A recent article in the New York Times about how high school kids are spending their summers reminded me once again that the commercialization of childhood extends way beyond Happy Meals and sexualized clothing to compromise every stage of children’s development. A commercially saturated culture has a profoundly negative influence on children’s basic assumptions, values, life choices, and experience of living.
The Times profiled companies like Everything Summer that craft summer experiences for teenagers designed to translate into stand-out personal essays for college admissions. There’s so much wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin. Never mind that it’s yet another example of how unequal opportunity is in this country. While there is a company that takes low income students on a trip to Italy, about which they are tasked to write an essay, most kids can’t afford to buy designer summers to boost their chances of getting into college. But there’s something else insidious at work.
One of the marketplace tenets so harmful to kids is that extrinsic value trumps intrinsic value. Children trained to consume learn to value things not for what they are, but as a means toward acquiring—popularity, friends, sex appeal, notoriety, success and so on. They learn to judge people by what they own and to diminish experience unless it comes with value added. They learn to read for pizza, not pleasure; choose shoes for status, not comfort; and to eat for who’s on the package, not for nutrition or even taste. They learn that the dreams, ideas, and projects they generate are not nearly as valuable as those manufactured for them.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that the value of what teens do in the summer these days is judged not by the quality of their experience, but for the color it lends to their college applications. But families who outsource summer to companies manufacturing essay-worthy adventure deprive kids of the authentic challenge of figuring it out themselves—of exploring an interest for the sheer joy of it, or of discovering what it’s like to work at a boring, low-paying job, or finding out a little bit more about who they are and what they might like to become.