Watching What Your Child Watches

We seem to be the only parents of our kids’ friends to have standards re. movies and videos. Our daughters will come home and tell us what they saw at a neighbour’s and we’re appalled. Any ideas on how to deal with this? P.S. In most other ways, we have very similar values to these other families.

This is a difficult question which I’ve heard many times from idealistic parents who really want to protect their children from both frightening experiences and bad influences. We need to protect our children as much as we can while they’re still young, while also building in them the strength to resist some of what they will inevitably be exposed to sooner or later.

Teaching children to handle scary movies or morally bankrupt television shows is actually no different from teaching them how to ride a bicycle or to manage their money. You don’t let a child be exposed to what he or she isn’t yet ready to handle. But as the child grows, you gradually teach her to deal with progressively more challenging situations. So with bicycle riding, you begin with a tricycle in the back yard or on the sidewalk, move up to training wheels with you beside her, and eventually remove the training wheels, all the while teaching your child principles of safe riding. With money management you begin with a very small allowance just for treats, then gradually increase it and let it cover more areas of the child’s life (busfare, clothing, charity) while teaching principles of money management. It’s really no different with a child’s learning to deal with what’s on television or videos. Allow exposure gradually, while teaching and questioning, so that your child learns to discern for herself what shows are or are not worth watching, and what shows are or are not telling the truth.

When a child is very little, she can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. She thinks the lion will jump out of the television set and eat her. She thinks the ghosts and monsters are real. So you have to be very careful with “horror” films and shows, including the news, so as not to traumatize your child. She also thinks the world is the way any adults portray it, and copies whatever she sees, so if she sees adults on TV with shallow values, she will imitate what she sees. And if she sees a lot of violence without real consequences to the supposed “good guys,” she begins to believe that violence is the way of the world and that might makes right, especially if she sees herself as the “good guy.” When your child is very little (under about 8), it’s possible to shelter her from this strange and dangerous fictional world. And you must do so as much as possible, which may mean phoning her friends’ parents and asking them not to have such shows on TV when she’s visiting.

But as she becomes older, avoiding exposure becomes less and less possible and feels more and more like a violation of your child’s freedom. Now it’s time to “inoculate” her against the influences of these shows by watching them with her. Turn on your television, and look at the shows together. With regards to the scary stuff, show her how the “monsters” are made. Give her information about what is real and what is fake, so that she can tell the difference. If she’s been exposed to a lot of frightening realistic violence, like action movies, let her know that most of the real world isn’t like this, that most people don’t carry a gun, and that she can be safe at home. If the news is bothering her, let her know that the frightening stuff is on the news because it is news, because it hardly ever happens.

The modeling of violence is trickier. Watch the cartoons with your child, see the characters dying and coming alive again, and tell her that this is unreal, that real dead creatures don’t come alive again, and that it’s okay to pretend as long as she knows it’s just cartoons. If she’s being exposed to violent action shows at other people’s homes, watch some of this with her too, and inoculate her against its effect by discussing it. Point out that everyone thinks they’re the “good guys,” and discuss whether it’s really good to get revenge, as so many of these shows teach. As she becomes older, there will be a lot of shows with questionable moral content, including sexual promiscuity, preoccupation with appearance, and materialism. Again, watch with her and question things. If she’s moving into her teens, let her know that most people don’t have sex on their first date, and that if they do they don’t enjoy it, despite what the movies portray!

Don’t lecture her, but ask her questions which make her think. You may find that your child becomes temporarily “addicted” to shows which teach her about parts of life she’s never seen at home. I know this feels awful, but perhaps it’s better that she learns about these things from the movies than from real life experimentation. I know I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do from watching such things as a teenager. You’ll find that the addiction wears off once she’s mastered some understanding of what such shows portray – and you can speed this process by watching with her and helping her ask useful questions.

Finally, join your child in watching watch some of the few TV shows and movies which make fun of the others and satirize our society’s superficial values. I particularly recommend “The Simpsons,” which has really made my children and myself think about some of the things we take for granted in our society. It will go “over the head” of a six-year-old, but an 11-year-old will be able to recognize the satire and learn from it.

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