren’t. Not all of us. We used to be a nation of cantankerous, argumentative, opinionated individualists. Yes, of course, there were plenty of consumers then, too. Every society is made up, in part, by the people who follow. If we were all leaders, we wouldn’t get anywhere! But people who think critically, who want our society to progress, who get excited by what is unknown, who always wonder what the future will hold — those people are the ones who made up our national character.

I’m thinking Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Steve Jobs… Name your favorite person who didn’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it for them.

What most kids use media for is consumption. And I’m not totally exempting my kids or even myself. Sometimes our very high energy daughter wants to veg out. Sometimes our son wants to watch something because his friends have.

But what we hope that we’re imparting to them is the importance of not letting consumption define their lives. I like nice stuff as much as the next person — I’ve definitely never been attracted to anti-ownership political philosophies. But when you let your stuff define you — what soda you drink, what brand of shoes you wear — I really can’t imagine that real personal fulfillment is possible.

My husband and I have pursued completely different paths in our careers, but we have the common goal of being creative in our work. The highest praise he can give his day when he comes home is, “I got so much done — I felt so creative!” And I felt in despair when my kids were really little and I felt that all my creative energy was going into changing diapers. Now, though I still make sure to be creative outside of being a parent, I’ve found a way to derive creative satisfaction from taking care of my kids.

An organization I’ve followed for a while now is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Their main thesis is that kids shouldn’t be targeted as consumers. This makes sense on a lot of levels. Just on the level of daily life, it seems unfair to target advertising at kids, who don’t know how to evaluate it, and who are led to want things that are (almost always) not good for them.

On a deeper level, kids should not be treated as consumers because they are the purest expression of creativity in humans. As Picasso said (or so I’ve read), I spent two years learning to paint like an adult and then the rest of my life trying to learn how to paint like a child again. Kids are natural creators. They are born wanting to explore and learn, and it’s only socialization that stops that process.

Lucky kids grow up in families who treasure creativity, and get education where creativity is not actively stifled. But most modern kids aren’t lucky in that respect. School is no longer a place where you go to learn and grow; it’s the place where you go to get fed facts for standardized tests. The problem is, becoming a competent, happy, productive adult never had anything to do with consuming a set of predetermined facts. When my husband interviews job candidates, he wants to know how excited they are to solve problems, not if they can spew disconnected facts. He wants them to be literate and facile at the sorts of communication they will have to do. It is unlikely that they’ll ever have to take another standardized test, but can they figure out how to solve a gnarly problem that their group comes up with? Will they seek out problems and solve them without being told what to do? Will they not just sit back and be consumers?

I remember a few years ago when there was a lot of talk about how the US was a “service economy” and that we should just get used to the and “retrain our workers” for this “service economy.” The whole idea sounded utterly repugnant to me! I know that for some people, various types of service are very rewarding, very fulfilling, and stimulate their creativity. But I know that those people are not all or even most of us. We all find different ways to be productive, and to think of a society in which everyone is forced into one sort of job — that’s a society in which most people would have no choice but to consume for their happiness.

It occurs to me that the people who thought of this “service economy” idea were largely politicians who are, in fact, the type of person who gets fired up over service. But clearly, we are not all that way. The best future I can think of for our country is one in which we allow enough opportunities for learning that most of us can find the occupation in life (or the several occupations, as it happens for some of us) where we feel productive and creative.

But how could we have a future like that? It comes back to parents. We need to see the television as the tool it is: a tool for relaxation and communication. Television can’t be the center of a healthy culture, because it’s all about the few creating for the many consumers. We need to turn off the TV and get our kids figuring out who they are. And how do that do that? With ample time for playing, working, and dreaming. With a society who gets excited to see a child growing, wondering, who will this child be? What will this child do?

The average amount of time children spend watching and consuming is distressing, but even more distressing are the parents who don’t see any way to stop it. There’s an off button, folks. And if they won’t use it, heck, there’s even the circuit breaker. Go for it. Turn it off, look at each other, and say, What are we going to do now?

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

3 Responses

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  1. Suki Wessling says

    One of my readers on Facebook posted this comment: A news article this morning on NPR notes that what drives the U. S. economy is consumer consumption. There was an air of hand wringing and breast beating as the commentator noted that we are becoming a saver nation with personal saving rising from about zero to five percent. What this says, IMHO, is that Madison Avenue will be ramping up the spin … Read Moremachines to drive the public back to the malls.

    For an interesting study of the rise of the consumer society watch the brilliant series by the BBC, “The Century of the Self.” Part I can be found at

  2. Suki Wessling says

    Another Facebook reader who had trouble registering for this site sent me this comment: I like the things you are thinking about and the way you think. In respect to this comment of yours ” But people who think critically, who want our society to progress, who get excited by what is unknown, who always … Read Morewonder what the future will hold — those people are the ones who made up our national character.” – have you heard about “The Millenial Generation”? It’s a social phenomenon with those born around 1990 and one of their trademarks is that they lack critical thinking skills. This is so true of my niece who was born in 1989. If she hasn’t seen something advertised, then she has no interest in it, and she seems completely unaware of how completely brainwashed she is by advertisers. Being plugged in for most of their lives has created many negative outcomes for “the millenial generation”. We need to do everything we can to unplug our children and get them interacting with other people and their own thoughts!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Household economies – Avant Parenting linked to this post on November 14, 2009

    […] (and find that we enjoy it more that way). We try (and sometimes succeed) to help our kids learn not to be mindless consumers, but rather only spend money on things they really need or will use […]

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