When I read the October 9, 2011 New York Times Article “Middle School Girls Unlock a World of Their Own, in Miniature” my first reaction was – well, to squelch my first reaction – repulsion. Taking offense at school locker decorations (and companies creating demand for certain kinds of “locker furnishings”) might mean I’m a Grinch. What’s the harm? Where’s my sense of humor?
On closer inspection, this really isn’t funny or cute. The contents of this article and the way it is framed point to several concerns about advertising, helicopter parents, and a child’s developing individuality.
First, whose locker is it, anyway?
Who is creating the boundaries within which individuality can be expressed? Didn’t the Times find anyone who was still happily decorating their lockers with pictures of crushes, bits of inspirational poetry and maybe even political bumper stickers? Gloria de Gaetano, author of Parenting Well in the Media Age, in an interview that aired on November 9, 2009, pointed to the marketing devices that create an “illusion of choice.” You can pick the wallpaper for your locker, but it had better have wallpaper.
Elissa Gootman approached this topic with rose-colored glasses: there is a “tween aesthetic,” business flourishes by capturing the formula for it (in fact, they define it), and kids go “Wow!” It would be more accurate to say lockers are the latest frontier in merchandising, not nesting. Lockers as they were, with an idiosyncratic mix reflecting the interests of the occupant, were already exercises in “nesting,” one of the last provinces of individuality, safe from parental interference. Boys’ lockers probably still are. However, since there is no merchandising tie-in (yet), boys’ lockers are of little interest to the author.
Though she gives a nod to reflective comments from Rachel Simmons and to Deborah Kasak from National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform Ms. Gootman is an uncritical enthusiast for this trend. She ignores her own information, such as: the founders of LockerLookz said they got the idea for the company “after decorating their daughters ’lockers” and mother Melissa Kane said: “Doing her locker just helped me ease my nerves a little bit” about her daughter’s transition to Middle School.” A “world of their own,” indeed. Putting myself in the shoes of these young girls, I’d be tempted to have a sign “Keep Out – Mom and Marketers.”
This article raises questions that need to be explored. How does something that reinforces perceptions of economic disparity impact school culture? Who is actually targeted by the marketing? Merchandise ostensibly marketed for “tweens” often are objects of desire for kindergartners, as indicated in Gootman’s own research. What do child psychologists and pediatricians say about the impact of parents who invade every area of their children’s lives, even to the extent of decorating their lockers? Don’t children and teens need to initiate their environments and find their individual voices/styles? How is this marketing trend part of and influenced by an atmosphere of decreased privacy because of social media and mobile devices? In my workshops and research, many teachers, parents, and pediatricians express alarm that young children no longer have their hide-aways, typically under tables or in small corners. They may go there, but they expect to take some mobile entertainment device with them. They are getting used to marketers being with them wherever they go.
In a speech given at the Institute of General Semantics in October, 2011, Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT in the Program in Science, Technology, and Societynd author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, reiterated the truism among psychologists: “If we don’t teach our children to be alone, all they can ever be is lonely.” Lockers are a kind of sacred space, at least for pre-teens and teens. It has a lock. It is one of the few places where there is freedom to decorate and treasure some privacy. Let’s respect it.
Maybe someone out there needs to go deeper into this subject. Is it too much to expect that The New York Times will do so and to put it in the Health section, not New York Region, especially when most of the material came from other states?