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Childhood should be commercial free

By Joe Burns/ Who cares
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Remember childhood - that time between infancy and adolescence?

It used to be very popular.

Children, or kids as they were called, could be distinguished from adolescents and adults in a number of ways: the way they dressed, the way they walked, the way they wore their hair. They were inventive and imaginative people, able to spend hours inventing games and activities without adult assistance or interference.

You don't see much of them anymore. They've been replaced by newer models called pre-teens. They're the same size and age as children, but they dress like adolescents and adults and are often encouraged to try their best to act like them as well.

They are pushed into puberty before having a chance to enjoy being children, and they're exploited by a cynical system that makes billions by taking advantage of their gullibility and malleability. According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, children ages four to 12 were responsible for $30 billion in purchases in 2002.

What they are sold are often expensive toys and games that encourage isolation, leave little to the imagination, cost more than most people make in a month in a Third World nation and are themselves springboards for the sale of high-priced accessories and upgrades.

And what they buy isn't only expensive, it's also often inappropriate. USA Today reported that the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which players can simulate having sex with a prostitute and then kill her, was the best selling game among teens and pre-teens in 2002. And while little boys are becoming desensitized to the degradation and abuse of women, little girls are encouraged to emulate the very women the boys are encouraged to abuse.

Over the years, the street walker look has been required wear for every pop star from Madonna to Britney Spears. The belly-baring, hip-enhancing outfits, designed to be sexually suggestive, has worked its way down from teen to pre-teen and can now be found in the children's section of most major department stores. But there's still more too come.

Club Libby Lu, a nationwide retail business marketing exclusively to girls ages 5 to 12, will open its first store in Massachusetts next year. On its Web site, Club Libby Lu, a subsidiary of Saks Department Store Group, describes itself as "not just a store" but "a club with special membership privileges" and invites girls to "be part of something special."

What it offers are makeovers for children, priced from $21.50 to $30. Makeovers come in five styles: Sparkle Princess, Glam Rock, Rising Star, Drama Queen and Tween Idol. Sorry, astronauts and athletes are unavailable.

"It's still a time when imagination and play and pretend is very important to girls," said Libby Lu marketing director Monica Blaizgis in the Boston Herald, ignoring that Libby Lu is setting the parameters and the price for pretending and playing. And those parameters, according to a photo provided by Libby Lu to the Boston Herald, include tube top, midriff-baring, hip-hugging outfits.

It's natural for children to want to play dress-up, but there's a big difference between rummaging through mommy's closet and trying on her over-sized clothes and buying form-fitting replicas of the working clothes worn by women who are sexually exploited and physically abused.

Club Libby Lu is not the first and not the worst when it comes to exploiting children. But when a business that has 77 stores in 27 states and is still expanding can exist simply by taking advantage of a child's need to fit in, then we have lost sight of our children's needs and rights.

Fifty years ago, when Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" was first published in America, many people were disturbed by the story of a middle-age man obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. Today, at a time when we seek to keep a tighter rein on sexual offenders, we see nothing wrong with dressing our own children like Lolita.

Ultimately it's up to parents to set limits, but just saying no isn't enough when there's a pusher on every street corner. Parents need help. We've got to let the manufacturers and advertisers know that we're not going to allow them to exploit our children. Manipulation of children for self gratification, whether it is sexual, emotional or financial, is child abuse.

We need not only to boycott those selling sex and violence to our children, but also their parent companies and subsidiaries and those that help to promote those products. Maybe then our pre-teens can be children again.

If you have an idea for a "Who Cares" column, you can call Joe Burns at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at jburns@cnc.com.

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