Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Systems of Influence: Helping children make sense of the world

One well-known theory of how children develop was proposed by Urie Bronfenbrenner and is called the Ecological Systems Theory. In this theory, it’s thought that children are influenced by the different systems that are in their lives. The microsystem is the child him or herself and the close relationships in a child’s life such as family, school, church, and friends, the exosystems are influential but more removed things in a child’s society such as mass media, and the macrosystems are larger ideas that touch a child’s life, such as the cultural in general.  These systems are considered interactive, which means that one influences another to help the child learn things such as acceptable behaviors and values.

In talking about the interactivity of these systems, we must also look at how they influence each other in a child’s life.  For example, in 2010 a viral video hit the internet of a group of 8 or 9-year-old girls dancing to Beyonce’s song Single Ladies while dressed in what appeared to be a child’s version of lingerie, complete with thigh high hose, a bra like top and hot pants. Because the little girls were repeating some of the dance moves that the singer had done in the official video for the song, they were bumping, grinding, and shimmying. To many people who saw the video on the internet, this was a clear case of the sexualization of children. And yet, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, parents of two the girls defended both the costumes and the dance moves as appropriate given the fact that they were in a dance competition. These parents were using the context of the behavior to excuse it. One of the mothers even said she wouldn’t let her child wear that outfit anywhere else, but because it was at a dance competition, it was appropriate.

This is a perfect case of the interactivity of systems of influence within a child’s life. The macrosystem of our culture in general has begun to accept sensationalized sexualization to garner attention. The mass media sent the message that it’s appropriate for little girls to dress as sexualized grown women through television programs such as Toddlers and Tiaras and products such as Baby Bratz which have baby dolls wearing make-up, low-cut diapers, and belly shirts, and of course the clothes that are marketed to children that are scaled down versions of adult labels, such as Beyonce’s House of Dereon’s children’s line. The larger community of the dance competitions had promoted the idea that it was acceptable for children to wear revealing clothes when dancing. These are both exosystem ideas.

Now we get to the place of  interactivity which occurs between these larger systems and the microsystems. Within these systems in this type of situation you have the dance school that these girls attended and their families and close friends. If anyone at this level had thought to critique the ideas being promoted by the macro and exosystems, then the girls might have worn different costumes, done different dance moves, or danced to a different song completely. Of course, I wasn’t involved directly in this situation, so I don’t know that there wasn’t a parent, child, or teacher who didn’t question some of the macro and exosystem values being promoted. But, whatever occurred, the show went on as it did.

To really grasp the power of the microsystems, we have to understand that they are the strongest influence on the child. In situations similar to the one described above in my life, I have seen the power of the microsystem in challenging the values of the exosystem. In one instance, my children were attending a dance school with a friend’s children. They were in different classes, and my friend voiced some concern about the song choice for her daughter’s performance. While she recognized that the music had a good beat and was good to dance to, she felt that the words were inappropriate for six-year-olds to dance to because of their sexual nature. When my friend approached the teacher and the director of the school, they were able to work out a compromise where the music was used without the words.

This was a powerful stance on the part of this mother, and it made a difference! Had she not felt empowered to exert her own influence on the systems in which her children were functioning, then things wouldn’t have changed. From the perspective of parents and other caring adults, it’s vital that we understand that we do have the power to interact with the systems that influence our children. From signing a petition to talking to a teacher, it is both our right and our privilege to be able to step in and be willing to speak up when we don’t agree with something that is happening within our child’s world.

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