Most parents submit to their children's demands to buy junk they've seen advertised on TV. Even if they manage to hold the line on sugared cereal, they can't quite make the detour around "The Incredible Hulk." Why are parents so much putty in the hands of their children?
Some would argue that children do whatever they want these days, that adults have lost all control over their behavior. This is not quite true. There are still some areas where nearly all children are told what is what.
You don't see, for example, many 5-year-old American children running about nude in front of their houses in balmy weather. This, of course, is quite acceptable in other cultures. It is a pleasant, easy thing for a 5-year-old to do - a natural and human thing to do.
But our society, for whatever reason, says no. Regardless of the children's desires or opinions on the subject, they do as they ar told, simply because their parents believe this is something important. You absolutely do not take off your clothes in public. Children sense this firm conviction and obey the rule with very little fuss.
But riding by the "Count Chocula" in the grocery cart, they sense something quite different. That calm assurance is replaced by guilt and indecision. "I don't really want you to have this," the unspoken message reads, "but if you whine long enough I will buy it for you." Little children have spent many hours studying their parents' faces, and they are experts at discerning fine lines of irresolution. "Maybe I shouldn't deprive you of this," the parents think, "especially when you seem to want it so badly."
The knowledge that the stuff is vulgar, overpriced and unworthy of children succumbs to the need to allow the little ones a momentary pleasure, a pleasure they surely deserve.
Where does this notion come from, that people deserve to possess things, regardless of their usefulness or quality? It comes for the most part from advertising. Adult advertising.
"Do whatever you want to do, be whatever you want to be, buy whatever you want to buy." The refrain is so pervasive that people have come to expect it of themselves. Who can live the way they do in the charge-card commercials, breezing their way through department stores, picking up a bedroom set here, a dining room table there? Fantasy people. No one but the superrich can charge their way through life. But the message we so eagerly accept is that everyone has a right, even an obligation, to buy whatever is advertised.
And when the accumulation of shoddy possessions only sharpens the craving for things, when things themselves fail to satisfy, bringing only an inward yawn of anguished boredom, people feel guilty. Somehow they have failed to live up to the image that advertising has so artfully instilled.
So the whole package of guilt, desire and disappointment is passed along to the children in the time it takes to walk down the supermarket aisle. No wonder children are forever demanding, forever discontented.
Children's appeals for junk have now reached such a pitch that parents are asking the government for protection. But censorship for the very young will not suffice. It is the adults who believe the image offered by advertising, and as long as they buy it, children will demand it, too.
Those who favor a ban on children's advertising say that by the time children are 12 they have developed the capacity to distinguish fact from lie, value from trash, and can be trusted to listen to jingles. But has age really made them better judges of quality? Anyone with teenagers knows they are cynical about advertising. But they are still out there spending money on junk. They may see the half-truths, they may recognize the methods of persuasion, but in fact, they have bought the way of life.
What is the solution? A total ban on TV advertising? That would certainly evoke a collective sigh of relief from millions of viewers, and need not be the end of creative programming. There are other sources ofmoney than the coffers of private corporations. But a world without advertising would still abound with conflicting ideas, with truth distorted for power or personal gain. It is not the responsibility or function of government to protect people from having to make choices. Choices are the burden and pleasure of adulthood. But with them comes the responsibility to teach our children how to make them intelligently. This takes time, and care, and a deep sense of what is valuable.
The supermarket is an excellent place to start. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Geoffrey Moss for The Washington Post