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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Taking Back Our Childhood: A Conversation with Nancy Carlsson-Paige

By Peter DeWitt — September 22, 2011 11 min read
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“There has been a dramatic increase in marketing to kids in the last 15 or 20 years! Billions of dollars are now spent by corporations to market to the special ‘target’ group called children.” Nancy Carlsson-Paige

There are times as I get older that I think I am becoming less patient with society. As I flip through television stations I am less likely to find something I like to watch. All of the shows seem to be “reality” in nature and those reality shows seem to promote anger, promiscuity, and fighting. They also happen to be on earlier and earlier in the day, which means that children are exposed to them every time they may turn on their flat screen televisions. The only show I seem to watch these days is “House Hunters International.”

Perhaps it’s due to aging, but I feel like children are being exposed to a great deal more than in previous years. Whether it’s the Internet, television, or movies, there is an increase in the amount of violence in children’s entertainment. Not only is it violent, it’s also graphic in nature and I wonder how well children can process that violence.

As I became increasingly uncomfortable with the media, I began to read books like Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children by Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti and Taking Back Childhood by Nancy Carlsson-Paige. They, too, have concerns that our children are being exposed to too much violence.

PD: Why do you believe we have to take back our childhood?

NCP: In the last 30 years, we have seen changes in the culture of childhood that are dramatically affecting children’s lives today.

One of the factors is an increase in the influence of media in the lives of children. The Kaiser Family Foundation completed a study showing that children spend more time with electronic media than they do in school (www.KKF.org). The fact that they are spending more time looking at screens instead of engaged in robust outdoor play, interacting with other kids, spontaneous negotiating and figuring out problems in the real world with other kids, means they are not learning some of the vital lessons that came naturally to children in the past. Screen time is rapidly changing what children learn and don’t learn.

Children are suffering from a disconnection from peers, nature, and from themselves because they are not getting the experiences they need that build connections and relationships. They are becoming disconnected from their soul, heart, and feelings because they are constantly taking in messages that disconnect and desensitize them.

Parents should know that the media is very corporate-driven and it is not as regulated as it should be. There are all sorts of marketing campaigns aimed at kids through the media. Those marketing messages are basically saying, “You have to have this to be happy. You have to have this for your peers to accept you.” There are also a lot of messages in the media that promote anti-social behavior—that put people down for being different and use violence in many forms. In addition, there is a lot of sexualized imagery that kids are exposed to. All of that adds up to a harmful influence, one that confuses and desensitizes children.

The economy and the pace of life make it very hard for parents to keep a watchful eye on kids. Many parents don’t see the TV programs, video games, electronic messages their kids are getting. Corporations have become another parent, but one that puts the profit margin first and not kids’ best interests.

In addition to all of that, you have a changing educational system that has less time to counter the images kids see outside of school because teachers and administrators are now driven by high-stakes tests that have edged out the expansive curriculum children today need.

PD: What role do you believe the Internet plays in the development of a child?

NCP: First and foremost, children are using electronic media at too young an age. Marketers push these devices and programs on young children, even infants, but they are not good. Young children need to be interacting in the real world, with people and objects, for optimal development. There is a lot of research on this, including newer studies from neuroscience.

As children get into the middle elementary grades, the Internet can be a useful tool when used carefully and consciously. A 4th grade child might do an Internet search to find out about the insect she saw on the playground. But then the child would use and represent that information in activities such as drawing, writing, and building.

When children sit at computers for hours and hours and this becomes a replacement for direct experiences and the primary sources of knowledge, it impedes their optimal development.
We cannot “turn kids loose” on the Internet. We have to regulate and teach children how to use computers and the internet in ways that are beneficial to them.

This media/electronic culture of ours came at us so quickly that parents, teachers, and principals haven’t had the time to reflect on their influence, do enough research on it, and teach children how to use those tools properly. We need to make sure that we teach kids that electronic media can be a useful a tool when used consciously at the same time that we show them that they have to protect themselves while they are using it.

It’s also important to teach kids guidelines for use of electronic media. In families with older children who do use hand-held devices, it can be helpful to agree that you don’t take out your smartphones and text with friends when you are together. Children need down time with parents. Time to be together, reflect on the day, talk with one another. With younger children, it’s good to follow the guidelines put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics: no screen time before the age of 2, and an hour or less per day after that.

PD: You speak a lot about our power over kids. Could you explain that concept?

NCP: I think that how we use our adult power with kids is one of the most profound questions we must grapple with in our relationships with children. We live in a hierarchical society so it doesn’t come easy to people to choose approaches that share our adult power with children rather than using power “over” them. But when we do learn how to work things out “with” kids through dialogue, negotiation, and joint problem-solving, children thrive on our trusting relationships and learn many social skills they desperately need to learn today.

PD: Why does it seem like there has been such an increase in the amount of marketing that has taken place over the past few decades?

NCP: There has been a dramatic increase in marketing to kids in the last 15 or 20 years! Billions of dollars are now spent by corporations to market to the special “target” group called children. In the past, before the mid-1980s, marketing to kids was regulated both through Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Before that time, it was illegal to market products directly linked to TV shows to children. There were no Spiderman lunchboxes and Star Wars underpants and toothbrushes. But under Reagan, the FCC removed these restrictions to the benefit of corporations and the detriment of children. And in 1980, after heavy corporate lobbying, Congress took away the FTC’s role to regulate advertising to children.

Immediately after deregulation, there was a rapid increase in commercials and televisions shows that marketed products to children. Presently, that use of marketing so saturates the media that the parents of today cannot imagine a world without all of those images coming at us on an hourly basis.

We not only have the movies or television shows, but there are ads on video games and the Internet, and fast-food chains selling toys linked to the media kids see; there are even ads in many schools. We have now entered an era where children’s lives are saturated by, not just the media, but by toys and products linked to the media. This bombardment has affected children’s play and social and emotional development.

PD: You have written about the dilemma of children playing “war play” and have said there is in increase. What is the dilemma, and why do you think there has been an increase?

NCP: Children are being exposed to a lot more violent media than ever before. The good ole’ days when kids used to play “good guys and bad guys” have changed. I did several research studies where I interviewed teachers from all over the country who reported the same thing: as a result of the marketing of violent media, children’s play and social interactions were more violent. Kids were no longer inventing different ways of playing as they did in the past, but now they were imitating the violence that they saw in images on screens and in media-linked products. This meant that the “war play” they used to invent from their own imaginations was now too often shaped by media stories and characters, eroding the deep value of original play for children and promoting violence.

You now see “first person” shooter video games where kids can inflict violence directly. Even young children play these games, as we see from the research. But many of these games are brutally violent—scary and confusing for kids. Children who play them become desensitized to the violence they see, a natural reaction, but not one we want to have in our children.

All of this behavior creates an anti-social climate for many kids. That some studies show a decline in empathy and social skills in our children, that we have a growing bullying problem in our country, is understandable when corporations are free to market to kids without restrictions.

PD: You are an endorser for the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. How and why did you become involved, and how does that tie in with your work with the development of children?

NCP: As soon as I heard about the march I knew it was something that I wanted to endorse. I have been concerned about education since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I’m concerned about the constant focus on testing and the high-stakes nature of it and what it has done to education.

Testing has eroded the genuine learning experiences of kids and the love of learning that children need to discover in school. It has created an environment of stress where kids think learning is about getting the right answers. They think it’s about knowing facts instead of developing their own thinking and going through the process of constructing their own ideas and solving problems.

We need to engage children in genuine learning experiences where they can develop their ingenuity, original ideas, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. In a testing culture, these qualities that are at the core of real learning are lost as kids focus more and more on rote, superficial learning.

The kind of learning pushed on kids today does not give them a firm foundation of understanding that will support school success because they are not constructing the ideas for themselves through their own process. In addition, we are narrowing the curriculum and kids are no longer getting the experiences they need in the arts, music, and outdoor activities. In the earlier grades, because of the increased focus on academics, play has been disappearing from classrooms. Research shows that play has almost disappeared from kindergartens around the country.

Elementary school needs to be places where children set the foundation for lifelong learning. You simply cannot build higher level academic skills on a weak foundation. That foundation needs to have breadth and depth and must be built gradually in accordance with children’s developmental needs and understanding. Yes, children end up understanding concepts and ideas, but they have gone through many years of building this knowledge.


The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action is a few months behind us but the spirit is still very much alive. There are pockets of support all over the country that are uniting educators and giving them a voice against state and federal mandates that we believe are harmful to children.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is one of those educators who believes that we need to reflect on the past and get back to some of those practices that will prepare children to become thoughtful, empathetic adults who can question things respectfully. That focus would be a great deal easier if we did not have to shelter children from harmful messages they see through the media. It would also be easier if school could focus less time on testing and devote more time to helping students negotiate their way through those harmful messages so they can find their voice.

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Carlsson-Paige, Nancy (2008). Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. Hudson Street Press

Ravitch, Diane and Viteritti, Joseph (2003). Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children. The Johns Hopkins University

Rideout, Victoria, Elizabeth Vandewater & Ellen Wartella (2003). Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers. Kaiser Family Foundation.


The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.