“Sometimes My Kids Seem Like a Bunch of Kangaroos!”

Curator's Note

These three commercials from the 1960's suggest the roles popular culture played in promoting some of the core premises of what I am calling Permissive Child Rearing Doctrine, a set of ideas most closely associated with Dr. Benjamin Spock, but which were shaped by a much broader array of post-war advice literature. Writing in the 1950's, Martha Wolfenstein saw the shift from a culture of production (with its demands for discipline and regimentation) to a culture of consumption (with its expectations of a "fun morality") as a major force shaping child-rearing practices in the twentieth century. The emergence of permissiveness in the postwar era, she argues, was partially a response to the expansion of the consumer market place and the prospect of suburban affluence, both themes which should be clear from these sample commercials. Permissive conceptions of the child embraced pleasure as a positive motivation for exploration and learning. The home was being redesigned to accommodate children's impulses and urges. The family was being redirected from a Father-Centered to a Child-Centered model. Fathers were being taught to become tolerant and indulging playmates for their children. Mothers were being instructed to deploy pleasure to get children to do what was expected of them. All of this is wonderfully summed up in this Madison Avenue fable of a mother who sees her pogo-stick-playing children as kangaroos bouncing through her kitchen. A previous generation would certainly have believed that they could, in fact, "change" their family through discipline and regimentation; she's being told, instead, to change her floor wax and otherwise create a space which can tolerate their rambunctiousness. Similarly, consider the ways that Trik-Trak assumes the children will be able to play "all over the house" and that their father will be happy to have their toys racing under his feet even as he reads the evening newspaper. The Dick Tracy radio watch commercial extends the children's play environment from the home into the entire suburban neighborhood, reflecting the freedom of movement experienced by the post-war generation. Sociologists in the early 1970's estimated that suburban boys enjoyed a free range of 1,200 yards while their sisters might travel only 760 yards without adult permission. By the end of the decade, conservative cultural critics, such as Spiro Agnew, will be blaming Spock for the counterculture's anti-authoritarian views, suggesting that anti-war protestors should have been spanked when they were little boys and girls. Later child-rearing experts have rejected "permissiveness" in favor of more "authoritative" models for the relations between children and adults, insisting that adults need to set firmer limits on what happens in their homes. But, in the early 1960's, these commercials were selling permissiveness as much as they were selling particular toys and products. We can see these assumptions at play from a historical distance. But, how are contemporary models of child-rearing impacting the ways children's toys are designed and marketed?


The Dick Tracy watch prompts a number of diverse thoughts -- the way 1960s real-world technology is clumsily emulating the fantasy tech of the comic book 1930s (Dick Tracy didn't need a bulky radio on his belt -- the transmitter was in the watch itself) -- the role of the father here, as accomplice giving up his work to join the kids' mission ("dad dad, I found a BEAR's cave!" "be right down, son!"), or perhaps the absent boss of the boys' gang -- the imagery of the dotted lines connecting neighborhood houses, like a precursor to sat nav or Google Earth, or a kind of proto-internet, with the boys all linked invisibly across the grid, talking house-to-house (or roaming wireless) -- finally, whether this is an image of free movement, or whether the young fellows are being kept under remote control by the father with his own transmitter; whether this is a form of surveillance, or even whether the young men, like the Hardy Boys or Three Investigators (under distant patriarch Alfred Hitchcock) are going to carry out their own hunts, tracking down and closing in on mysteries, misfits, people who don't belong.

fascinating piece, Henry. In reading your comment and watching these commercials, I'm reminded of how certain children's properties like the Lone Ranger shifted their rhetoric in the postwar era from teaching children appropriate civic behaviors to how to be good little consumers. While the Lone Ranger toy world encouraged fantasy play, dozens of articles and press materials were generated emphasizing the Lone Ranger’s “miraculous” ability to cure young children of psychological afflictions related to non-consumption In one case, the Lone Ranger visited a hospital and convinced a child to eat solid foods for the first time in three years by giving him a set of Lone Ranger dishes. The key here being that merchandise enables more consumption (while perhaps also hinting at fears that children were being ill served by all this permissiveness) As to your question about how discursive constructions of contemporary children and appropriate parenting shape toy advertisements, I think we are once again in a backlash era, where toys are being marketed in ways that clearly delineate gender identities (Tonka's "Boys are just different" commercials come to mind). At the same time, there is a kind of embodiment logic at play where children can experiment with other identities through dressing up or playing a video game, so perhaps we need to see toy commercials as playing out complex tensions over destabilization and performance?

Henry, I'm really taken by the way you emphasize the space of play in this piece, where these ads construct play space as one that encompasses the kitchen, the living room, and the back yard. today, I'd imagine that the internet and virtual spaces form an important site of struggle within and between parenting discourses and the modes of play marketers want to sell. i'm reminded of commercials for Leap Frog learning computers, for example, which try to recuperate video games, transforming them from a bad object to a space that can be used for learning. Telecom providers repeatedly emphasize how children really need the internet not just to play, but to do their homework successfully. But conversely, it seems that marketers of more traditional sports and outdoor toys (nerf, super soaker, etc) would be interested in child rearing discourses that paint online spaces as dangerous places where kids get fat and lazy--to which outdoor toys can present a more "healthy" alternative. Marketers in different industries, therefore, might have opposing discourses of child rearing they'd prefer to get behind.

Derek's last comment here may touch on an important distinction between post-war childrearing discourse and the current moment. Spock's book remained on the best seller list more or less throughout the 1950s and 1960s -- the book that most if not all postwar parents turned to in order to understand the care and feeding of their children. While Spock's ideas were widely parodied in popular media of the period, there was no other author who came anywhere close to challenging his dominance in the marketplace and in everyday practice. Today, no single writer can claim anywhere near that same status. As our culture has fragmented, as families take on very different shapes and sizes, as childrearing gets caught in the same 'culture wars' that shape other aspects of contemporary society, there is no consensus model for what good parenting looks like. If Wolfenstein is right to see the push towards permissiveness as a boon for marketers, we might also see this fragmentation of ideas about childrearing as a boon for contemporary brands, simply because it allows different products to position themselves differently in response to different assumptions about what's best for kids. It supports niche marketing efforts more appropriate for a fragmented marketplace and a dispersed yet converging mediascape.

The cultural fragmentation that prevents a consensus on good parenting and child development techniques also fosters a lack of overlap between television programming for children and adults. In thinking about Henry's original question, how current models of child-rearing might affect toy design and marketing techniques, I realize that I almost never see contemporary toy advertising. Toys are most heavily marketed on kid-friendly cable channels like Nickelodeon and during what minimal blocks of kids' programming remain on broadcast television - if a viewer misses out on these, they eliminate most of the kid-centric advertising on current television. This aspect of media fragmentation might also raise questions about whether toy marketers are reaching kids more directly than ever before - do they feel less pressure than ever before to address parental concerns about children's educational and developmental needs because their ads can be effective by speaking directly to children's desires?

I hate to be such an intellectual trendoid, but the transition between production and consumption culture is theorized in a pretty exciting way by Zizek. Especially if you're looking at childhood socialization, it would seem he and other psychoanalysts are articulating many of the underlying assumptions about subject formation in this sort of analysis. Also, I love the radio antenna on the Dick Tracy belt - a true testament to the power of fantasy in overcoming the harsh limitations of reality.

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