Media Literacy for Itty Bitties, with Lyn Mikel Brown

Media Literacy, for both parents and children, needs to start when our kids are itty bitty.

 Last week I came across an excellent article about parenting with media literacy on a site I use a lot, www.commonsensemedia.org. The site is a great parenting resource for age-appropriate media for your kiddos. The article, “Too Sexy, Too Soon”, was about the crush of sexualization in girlhood, happening as early as the preschool years. I feel it with my five year old daughter,especially as we move into bigger girl toys and clothes.

Here is what the article advised for parents of young kids:

Don’t buy in. Help your kids stay kids by not buying outfits, makeup, and other “grown up” accessories. Stay away from clothing that reinforces the message that looking “sexy” is a way to get noticed.

Seek out positive role models. Lots of little girls love to dress up as princesses. Help expand their horizons by finding role models in books, on TV, in movies, and in real life that show kids how they can be recognized for their talents and brains rather than their looks or behavior.

Watch out for stereotypes. Our kids look to their favorite actors and musicians for cues on how to act. Point out when the media rewards girls for being sexy and boys for being strong.

Resist consumerist messages. On mother-daughter days, do something outside the mall, like crafts, hiking, or biking. Not all mothers and daughters have to bond by shopping.

Challenge the status quo. Reinforce behaviors that don’t involve kids’ looks. Kids develop self-esteem by doing things they feel proud of. If your kids are getting their self-worth from attention-getting behavior, they’ll have sold themselves short.

 The article is really great….but leaves parents with little kids wondering, “I still don’t know what to do.”

It is my very firm belief that media literacy and girl empowerment starts when our girls are itty bitty. This is something our girls must be raised with. I am writing a book on this very topic – so that new parents can have a jump on the game. We shouldn’t have to wait for school age to get help, or for each of us figure it out on our own, or be left wondering what to do about a topic that is going to impact every kid in this country.  
 
So I contacted Lyn Mikel Brown, one of the authors of the article (also one of the co-auothors of the great book ”Packaging Girlhood”), founder of girl advocacy group Hardy Girl, Healthy Women, and Professor of Education at Colby College in Maine, to ask for more specifics on how to apply all of the awesome advice to small children. In my message to Professor Brown, I questioned the idea of “protection” that the article mentions, stating that when our girls are tiny and too small for critical thinking and age-appropriate explanations and conversations, that should be the very age when we are protecting them from harmful media, toys, and messages. My own home is a Barbie-Princess-Tinkerbell-Bratz free house. Read here and here on why. My daughter plays with dolls that look like children, stuffed animals, and lots of science-based stuff like plastic whales and bug catchers and vet kits. By the same token, my son does not have war guys or weapons or uber-muscly superhero guys. He mostly plays with his puzzles, dinos, and blocks (and his sister’s toys when she is at school). Especially during the preschool years, I want to protect my kids from commodification and sexualization and give them toys that honor childhood and help them explore this world. 
Lyn’s response: I stress this “protection” point often because too many parents think they can fully control what their little kids see, hear, and play with and then forget to talk with them in age-appropriate ways and give them what they need to protect themselves. Protection alone does not work…as soon as kids are engaged with media and can talk, we should be modeling questions and skepticism, helping them create their own media, and encouraging them to talk back and insert their own ideas in the media they see. 
 
I couldn’t agree more, especially about the part of kids creating their own media. I’m a huge believer in open-ended play, the power of imagination, and critical thinking. The same goes for parents — be creative about the toys and media you bring into your home, especially in the beginning years. We are under no obligation to buy the products marketed to our children that have licensed characters on them, that make us uneasy, or that we outright disagree with. My daughter has one Disney Princess book, but has otherwise grown up free of that kind of nonsense. Being a princess isn’t even on her radar. She does love to dress up and wear jewelry when she says it is time for a “glamorous date” with my husband, and the two head down the street to the local coffee shop to play checkers and Candyland.  
 
It is somewhat easy to control your child’s home environment when they are preschool aged….but when they hit school age or if they go to childcare, all bets are off. Your parenting lessons and family values will remain, but think about how many new people and ideas they are exposed to. That isn’t a bad thing – it creates conversation. The idea of sheltering our kids forever from this just isn’t realistic. We instead need tools to help navigate the rough waters.
 
I have a lot of parents tell me they want to home school, or are afraid to send their kids to school because of the garbage out there. I can understand that concern, but we can’t parent from a place of fear. Media literacy isn’t about sheltering our kids, it is about containing the bad stuff until they are able to process it, and as soon as they can process it, to start talking about it. And to keep talking about it, because the conversation changes as our children age. For us, the questioning started at age 2 1/2 years old with my daughter. I teach her to question everything. Everything. My son will be three years old next month, and we already do the same for him.
 
It crosses over everywhere we go….”Why can’t we have the cereal with Dora?” she’ll ask. “Because that is too sugary and we don’t buy food that is junky for our body,” I’ll answer. Amelia came back with, “But I like Dora.” So I explain more, “I like Dora, too. But the cereal inside the box isn’t healthy for us, so let’s make a better choice.”
 
“Better choice” is a phrase we use a lot around here. When she spent most of last year lobbying for Sea World Barbie, we talked about why she wanted Barbie and that Mommy & Daddy felt there were healthier choices for little girls. Instead of Barbie we turned to Bindi Irwin, Groovy Girls, Animal Planet toys, and Sophie & Lili dolls. She couldn’t be happier with the toys she has, and hasn’t mentioned Barbie since.
 
When the kids are watching tv and “Penguins of Madagascar” ends and “Sponge Bob” comes on, they know to change the channel. I usually hear, “Op, Benny. We need to make a better choice.” Or I’ll hear her gasp if she hears “Shut up” or “stupid” on a tv show, and she’ll say “Oh man, this must be a teenagered show. Mom, change it to a better choice please.” Amelia, at five years old, is starting to recognize commercials and understands they are trying to sell her things. That’s not to say she doesn’t still want some of the toys she sees, but she is realizing what is going on. She calls it “Buzz Lightyear Voice and Sparkling Girls”….pay attention next time to a few children’s commercials and you’ll see how right she is.
 
Here’s more from Lyn Mikel Brown:
…being sexualized/commodified and understanding what that means are different, so the onus is on parents to help girls understand the stereotypes and eventually, the sexualization, in their media. When they are little and forming gender identities, it’s really about categorizing things–this is girl, this is boy–so that’s why the pink blue stuff has such power. Parenting well means interrupting this, limiting those messages when possible, offering a wider range of choices and experiences and questioning these stereotypes out loud. It’s all about interrupting the marketers’ narrow version of gender (and also race, sexual identity, etc.) and giving kids a range of experiences so that we are helping to fire all those synapses.
I don’t think it helps to be really anxious about sexualization when girls are too young–because if parents aren’t careful, they give unintended messages about good and bad girls (those who wear pink, own Bratz dolls), good and bad bodies, etc. (little kids are very concrete). We want kids to get comfortable questioning fake/idealized stuff and embracing the wonderful complexity in their worlds. So yes, dolls contribute to a larger pattern of sexualization and contribute to a world where little girls are more at risk, but that’s different than what I do as a parent. The issue for parents is parenting where kids are and that means getting what they are actually taking from this stuff–so not assuming or overeacting, but listening and talking with them.
 
So, for parents of itty bitties, what can you do?
  • Provide your child with a diverse range of toys that encourages all kinds of exploration, gross and fine motor skills, creativity, and open-ended play.
  • Fill your child’s world with a rich variety of colors. Color, color, color, and do not let yourself be limited to those assigned to gender by our culture.
  • It is okay to feel uncomfortable with characters or toys for children that look like stereotyped, sexualized women and steroid-ridden men. My kids love making up their own characters, so apart from the body image issues, we try to avoid those things and give their creativity room to run.
  • Expose your child to media that depicts boys and girls working together, and not participating in gender stereotyped activities.
  • Characters that pass the test at our house: Dora and Diego, Sesame Street, Wonder Pets, Land Before Time, Dr. Seuss, Team Umizumi, Bubble Guppies, Little Bear, and Olivia.
  • When at the toy store, question why one side is blue and one side is pink. That’s all a bunch of marketing garbage. Then cross the aisle and buy a car for your girl and a doll for your son. There isn’t a boy or girl side to early childhood.
  • Know that you have the right to ask family members to respect your wishes about media literacy in your home. Example: When asked about birthday gift ideas, it is within your right to request that certain type of toy not be given, and then provide examples of what your child would enjoy. My friends and family have been wonderful about honoring my requests and respecting my daugther’s love of dinosaurs and sea creatures.
  • Stock your playroom with art supplies, dressup clothes, bean bags, scarves, musical instruments, puzzles, books, blocks, puppets, play food and dishes and/or a tea set, toy animals and dinosaurs, trains and cars, doll houses, stuffed animals…any toy that doesn’t come with instructions or batteries!
  • Kids love to mimic adults, so by 18months most kids enjoy cooking sets, caring for a doll or lovey, tool sets, and dress up clothes. My 5yo and almost 3yo love playing hospital, grocery store, zoo, school, restaurant, museum gift shop, and animal rescuers. As of late they have been building aquariums, but their ticket prices are really steep.
  • Positive body image starts as early as ”Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”. NO Fat Talk is allowed. Exercise and be active with your kids, show them all the amazing things healthy bodies can do!
  • Repeat after me: NO Fat Talk is allowed in your home. None. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
  • Explore. Go look for birds nests and worm hunt and count cars and pick clovers and chase butterflies. Nature doesn’t run commercials. Last summer my kids were intent on bear hunting. There aren’t too many bears in southcentral Wisconsin, but boy if they didn’t tire themselves out while looking for footprints in the woods.
  • Take those couch cushions off and build a fort, or throw a bedsheet over the table to create a tent. Then let them create their own world.
  • On the days you are out of ideas, throw them in the bath with swim goggles and a bubble wand or a popsicle.
  • Write down a story your child tells you, then help him/her illustrate. Create a music band or parade. Have them act out little skits and catch it on video. Write scripts for puppet shows.
  • Know that it will be impossible to escape this stuff. Work on being smart about it – and teaching those smarts to your kids. It is a family effort, and you’ll all be better off for it.
  • Most of all – allow yourself grace, not one of us is a perfect parent, but staying engaged and in touch with our kids will make all the difference in the often times crazy world. 

I hope this information helps and gives you a good starting point. If you have more questions or specific problems, leave them in the comments, or email me (info@pigtailpals.com) and I’ll get you the best information I can.

For MORE resources, Hardy Girls Healthy Women has a Resources page with excellent Tips sheets. Soak all of them in, they are all great!

You bet there is a lot of crap out there, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. As parents we choose what our family buys, and what comes into our home. We are not powerless, and we need to find our voices again and say “NO!” to the products and media and marketers we feel are harming our kids.