11 October 2008

kids and gifts

a string of excerpts from
Coming of Age in Suburbia: Gifting the Consumer Child
Alison J. Clark
from the book
Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space and the Material Culture of Children

Children have most often been constructed as “proto-adults” considered largely in terms of socialization and the context of their caregivers. While children have been construed as peripheral objects of study, childhood itself has been considered as a static entity within social theory; “sociological accounts locate childhood in some timeless zone standing as it were to the side of the mainstream (that is adult) history and culture.” It is perhaps this tendency toward the disavowal of children’s agency that explains the neglect, within the bulk of critical literature around contemporary children’s consumption, to socially contextualize the acquisitive behaviour of children and their highly nuanced tastes for specific styles and typologies of goods

Contrary to the burgeoning discourse around children, brands, and consumer culture… it is through a dialectical relationship with the universal and particular nature of commodities and gifts that children generate a dynamic relationship with adults and peers around the value of “things” and social relations.

As the risk taking of childhood is moved ever further from the unsupervised physical geography of the park and the street, consumption and the exchange of related knowledge becomes the key means through which children generate an autonomous, risk-filled “space” of negotiation and social interaction. In this respect, the “currency” and temporality of brands, good, and designs takes on a crucial role in the formation of middle childhood.

Children’s “annoyance” and “embarrassment” with receiving inappropriate styles of gifts is framed in a sense of knowing fondness of adult incompetence in such matters, rather than avaricious intent. Indeed, children identify the embarrassing” relative’s gift as part of a repertoire of adult gifts they will receive annually for Christmas or birthdays.

As preadolescent children gain greater autonomy, they invert the established child/parent relations, whereby the child pose a risk of social liability. They begin to suffer the embarrassment of their affiliations with adults in the form, for example of inappropriate gifts such as out-of-fashion toys and handmade sweaters. In this way, children and parents engage in a tentative and dynamic process or morality making, mediated by the normative as constructed through strategies of child/parent gift giving.

In the power relations of gifting between adults and children, each generation is aware of projecting itself onto the other and, in this process, adults and children decide whether or not to collude with or denounce the other… Children may at once willingly respect the intentions of adults and willfully assert themselves against them, mocking “embarrassing” presents while also making strenuous efforts to hide their parent’ shame. Both can chose to point out the discrepancies or respect them, and they might do either depending on the state of play of the relationship itself, because the potential to sanction either by humiliation is great.

Children’s normative gift culture, by incorporating brands and the temporality of designed goods, constitutes a form of space in which the contradictory expectations of contemporary care giving are enacted. With the increasing domestication of children’s lives, this “space” – of objects and the minutiae of design- replaces the public space of “the street” as the key arena of knowledge making and risk taking crucial to the construction of children’s personhood and moral worlds.