Them Zany Kids

Them Zany Kids

This post could just as well be re-titled, The scariest thing I’ve read in some time. What I’m referring to is not the Koch brothers’ aspirations for governance but a recent New Yorker article titled: “When I Grow Up“. Since this article appears in the same issue as a report on Ebola, I suppose I’ve got some ‘spalin’ to do.

KidZania is a global theme-park chain where children are encouraged to act like adults. It may be worth reading that again—it’s an awkward but accurate construction that may seem counterintuitive the first read through, as most of us adults are so often wishing we could return to acting like kids. (What is otherwise known as The Peter Pan Effect.)

The gist of KidZania is this: upon entering a park kids can work a variety of “adult” jobs—there’s an automobile assembly line, a granola bar factory, and police and firefighting forces, amongst a host of other activities—and for their work receive a currency called a “kidzo,” which, conveniently enough, can be used at any KidZania park around the world to purchase a variety of commodities, or simply be deposited in the KidZania central bank (where it can later be accessed with a debit card).

With locations in Mexico, Spain, Dubai, India, Egypt, Turkey and many other countries (plans for multiple locations across the US are in the works), KidZania’s tag line is, “Get ready for a better world,” one which they insist can be achieved through their unique style of educational role playing. As an entity, it also boasts a Declaration of Independence that insists that kids have “the right to be,” a curiously head-scratching proposition if ever I read one, as well as a creation myth, which Rebecca Mead, the article’s author, summarizes as, “Kids, having seen what a mess adults had made of the world, founded their own country, whose borders children cross every time they visit the park.”

(If you’re searching for a textbook example of an argument swallowing its own tail—kids, disillusioned by the messy world we adults made, decided to create a new one in which they could act like… adults—look no further.)

In the words of the parks’ founder, Xavier Lopez Ancona, at KidZania, “We are empowering them (kids) to become independent. This is their world, where they are not being told what to do.”

(And once again our smooth sails hit a strong riffle—If the great value is independence, and I’m not allowing that it is, because let’s acknowledge that it appears both impossible and full of serious practical drawbacks, how long until independence is simply another term for dependence? Another way of thinking about this might be: if everyone is told to value being different, won’t we soon all be the same?)

Mead does a nice job succinctly analyzing the role of play in a child’s psycho-social development, and goes on to indicate that the “play” provided at KidZania comes up short across the board. By this she means that the play provided there is pre-determined by adults and offers little chance for open-ended exploration or ingenuity, all of which are qualities child psychologists insist are essential for play to be beneficial for children. As an example, Mead notes that when she walked past an art studio children were coloring-in pre-printed cartoons of the KidZania theme characters. So much for that vaunted independence.

Now, you might be thinking—well, maybe it’s a little odd kids wanting to work like adults when they should be enjoying the worklessness of childhood; and yes, perhaps since we’re all animals living on this plant with a host of other animals kids would do well to learn inter-dependence; and alright, maybe adults should provide kids with boundaries to structure their worlds (Don’t touch the stove—it’s hot and you’ll burn yourself! is about as valid a piece of knowledge any adult can pass down to the little ones); and okay, true play that explores the world is actually very important for a child’s development (to say nothing about how useful it is for an adult’s)—but still, what’s so scary about this theme-park?

Well, here goes the ‘splainin’.

“The ideal location for a KidZania is a place where there is a high disposable income and an ethos of spending prevails; where children are sophisticated consumers of popular culture and users of digital media; and expect novelty and stimulation; and where there are few cultural or historical attractions, and little else to do in the way of entertainment.”

When a kid enters a KidZania park, he or she has a “security bracelet” strapped about the wrist that makes sure they don’t run off the premises unattended. That’s a nice idea, but the bracelet also—surprise surprise—tracks their activities while they’re in the park. And what exactly is the information that is tracked? Not only what “work” they like to do, but how and what they consume with the kidzos they receive as pay.

And who receives that useful information? The list of KidZania corporate sponsors, whose presence in the parks is seemingly baldly on display, includes: McDonald’s, WalMart, Sony, Kellogg’s, Johnson&Johnson, American Airlines, Dell, Cocoa Cola, and many others, a collection also known as, Every brand you need to survive in the 21st-Century. Huh, I wonder what they do with all that information they collect??

What we have in KidZania appears to be a microcosm of the capitalist experiment, an experiment whose macrocosmic name is called America. And while it’s true that we in America have the world’s largest economy by GDP, we also rank 34th in terms of income inequality, a tension which can summarized by the aphorism: the rich keep getting richer while the rest of us don’t.

At KidZania kids are taught to work, and to take the riches earned through their work and use them to consume. The grand imperatives here are independence, displayed through your choice of work, and further exemplified by your choice of consumption, all conducted under the banner of a world oddly structured without history. Oh, and it’s all passed off as an educational experience to boot.

You might be thinking—Well, isn’t that life? We work, we earn money and buy things with it that we use, and then we work again. To a certain degree, yes, it is, and it’s a process I do every day. But this cycle of capitalism is not the only game in town (viz: you’ll be encouraged to purchase nothing here, and so far my bank account has gained squat from these words). More importantly, it’s a cycle that can be broken, redefined, restructured, etc., because just look around—yes, it works, but it sure costs a hell of a lot of the human for it to function.

Pummeling all this into kids’ heads is beyond my pale, though I suppose if you’re disinterestedly interested in a study on successful brand-implementation this will be a great one to follow. I’m not so naive as to think kids are immune to capitalism; the little people I know are already full of brand knowledge and established preferences by age 5. But if life is to be reduced more or less to this process—be an independent worker, be an independent consumer, be an independent worker… surely the definition of life itself must be questioned.

As you can probably tell, I think it’s worth stepping back and questioning the merits of such a system. If you’ve read this far, who knows?—perhaps you are as well.

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