Children face bigger threats than fictional violence.
Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about how they regulate their children's media consumption. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.
A few years ago, I received a letter from my son's preschool informing me that one of his teachers had committed suicide. The school administrators offered few details of the tragedy, but did inform me that they would not tell the children of the young woman's death, but only that she had unexpectedly moved to another city, sadly without being able to say goodbye.
This sparked a furious round of emails on the class listserv, with the consensus among my fellow parents being that the truth should not be withheld. My ex-wife and I, however, found ourselves of the minority opinion, and in rare agreement with each other: We preferred our son not know. He was still three, largely pre-verbal, a wide-eyed reflecting pool of a child who broadcast back whatever visual, social, and emotional cues he was given. He had yet to endure the loss of a loved one, and despite death's inevitability, it being part of life and all that, we saw no reason to involve him. Like the school, we felt the best thing was to keep quiet. It could be addressed if anything untoward occurred.
A few days later the school sent home another letter. The other parents had, as was their right, been discussing the suicide with their children, which, of course, caused the news to spread throughout the school. The administrators conceded that silence was no longer an option, and engaged a therapist to come to talk to the kids and to observe their responses. Soon after, I spoke with my son of death for the first time. I explained it as best I could—which is to say, not well—and he lobbed questions about the fates of grandparents and pets, of me and his mother, of him, of what would become of us all, until his curiosity, thankfully, faded.
When Newtown happened, again I had to decide what to say. I assumed my son had now grown too old—six going on 15—to ignore the subject. My ex-wife disagreed, though, and asked that I wait for him to mention the massacre. I wasn't opposed. Kids are unpredictable and enigmatic animals—the more I know them the less I understand their minds. Often it works best to meet their needs only if those are explicitly known. I wasn't optimistic in this case, though. The Newtown atrocity was too public—the radio blared its horrid truths, images of the aftermath burst from the television. The fear of murder seemed everywhere. He couldn't help but notice.
And maybe he did. Maybe his school cronies batted it around in the riot of the play yard. Maybe his first-grade teacher, whom he adores, made some reference to it. I don't know. He never said anything. So neither did I.
Did it cause any change to my approach to his television watching or video game playing? No. His habits have changed these past months, but the massacre didn't figure into it. More important was his two-year-old sister's newfound attachment to televised entertainment. Because of it, and in those moments when my son and his sister are allowed control of the TV (generally, I rule the remote), they watch at her level, not his. That means an awful lot of Curious George and Martha Speaks and Sesame Street and no Star Wars: Clone Wars or Para-Norman. Newtown, or any other tragic act of violence, did not spur me to remove violent images from his purview—his sister did.
Presumably, all this speaks to some flaw in my parenting philosophy. Allowing the older kid to watch only programs suitable for the younger is hardly a winning technique to promote happiness, emotional stability, and early admission to Harvard. Yet what possible role could something like Newtown, however tragic, play in guiding my choices for my son?
I don't let him watch violent or scary movies because they might scare him or upset him. I don't let him play video games because he becomes a brat when I tell him to stop. The world will do as it must. I'll take care of my own.