Controlling Children’s Media Access Part One: Challenging What We Think We Know

This article was originally published in Home Education Magazine September-October 2012.
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Like so many parents who have made the choice to not send children to school, I spent a lot of time researching alternatives to schools. By making the choice to go with an alternative education, I felt I needed to make all the right decisions about what the children in my life would be exposed to for as long as I could.

I decided early on to restrict access to television. We routinely only allowed the first child in our life to watch PBS shows. We slowly branched out to some movies and shows that we thought were enriching and educational.

When I allowed myself to truly examine why I restricted media consumption, I had to admit I was fearful of all the harmful effects of indiscriminate media exposure.

Deep down, I was fearful of many things as a parent.

I was afraid of the harmful impact of certain foods. I was afraid of the harmful impact of television and movies. I was afraid of the harmful effects of certain kinds of toys that are routinely marketed to children.

I covered up all of this fear in the cloak of being a “responsible parent.” As a responsible parent in our culture, I needed to protect the children in my life from those things that could harm their emotional, intellectual, and physical development.

As a result of these fears, I controlled many aspects of Martel’s life.

I never questioned my right to control their life for their own good. And, I never questioned whether the kind of control I wielded over their life was harmful in any way.

So instead I remained afraid of  watching the Power Rangers, or playing violent video games, because I knew they would internalize that violence and become violent.

I had taken in without question the belief that children could not distinguish between real life and television. I had accepted without question the summaries of the studies I read in popular magazines and newspapers about how violent video games resulted in violent children, or at minimum, children who were desensitized to acts of violence.

It is ironic that I didn’t question this belief, as I was determined to raise children who were able to critically question and analyze media.

At the same time, I loved to go to the movies. As a child and teenager, I remember movies that made an impact on me and that remained favorites as I grew older. And, I also wanted to share some of those movies with the children in my life.

I remember when I first introduced the original Star Wars trilogy to the first child in my life. Over the course of my life, I had watched them countless times. When I showed them to them, I remember that there were two scenes in particular that I did not want them to see.

I thought they were too scary and I would fast forward when they came up. The new Star Wars trilogy was already out, and I had decided he would not be able to see those until he was much older because of the violent content.

The child was 5 years old and I remember one day they were in the bedroom watching the movies recovering from a cold. They had already watched the movies several times with me fast-forwarding through the “objectionable” scenes.

I heard one of the scenes come up and as I went into the bedroom, they slammed the door, held it closed and yelled, “Mom, don’t worry the scene’s almost over, and then you can come in.”

The child had decided that I was fast-forwarding past those scenes because I was scared, not because they were scared. In fact, they were not scared at all.

Why did the child think I was scared of those scenes? Because I had actually lied and said that I was scared and that’s why we needed to fast forward the movie.

“For their own good”

I was not neutral about what kinds of shows and videos the child watched. I truly believed that controlling access to media was for their own good. It was around the same time as the Star Wars incident that I started to read articles and blogs from parents who did not control their children.

These parents introduced me to the idea that I could trust the children in my life to know when they had reached the edge of their comfort zone. I opened up to the idea that self-regulation was learned internally, not because I imposed it externally.

When I began to observe, in a neutral way, the child’s reactions to shows, I realized that they did get scared and want to change the channel while watching certain shows. What these shows had in common was a child (or children) who was “getting into trouble” and would soon be scolded or punished by their parents or other adults (for example, Caillou, on PBS).

The also did not like shows where children or teenagers were in danger. If they saw something that made them uncomfortable, they would ask me to change the channel or turn off the show.

I realized that all along the child had been communicating their comfort level to me. Though I complied with the requests, I did not make the connection that, in fact, they were self-regulating their own access to media. Because I did not trust children, I could not comprehend what was right in front of me.

As I let go of more and more control, I was still be fearful of the children in my life seeing violence on television and not understanding the difference between real life and a show.

These fears were dispelled in conversations with them about what they saw in shows. When we brought up what really happens when someone is shot, or falls off a building, they were quite quick to remind us that of course they knows it is only a movie. The children have not translated what they sees on the screen into their real lives.

Watching Violence = Violent Child?

In real life, the children in my life have developed compassion and empathy for others. They are loving and caring, while at the same time they are human. They do get angry and frustrated, as we all do.

But, once I stopped controlling the child’s life, angry outbursts, which might have included hitting and shoving, stopped. My fears of the child turning into a violent person because they played certain video games and watched certain shows have turned out to be baseless.

Too often, our fears do not allow us to observe a situation from a neutral perspective and so we miss critical details. This is what happened to me with media access. When I was fearful about their exposure to television, especially violence, I looked for confirmation of that point of view, that belief.

My personal task is to try and understand what socialization processes have led to those fears (or other strong emotions) in order to understand the role the emotions are playing in my life.

In the same way that I hope the children in my life will have the skills to critically analyze situations, information, and data, I need to do the same.

Our Challenge as Parents

The challenging part for me, and so many parents, is that because we care so deeply about the development of the children in our lives, our fears (even when we are unaware of them) can too easily cause us to only see what we are afraid of.

Our fears become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. They frame how we see the world. We see confirmation of those fears, but are unwilling or unable to see information or data, even in children, that contradicts that frame of reference or belief.

The good news is that my fear can also be entry point for understanding myself more deeply.

I can use those feelings to reflect on what I may have accepted as truth. I can challenge myself to move out of this fear to see a new frame of reference.

My task is to question the need for control of children. It is to question what I believe is true about about children. Instead of seeing what I expect to see, I can look for what is really happening in their lives.

Fear and control go hand-in-hand. The messages we hear about parenting are cloaked in both fear and control. We hear over and over how parents needs to be in control to properly socialize children.

When I rejected this belief, and I was willing to acknowledge my fears while letting go of the need to control, my relationships with Martel and Greyson changed dramatically.

Instead of conflict and challenge, we connected. Instead of anger and frustration from being controlled, they began to understand what it meant to be in control of their own lives.

Their ideas and voices mattered. I learned and they learned. We learned about each other and we learned about the world more openly and with greater passion.

I can be with them and explore the new worlds they find in the various media they choose to engage. I can learn along with them in this process and be on the journey with them.

Not controlling them for their own good, but supporting the process of their learning and growth, while challenging myself to continue learning and growing.

One of my hopes for the children in my life is that they are critical thinkers and life long learners. I need to honor the ways they choose to learn. I need to give them opportunities and support for engaging in critical thinking at each stage of their lives.

My task is not to decide when they are ready to engage in critical thinking. My task is not to decide what topics they should engage critically. My task as a parent is to create space for them to stretch and grow, even if it challenges my own comfort zone.

Perhaps this is what I can best model for them, being willing to challenge myself to go beyond what I think I know.

Read Controlling Children’s Media Access Part 2:
Are Stereotypes and Prejudice Only Perpetuated in the Media?

Read Controlling Children’s Media Access Part 3:
What is the Real Learning Going On?

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