Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Limited Media

Exposing one's child to less media than his peer group can have unexpected and challenging outcomes as he gets older. This was driven home to me twice today.

First, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law, Julie. Julie and her husband are raising two delightfully smart and funny children and their parenting style is quite similar to ours. We were discussing Julie's four-year old son today, who, it seems, is suddenly expressing a lot of fears. Four is an age of fears, without a doubt. But my nephew is scared about the way his peers are playing at preschool. Their play is frightening to him: pirates who chase and capture others, alligators who might "get" you. This little guy is uncomfortable with it and disassociates himself with it - which is fine, but of course no one wants him to be feeling scared and isolated from his friends. This is very normal play for children their age, and there is nothing wrong with it. But it is something that we came up against as well - Baxter was petrified by the way kids were playing when he was in preschool. Kids who haven't watched much television or movies at this age often have no experience with such play themes and can be extremely sensitive to pretend play that depicts aggression or danger. Baxter was scared out of his pants over segments of Sesame Street until he was at least 5 years old. I kid you not. It was one reason we began showing him some mainstream movies around ages 4-5, but we did this at home where we could pause it and talk about what's happening and fast forward through some of the worst parts. I also realize in hindsight that maybe introducing some books with scarier themes would have been useful at that age so we could have talked more to him and could've acted them out to demystify the fears a bit.

Not two hours later, I overheard a conversation between Baxter and a school peer. I listened, heart in my throat, as the boy barraged him with questions: "You don't watch Pokeman??" "You don't even know about Yu-gi-oh?" To say that he was shocked would be an understatement. "Don't you have HBO Family? Loony Toons?" And finally, "Well, what kids' channels do you have?" This last was directed at me. A school friend was recently overheard to say to our son, sighing with complete disgust, "I suppose you don't know about Star Wars, either." I generally do a good job of not stepping in and saving my kids from normal social situations, but even I couldn't take it after a while. "We don't really watch TV much at our house," I offered. "Huh?" said the friend, surprised. "Yeah! We play!" chirped Baxter, catering to the party line. "Yeah, we usually play, or read books...go outside. We do different kinds of things." I did my best to sound casual and not defensive, but wanted to remind Baxter of what he could say in response to such an onslaught. And you know, the boy said to me rather sadly, "We mostly stay in. We don't get to go to the playground too much at all, even in the summer."

I don't question the way we've chosen to limit our kids' exposure to the media (TV, radio, videos, video games, computer games) but I'm learning that it does require a child to have a strong sense of self to get through some of these social interactions with his friends. It's really important to explain to children the reasons why we don't do those "typical" things so that they understand it. After we said good-bye to the friend, we headed to the playground.

Wanting to see what my son was thinking about that conversation, I mentioned that his friend sure liked those card games and TV shows. "Yeah, he does!" said Baxter. "Does it bother you at all that you don't know about all that stuff?" I asked, thinking that maybe some Pokemon exposure was due. "Nope," he said, jumping off a ladder and racing his brother across the playground. Seems like he's doing okay with it so far, but it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the coming years.


Becky said...

I hope we raise Anya to handle these situations that she will likely be in herself someday with the same grace that Baxter does. I'm glad we have such good role models right next door!

Shan said...

This is a timely topic for us. We just ordered basic cable yesterday after almost a year and a half of negligible TV in our new town. I won't go into our reasons here--I wrote about it last week on my blog, in a post titled "Vices"--but now we finally get PBS, meaning that Julia could actually watch Sesame Street for the first time. We are debating how much and when we will allow this; she knows about S.S. from a music DVD she got from friends as a baby, and to say she adores all things S.S. is a grand understatement. She spends hours each day acting out imaginary scenarios with her Ernie and Bert dolls, she sings songs from her S.S. CDs, she's just absolutely in love with all the S.S. characters (except the Count, of whom she is afraid). She is also extremely curious about letters, spelling, words, etc., and would really get a lot out of the educational component of the show. It will be a great pleasure to her, I know. And yet, I don't want her to get used to watching (any) TV on a daily basis--I think an hour of screen time a day for a toddler is too much. But, I do look forward to exposing her to S.S. occasionally, to see the thrill it will give her and also b/c I adore the show myself and have fond memories of it from my own early childhood. Not to mention it will be helpful on occasion when I really need to get something done around the house and a distraction for her would help me do that.

It's interesting to consider the issues you raise about the social repercussions of limited media, b/c Julia pretty much defines the term "sensitive child." I have not yet begun to worry about this issue--after all, she's only almost three--but I'm sure it will come up in our household too.

Jordan said...

I absolutely love watching Sesame Street with the boys - I too have strong childhood memories of it. At this point with Lyle, once every couple of weeks (which is how often we're actually home when it's on) I'll turn it on about 20 minutes before the end - that way we usually just catch Elmo's World, which we both enjoy and is not too long. I have come to believe in the power of a good kids' TV show on PBS - I watch part of it with them and get things done during the rest. These days Lyle watches his favorite Caillou video while I make dinner. It's great for all of us!

Christopher Tassava said...

This is a great post. I'm really impressed with Baxter's matter-of-fact response to his friend! His parents must know what they're doing.

The TV situation that Shannon mentions is always a ripe one, not least because Julia would indeed soak up S.S. like a sponge - and whatever else is on, and get scared of stuff right and left.

But the question of how kids should spend their time - or rather how parents should structure kids' time - is bigger and even more important, which is why I think Baxter's list of non-TV activities is especially fantastic. I just read a great article called "Leave No Child Inside," about the need to get kids out of the house and doing stuff - practically anything - outdoors. It resonates perfectly with attempts to minimize TV watching, among other concerns.

Jordan said...

Oy. I am looking forward to reading that article, Christopher. It's my hugest issue for kids right now and it's all wrapped up in itself: too much TV time = not enough play time indoors or outdoors = unhealthy families. It is appalling how little exercise kids in Chicago get at school - they get a 20 minute break at 11 AM...and - get this - it includes lunch time! Then they get ONE hour of gym a week. So when you imagine that many of these kids are NOT running around for fun, or at a swimming or soccer class (which of course opens the "overscheduled kids" can of worms!), well, it's a recipe for disaster. No one should be surprised about the childhood obesity problem in the US.