At the Kid, Youth and Parent Power conference marketers, researchers, programmers and non-profits presented data and diatribes on the state of play (our contribution), the importance of pro-social programs, the truth about Millenials, and the efforts of organizations ranging from Boy Scouts of America and Lego to Microsoft. In almost every presentation, a central dialogue emerges…Is our notion of the perfect childhood more real or ideal?
After two days of listening to youth and family experts discussing the issues and ideas that influence kids, tweens, teens and their parents, it seemed fitting to head over to nearby Disney World, with my 3-year-old son in tow. The Disney experience brings these two sides of the coin into relief. Is the Magic Kingdom’s magic about reminding us that every child has something to celebrate (the theme of the song that ushers in the park’s daily character parade) or is it about strategically placing bathrooms so it seems that there’s almost always one within the line of sight of a frazzled mom? Is it about the fantasy that one is riding over the rooftops of London in Peter Pan’s galleon, or is it about the Fast Pass system that – while imperfect – acknowledges that kids cannot tolerate lines longer than twenty minutes and that parents prefer the option of scheduling a return visit later in their day? Is the magic about meeting Buzz Lightyear or is it about the ease with which one can access the photos taken online and either purchase them or simply email them (within a Disney designed template) to friends and relatives?
And whose childhood are we talking about anyway? At Disney World, kids and their parents indulge in timeless childhood pleasures and elements of culture: pursuing pirates, taking trains, flying spaceships or navigating the caves of Tom Sawyer’s island. But along the way, we notice high tech toys, video game references and shows that let you audition to be on American Idol (at Disney Hollywood Studios). Still, Disney seems to be a place that’s more dedicated to transmitting ideals of childhoods past than about epitomizing the experiences and culture of today’s kids, tweens and teens.
And maybe that’s okay. In the land of fantasy (as opposed to social policy or education), the realities of contemporary children might not matter very much. Parents who come to Disney understand how to play there. They feel a sense of belonging that they might not in the online world. And kids seem to revel in the chance to connect with parents as much as the opportunity to escape into fantasy. So maybe the answer is that today’s ideal childhood is co-constructed by parents and kids. This collaborative creation of the ideal childhood might have something in it for both parents and kids.