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.
My daughter had a couple friends from the first grade over to play at some point during the interminable winter break. My son, all of four years old, was excited enough about having guests over that he broke out his complete toy-gun arsenal: two miniature plastic M16s with neon pink barrels, a broken plastic pistol and a couple Star Wars blasters. The mother of one of the children, drinking coffee with me, didn't seem much concerned until her child picked up a gun and pointed it at my son. "Now," she said rather tightly, "we don't point guns at people."
But where should the kid point the gun? Into the air like the honor guard at a funeral? Into the ground? Wouldn't you be concerned if in your child's imagination, all he could think to do was fire warning shots into the dirt?
No. If you have a toy weapon, you shoot people with it. That's what children have been doing since the Bronze Age. I say this coming from a family of pacifist ministers—one of whom told me of friends many years ago who forbade toy guns in the house until they found their toddler making a gun out of slices of bread. The urge to act out violence is, well, baked into us.
So I am not sympathetic to the administration's handwringing calls for research into violent video games. It seems like a smokescreen for the coming fecklessness the White House knows it will be showing on the real gun issue.
Nor I am not that concerned about the idea of my children watching violent movies either. Bambi, after all, was listed by Time magazine as one of the top 25 Horror Movies of all time. And kids are naturally attracted to themes of violence and death. We may think the mental lives of our children are full of unicorns prancing in the meadows, but there's a lot of mayhem on their minds, too.
Lord knows I have no special insights into what turns play-shooters into actual shooters. But if you love your kids and treat them and your spouse well, I'd bet you can play Halo all day long and they wouldn't end up killers.
I am much more worried, then, about the new poll that says the NRA is more popular than Hollywood. Because, at risk of making a violently obvious point, mass violence on the screen is a lot more benign than the ability to unleash mass violence in real life.
People have their frustrations. Even toddlers smolder with rage. Teenagers and young adults all the more so. The real tragedy isn't that we let them act these frustrations out through entertainment, it's that we give them access to powerful real weaponry that can turn their passing mental stormclouds into actual, widespread death. People are going to point guns at each other. It's our job to make sure they're toy guns.
A couple of weeks ago in her pre-K class, my daughter Sasha created a book called "All About Me." Illustrated by Sasha, it featured captions, transcribed by her teacher, such as "I want to be a princess when I grow up" and "My favorite animal is a giraffe." One particular page caught my eye, however. "My wish," began the lines, below her drawing of what I assume is our family, "is for Jewish people to eat turkey so they can grow up big."
Since then, not a day has passed without my wondering giddily at what was going through her mind. Some kind of conflation of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving? But those were well over a month ago. In fact, it's a kind of confounding bit of prose—there is no way to try to understand it, and all I can really do is marvel at the impenetrable genius of her thinking. Sasha dictated those words to her teacher because she lives in her own world, paying attention only to the things she chooses to, and letting her imagination run wild. That is Sasha.
And that is why, in aftermath of the Newtown shootings, I felt perfectly comfortable leaving the radio on all the time, tuned to the unsettling NPR reports of precisely what had happened in Connecticut. Occasionally, Sasha would overhear a word she knew and liked and bring my attention to it—"They said New York City!" she'd call out—but as far as I could tell, she wasn't picking up the import of the broadcasts. Even though, on the day of the shooting, her class had practiced hiding, it didn't mean anything to her. It was a fun game, and nothing more.
I, too, was a lot like this as a kid (okay, as an adult, too). The world existed only when I chose to consciously observe it, and when I didn't I retreated into my imagination, concocting stories and characters and ideas that bore little relation to the reality that surrounded me. I saw plenty of violent cartoons—I particularly remember watching Robotech and realizing that it was the first animated show I'd seen where people actually died—and yet retained my innocence. As a geeky teenager, I watched A Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs and played the first generation of first-person shooters, and yet did not become a mass murderer.
And so Sasha, too, has a great deal of freedom in what she watches and how she plays. If she and her friends want to pretend to kill each other, then someone's going to end up pretend-dead. If she wants to watch Star Wars, I'll happily arrange a screening. I'm not worried. At some point years from now, the reality of death will dawn upon her, and the consequences of violence may shock her for the first time in her life, but until then, I'm willing to let her be a child, ecstatic in her own ignorance.
Of course, there's a flipside to this as well: other kids. I don't know what makes some kids into bullies, or killers, or just run-of-the-mill unthinking jerks, although I highly doubt it's any of the media-Hollywood scapegoats. But I do know they exist, and I'm far more concerned about protecting my daughter, and her bubble of pure fantasy, from them—from their taunts, their fists, and their guns.