Over the last couple of weeks I have become unaccountably interested in baby development. This interest is liable to lead the unwary into a world of paranoia and guilt (particularly when accompanied by a vested – and babygro’ed – interest) and especially so if one reads the newspapers.
One of the first things you learn as a parent is that everyone has an opinion on what kids should do, and newspapers are no exception. Two broad schools of thought compete. The Mail view is that kids are innocent angels perpetually at risk from hordes of rampaging killyjoys, fiddlers and feckless parents (until they reach 10 or so, when they become verminous crime-breeding weasels). The Guardian perspective is that a child is born with soundly liberal views which they then gradually lose thanks to the depredations of The Man and his hypermediated and hypersexualised society.
So it was in the Guardian that I first encountered the SHOCK HORROR statistic (being read out on GMTV by Rowan Williams AS I TYPE!) that 70% of three-year-olds can recognise McDonalds whereas only 50% know their own surname (note how this can be spun into “know their own name”).
I’m sympathetic to the arguments this factoid is used to back up – McDonalds food isn’t good for kids (or anyone) and there’s too much aggressive advertising to kids around. But the initial shock value of these figures doesn’t stand up to much thought. Three-year-olds tend to spend the bulk of their time in the home, where their surname simply isn’t used much: besides, a surname is an administrative add-on to identity, designed to sort individuals into family units – there’s no compelling reason for a child that age to know it, as it won’t start influencing his/her interactions with others until school. They also already know their “name”, making the idea of a surname potentially confusing.
There’s no compelling reason for a kid to know what McDonalds’ is either, of course. But McDs has a key advantage over a surname, i.e. its outlets have an external physical reality that a curious child can point to and say “What’s that?” They also have a huge yellow M that makes this reality distinctive and attractive. (The McDonalds’ logo and design is definitely kid-friendly, but it was in place well before the era of cable TV)
So the truth – as I see it – behind the statistic is simply this: young children are very curious about objects and images around them, whether branded or not, and the surname stuff is spurious. Recognising McDonalds is not inherently more problematic or shocking than recognising a church or a duck or a lorry. The problem comes at the step beyond this factoid – how to stop children automatically classing the brands they encounter as “good”.