Kids Are People: A Radical Idea

LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca are all top performers in their categories because they trust and respect kids.

Jens Peter de Pedro
By
Jens Peter de Pedro, Play Designer, Toca Boca
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As a creator of children’s interactive products, I sometimes get the question “What’s up with Scandinavia?!” Those people are surprised by the fact that LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca, three Scandinavian brands, are all at the top of the charts in their respective categories.

LEGO this year became the world’s largest toy company, surpassing Mattel. Minecraft … well, we all know about Minecraft; I don’t need to talk to its success. And little Toca Boca, a company that released its first product less than four years ago, is now one of the largest developer of apps for kids, second only to Disney. Is it all a coincidence? I don’t think so.

One might attribute Scandinavia’s success in children’s interactive media and toys to the fact that we are highly technological societies, or to that we value design highly, but that would only be part of the explanation. I’d like to argue that it also has very much to do with that we are slightly less hierarchical cultures and thus have more egalitarian societies. This makes it easier for us to understand those who are inevitably at the bottom of that hierarchy, the children. In a more egalitarian society people tend to be less concerned about getting and keeping power and more sympathetic to one another’s needs.

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In order to stay in power those at the top of the hierarchy will create ideologies that cement their power — ideologies that state it as a natural fact that their group should rule. It becomes important to differentiate themselves from the others by gender, ethnicity or religion. Most of these ideologies have names: sexism, racism, etc.

“Ageism” doesn’t tell the whole story

For discrimination based on age we say ageism. But it is really very different to not be able to get a job because you are 63 than it is to not be taken seriously in school because you are 8. There exists, however, a separate word already — albeit not commonly used — to describe prejudice and oppression against the young and that word is adultism.

Adultism can be described as the idea that adults know best and children should just do what they are told. Period.

This idea is alive and well in most parts of the world today. How else could a book like “Go The F–k To Sleep” ever become No. 1 on the New York Times best sellers list? If you’re not familiar with it here’s an excerpt from the book:

All the kids from daycare are in dreamland.

The froggie has made his last leap.

Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom.

You know where you can go? The f–k to sleep.

“Go The F–k To Sleep” is an illustrated book for adults that has been on the Top 5 in the Family category forever. Its sequel “You Have To F–king Eat” is also currently in the Top 10. “Brilliant!” says a review on the cover, and while I can see it’s clever, I just can’t laugh at it because it is so disrespectful to children in my mind. It has only the adult perspective, and a book written like this about any other group of people is unimaginable.

There is no way books like this would make it to market in Scandinavia. The book and the jokes are adultist and I cannot laugh because I have come to firmly believe in childism.

Adultism can be described as the idea that adults know best and children should just do what they are told. Period.

“Childism”: We should deal with kids as equals

Childism is the radical idea that kids are people; thus follows we should always try to see things from their perspective when interacting with them. We should deal with kids as equals — forget our pride and talk to each other. There is no “because I said so” and then that’s it. We talk. I now think of the relationship to my daughters as the one to my wife. How do we solve things? We talk.

In Scandinavian countries we see things from the children’s perspective a little more than others. Here are three examples from my native country of Sweden that illustrate our more childist viewpoint:

Education. In Sweden we still trust children to learn on their own more than in other countries. In school, children enjoy free play and basically no academics until age 7. There are no grades until age 12. Schools have free, play-based after school programs for all. Of course it’s still possible to go through 12 years of schooling without anyone asking you what you’re interested in learning. We are still adultist, just less so.

Parenting. The city of Stockholm offers free parenting classes that are advertised with the slogan “What kind of a parent do you want to be?” Inside a testimonial reads: “‘Now it is easier to agree and compromise’ — Father of two, age 44.” I just can’t imagine encountering a publicly sponsored parenting course encouraging parents to compromise with their children in many other places, but parents and children in Scandinavia have quite egalitarian relationships. You are more likely to find a father outside the supermarket discussing with his son why it’s not possible to buy candy than you are to find one yelling at his offspring for wanting to have sweets. However I have witnessed a father lying by saying he didn’t have any more money for candy, because we even if we are less adultist, we are a little meek at times.

City planning. In the 1970s, when Stockholm was being rapidly urbanized, the local government set a goal that there should be no more than 400 meters to the nearest playground for 90 percent of children in the city. To this day, if you walk through Stockholm you’ll see the city kept its promise. Children make up 10 percent to 20 percent of the population, and perhaps the right thing would’ve been to devote a proportionate amount of real estate to them. We’re not that enlightened yet, but we did more than most cities, because we are a little more prone to seeing the world from the children’s perspective.

Childism is the radical idea that children are people.

I would like to argue that today most adults are as far off, and just as wrong, in our view of children as Europeans were 400 years ago when when they first encountered people from other continents. We simply don’t understand children. Just like when we encountered native cultures we just gaze at them and realize that we are more advanced and powerful, based on our own criteria, and so we assume natural superiority. The effects of the assumption of superiority of other groups of people have had dire consequences for humanity, and we will solve no significant problems in education or parenting before we realize that we are suffering from something very similar when it comes to how we view our young: adultism.

It’s about trusting and respecting children

The reason LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca are so successful is simply because they are all the result of a less adultist society. LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen’s motto was “Only the best is good enough.” In the early days, when the company made wooden toys for children, he had the toys painted three times. When his son oversaw a batch and bragged he only painted them twice to save time, Ole Kirk had him unpack the whole train and put that third layer on all of the toys.

When you fully trust and respect children you will put all the resources you have to make a high-quality product for them. And the ultimate quality that a product can have is giving children freedom. Freedom? Yes, it is the freedom that LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca offer the children who use these products that make them so appreciated.

Children are told what to do all day by adults, whether it’s getting ready for school, following the teachers instructions, doing homework or participating in adult-led after school activities. When they do have that precious time to play freely it is priceless to have a toy that is powerful and that can yet be used in near infinite ways. No one is telling them what to do or how to play! What a relief!

LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca are the result of someone trusting and respecting children enough to give them the freedom to play and participate on their own terms. Two eight-stud Lego bricks can be combined in 24 different ways, and three eight-stud LEGO bricks in 1,060 ways. Minecraft is an infinite self-generating world inspired by Markus “Notch” Persson’s forest adventures as a child. In Toca Kitchen 2, there are no recipes to follow; each of the 11 food items can be prepared by using five different kitchen appliances in any order. As much as possible it resembles cooking in a real kitchen.

When you fully trust and respect children you will put all the resources you have to make a high-quality product for them.

Whether you want to have a better relationship with your own children, or with your young customers, I suggest that you examine yourself for traces of adultism. Are you controlling or empowering children? Are you making decisions for them or letting them learn by making their own? You will undoubtedly find some adultism in your attitudes and behavior, as I have in mine. On a daily basis I notice in the interaction with my daughters that I haven’t been able to fully get rid of my adultism, but I’m steadily getting better at listening to them and not defaulting to using my adult veto. I use it less and less, and our relationship is so much better for it. It took until 2015, but it is with pride that I can now state:

I believe in Childism.

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