Lately, I’ve been reading Joyce Ann Mercer’s exciting book, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood. I picked it up with the hopes that it would help me understand how the church can encourage children to actively participate in worship and Kingdom-building, rather than being relegated to classrooms on Sunday mornings to passively receive “spiritual education.”
I didn’t expect to stumble across a fascinating discussion of children as consumers in American culture, and what Jesus has to do with such an identity.
One of Mercer’s main arguments is that Christian theology can offer an alternative vision of the meaning of childhood. In her words, this alternative vision “takes as its critical principle the liberation, thriving, and well-being of children. This critical principle includes their liberation from oppressive manipulations of the market.”
In other words, Jesus’ Kingdom has the power to offer children a new identity which opposes the destructive identities consumer culture offers today.
Mercer’s focus on children and their relationship to consumerism fascinates me, especially since I have recently become interested in disentangling myself from the global marketplace.
Mercer begins by offering a history of global capitalism. She formulates the problem of consumerism like this:
“In the high-modernist period of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism, the owners of capital depended upon continued production and consumption on a mass scale for continued profits. But owners faced a major problem. The ultimate user of whatever goods they produced only needed a limited amount of the particular good. To deal with [this problem], owners needed to stimulate new consumption.” (p. 83)
She then goes on to explain that one of the ways new consumption can be stimulated is by encouraging the concept of “fashion.” In other words, creating the urge to have the latest style accelerates the pace of consumption, which is what marketers want.
One way this concept of fashion is mobilized is “through the development of different age groups as discrete marketing niches.” For example,
“the stage of life termed ‘the toddler’ arose in conjunction with the marketing of products specific to that age group as distinctive from other ages. By increasingly segmenting human life into discrete age groupings, each associated with different consumer products that display a person’s identity status in a particular segment, ongoing consumption of goods is assured.” (p. 83).
As soon as I read that passage, I was struck by how much the evidence seems to support such a claim: it’s not hard to believe that the concept of the toddler was invented by marketers to sell more stuff.
I reflected on my recent trip to the grocery store, when I noticed half an aisle devoted to special “toddler foods”: jars of pureed food with chunks in it; little canisters of puffed grains that “melt in baby’s mouth;” individually-wrapped cereal bars and fruit snacks; even tiny juice boxes that have been specially watered down for toddlers. (This all separate from the “baby” foods – i.e. the canisters of formula, the jars of liquified fruits and vegetables, the boxes of powdered cereals).
Since learning about and then practicing baby-led weaning, I know for a fact that babies don’t need specialized foods. Yet there is an enormous market for these items. As long as people believe that their children move through distinct phases, each with its unique needs for specific consumer products, corporations will be able to sell them.
Mercer goes on to explain how children are shaped into consumers, right from birth:
“Various cultural artifacts, including intense medicalization of childbirth, the existence of specialized infant foods and furniture, and the burgeoning market in children’s designer clothing, all form part of a dominant social ideology of the child as one who needs things—things that can be supplied by the marketplace in corporate America.” (p. 98)
So from birth, children are understood as consumers, and are trained to be “good” consumers. At each stage in life (and there are increasingly more and more “stages” in a child’s life), they are thought to have special needs which only the market can supply.
I’m eager to read more from Mercer about how Christianity can offer an alternative identity for children.
In the meantime, in an attempt to fight back against the global market’s schemes to sell us things we don’t need, I plan to offer a list of baby items you can actually live without. (Take that, corporate America!)
Our children do not need the global market!
What do you think of this idea that different life stages were invented to sell more stuff?