Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sheltering Children

This Friday, I head off to Wiscon for three panels. One of them is called "Should Children be Sheltered from Violence?" In a previous post, someone asked me what my views were on this subject. I started to respond to her, but soon realized I'd need to write an entire post. So here are a few quick thoughts . . .

I grew up in a home where no one was allowed to talk about sex . We all acted like it didn't actually exist. I couldn't even say the word b-o-y without someone interrogating me for a good month or two afterward. We (my brother and I) couldn't date, and we couldn't be seen in public with anyone of the opposite sex. And yet, no one ever considered sheltering us from the violence we watched on a regular basis on television. My parents let us watch everything - evening news, horror films, all kinds of violent and bloody epic battles on TV.

It got to the point where I started self-censoring the images I consumed because they would flash through my mind constantly, and I was in a perpetual state of anxiety. I was afraid to be alone in any room of the house, even the bathroom. To this day, I have to cover my eyes when the scary music comes on at movies. There have been numerous studies about the long-term effects of violent media images on children. Nancy Carlsson Paige has an entire site devoted to the subject, and makes some interesting points about the relationship between deregulation of the entertainment industry in the '80s, and increased marketing of violent films directly toward children.

I know "protecting children" is the official line of most censorship boards, but to me censoring is NOT the same as protecting. Censoring is about control. It is a blanket prohibition of all things related to the material considered offensive, rather than looking at the context of the material and the possible benefits of exposing young minds to said material. Sheltering/protecting, however, connotes providing guidelines, looking at material with young people and having thoughtful, honest dialogue during and/or afterward. "Sheltering" (I'm sure there's a better term), in my view, is more of a response to caring about the emotional and psychological health of young people - not wanting to control or contain them.

The censorship of books like Judy Blume's, Chris Crutcher's, J.K. Rowling's, Ellen Hopkins', and a whole list of others is more about the fear of the adults doing the censoring - not about what kids can handle. Reading those books never damaged me as a child, and children reading them today are not being subjected to long-term emotional or psychological damage caused by the content within their pages.

Then I think about the MIA video I blogged about earlier and how shaken up I was by it. It depicted brutal violence at its most graphic. I'm glad I saw it because it really is a remarkable statement about the fallacy of using violence to "end" violence, and the whole concept of profiling terrorists, but I couldn't eat for the rest of the day after I watched it. The images made their way into my dreams and I was jittery for days. And I would NEVER watch it again.

I don't think children should be kept away from what is real and what affects them in their daily lives. Things like cursing (there are words a hundred times more painful to hear than some curse words), poverty, racism, sexuality, gender issues, etc. are around us all the time and should be honestly discussed - not hidden, softened, or prettied up. Children aren't dumb and selectively blind. They see things, hear things, are highly sensitive witnesses. They want and deserve the truth. They need to understand and we, as the adults in their lives, are their primary source of information.

At the same time, witnessing acts of extreme violence and brutality can be traumatizing to adults, never mind young people. Within the context of a film or television show (or music video!), the viewer is expected to suspend his/her disbelief. Children do this far more readily than adults. When you suspend your disbelief, you immerse yourself in the narrative. You become part of the emerging story. And if that story is violent and scary, you actually LIVE it. You experience it fully. It's why we're on the edge of our seats and our hearts are in our throats as we read a book or watch a film.

Ultimately, I think we have to know what children are seeing and/or reading (especially since children tend to read "up" from their age/grade level), we have to be prepared to talk about it and answer the tough questions, and we have to be comfortable with the discomfort.

I have a lot more to add on this topic - particularly from the perspective of writers and artists who create work about (or that includes) violence, but I will save it for the panel at Wiscon. If you have thoughts you'd like to add, I'd love to read them.

I will do a post after the conference, too, so hopefully I can cover more of the discussion points then.


Mrs. Pilkington said...

YES, especially on the dialogue, and being comfortable with the discomfort!

Deepa said...

I love your post on this Neesha. This is a subject I think about a lot. The covert and overt sexualization of children in our society is really insane, as well. It's a form of violence against them too. I believe in educating a child about such things very early, but on my terms. I want it to be my husband or I, in partnership with a really smart teacher, helping him figure out the world's problems - specially the big ones.

Have you seen this?
Nickelodeon decided to expose children to violent and sexualized games, through their website!


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