Media & Culture: A good magazine for kids (an oxymoron?)

Media & Culture: A good mag for kids? 
No junk mail: the ad-free FamilyFun Kids magazine
"He wore jeans and sneakers and a bag slung across his t-shirted chest (heavy with graphic novels). I watched him go. He looked so happy. He was happy to have a sushi interlude, he was happy that it was after school, he was happy to see his friends and he was happy to have somewhere to go where he could be independent and feel grown up. I watched him bumpily scoot away." 

I just love these words by Pip Lincolne, in a post called 'Lighten Up', about her 11-year-old. They paint a portrait of boyhood unhindered. Of a child who reads and scoots and wears sneakers and eats sushi.   

Any media that supports the boundless possibilities of childhood is Tip Top great (brand pun intended) in my view. So imagine my delight with the news of a kids’ magazine with NO ADVERTISING (hello, you might say, would make it a book!), which joins PLOC on the block. 

FamilyFun Kids is geared towards six to 12-year-olds and published by Disney in America (its parent publication, Disney FamilyFun, is published by ACP in Australia). "Many studies show that creative thinking is critical for kids to develop as students and thinkers, yet unfortunately, U.S. creativity scores are declining, and arts programs are being cut," says Ann Hallock, the Editorial Director for the magazine. 

"FamilyFun Kids is designed to spark creative thinking in children by giving them ideas and inspiration to make and do things on their own. There is no magazine out there doing this – and we know parents really crave this kind of creative support for their kids."

Oftentimes the good intentions of publishers who want to create positive content for kids' engagement are undermined by commercial imperatives. I know, I've worked on a kids' magazine. This creates an uneasy dichotomy: too young to truly discern what is advertorial from what is editorial, while at the same time receiving messages about what is Cool Coolest Awesome through association with a movie, TV show or celebrity, children are groomed to play the part of consumer in our culture. 

"Whilst the possibilities of learning and socialising for our young are offered almost limitless scope by modern technology and generate an excitement which few children can resist, the media cannot of itself be seen as benign, but simply as an industry driven by values not entirely amenable to the common good," wrote esteemed childhood expert Professor Philip Gammage in his paper 'The sacred and the profane in early childhood'.  

"Childhood and being a child are effectively under siege in many modern societies, since children are too often viewed as economic investments, 'products' for the future. The child must have an opportunity to be as well as become. The Nordic and Scandinavian countries may have much to offer us in their treatment of children, their awareness of the commercial exploitation of childhood and in their attention to the construction of less-pressurised childhood experiences." 

With Kelloggs receiving three dubious honours this week in the Parent's Jury Fame & Shame Awards for its marketing of the sugary Nutri-Grain (promoted as a good option for young boys who want to grow into Iron Men) and LCM Choc Bar 4D (25% larger than your standard bar with the clever tagline: "MA+ For Older Kids: Look out I’m bigger than a stampeding black rhino"), the news of Disney's ad-free, parent-friendly magazine is timely. 

Yes, Disney has more than a few revenue streams – knows how to market a plush toy film tie-in to its advantage – and is also responsible for advertiser-friendly tween titles, but producing a magazine for kids without advertising is a step in the right direction to correcting some of the needless wants and ideas fueling pester power, which comes at the expense of more important things: nature, creativity, exploration, adventure, independent play, tactile engagement, friendship building and, hello!, giving.

We want kids to appreciate the value of money and understand how a consumer economy works, but instilling guidelines for thoughtful spending, saving and giving in the home can seem like a march up a steep hill for parents when faced with the often overwhelming influence of the commercial world with its celebrity tie-ins, "added value" marketing tactics and reach into our homes.

"The idea of 'goodwill to all men' is the one aspect of Christmas I really want to impress upon my kids. Not in a saccharine, Hallmark kind of way, but rather by instilling in them the act of giving. Charitable, unconditional giving with nothing in return," writes Jennifer Dudding in Brisbane's Child magazine, in a story in which she interviews three mums about how they're instilling good giving values in their homes through Compassion Australia, TEAR Australia, UNICEF and the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal (Salvation Army). 

"I recall finding in a local toy store an unusual moneybox divided into three compartments: spend, save and give. It's a life-affirming concept; teaching our children from a young age not only the virtues of saving and allocating money for future use, but also the idea of generosity. While I don't profess to have this sorted out in my own life, or those of my children, it is certainly something I aspire to and is especially thought-provoking as Christmas draws near." 

Of course, as the ‘Top Toys for 2011‘ lists are produced by media outlets, we will all tune in to see what the kids want under the tree. No one wants to be a Scroogey party-pooper, and my Cabbage Patch dolls and My Little Ponies don’t seem to have done life-long damage. But surely the best gift you can give your kid – in a world where poverty is rife and obesity is on the rise and adults are suffering “technostress” – is a childhood unhindered by commercial imperatives?

Last year, Pacific Magazines hosted a 'Tween Tracker' panel for its two key kids' titles K-Zone (which won best web design at the recent Australian Magazine Awards and was the first Australian consumer magazine to implement a paid online subscription model) and Total Girl.

While sympathetic to the company's need to generate income, and advertisers, too, I was uneasy with some of the terms of reference presented in the report, such as, "Australia has over 2.3 million tweens, who account for 15% of the total population and control $1.35 billion in annual income, making them a force to be reckoned with"; and "one in three have over $500 in their bank account".

This was tempered by the company's findings that tweens value family and friends far above toys as their source of happiness – hence, traditional values have not been usurped by consumerism.

"'Tween’ is a very important period in life, during which children develop many of their relationships and opinions that stay with them right into adulthood," said the magazines' publisher Mychelle Vanderburg. "It’s also a period of intense learning and at the same time intense fun. We need to remember that in addition to all the changes, pressures and concerns that tweens are experiencing, having fun is still one of the most important things in life." 

Not all kids are going to grow up to be materialistic consumer-holics, because not all parents are materialistic consumer-holics. But any media that feeds the idea that kids can meet their own needs (make your own snack! make your own book! create your own game!), while encouraging reading, thinking and doing good things, without force-feeding kids advertising is a welcome antidote to the mass-media messages they're receiving. Even if it comes with a Disney tag. 

This is an extended version of 'Ad-busting media for kids', which appeared on JUSTB. 

See also:
Glossy Panel: Should glossy magazines for tweens be classified or left alone?
Glossy Review: Total Girls Have Too Much Stuff
'In the tween satchel' by Jenna Templeton

Girl With a Satchel