Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Television: Pandora's Box or Educational Entertainment?

Disney's new movie: "Tangled"
I took my almost 4-year old kids to their first movie yesterday. I was both excited at the idea of sharing something that had the potential to be a wonderful childhood memory, and terribly anxious that I was exposing them to something they weren't ready for. I decided to take them to see Disney's "Tangled" as I liked what I had read about how the whole princess thing was handled. But I was stressed about how the kids would react to the evil "step-mother"/witch. 

Our children didn't watch any television until they were over three years old. I am one of those people who grew up watching a LOT of television. In many ways it was my constant companion, always on in the background, and it stayed this way throughout my adulthood. Before I became a mom, I read a number of studies that showed how detrimental television was to developing babies (particularly under age 2) and I knew I wanted to wait for some time before our kids were exposed to it. I made my husband a bit crazy because I didn't even want the TV on in the same room as the kids; when it came time for college basketball season there was a begrudging acceptance for this new law in our home. 

There is a lot of research out there about the damaging effects of television on young children. Dr. Jenn Berman has an excellent, well-researched, thorough chapter in her book SuperBaby: 12 Ways To Give Your Child A Head Start In The First 3 Years. In that chapter, she has a section titled "How TV Pushes Your Kid's Button: Fourteen Viewing Risks for Children" in which she describes television's role in issues as varied as ADD, high blood pressure, depression, aggression and the drop in creativity. One of the risks Dr. Jenn mentions is Fear: 
"Dr. Joanne Cantor, an internationally recognized expert on children and television and author of Mommy, I'm Scared!, refers to movies and television as 'the number one preventable cause of nightmares and anxieties in children.' In fact, most children have been frightened, sometimes very seriously, by something they have seen on TV. A random sampling of parents in Madison, Wisconsin, whose children were in kindergarten through the sixth grade, found that 43 percent of those parents reported that their children had been frightened by something on television and that the fear had outlasted the program. These fears can raise a child's level of anxiety and increase nightmares. In a survey of 150 college students, 90 percent reported experiencing a fear reaction from media during childhood. These students reported trouble sleeping and eating after watching shows, and over a quarter of the respondents said the effects lasted for more than a year. The younger the respondents were when they viewed a scary movie and TV program, the longer-lasting the effects."
So, we headed off to "Tangled". I had prepped our kids in every way I could think of from describing what a movie theater is like (big, dark, loud, large screen, lots of people) to what this movie was actually about and, thanks to our nanny who had seen it and a friend who had taken her daughter already, what scenes might be a little scary. The kids seemed totally OK with it and didn't even have too many questions. I was still trepidatious, but I had discussed this event in my mothers of multiples support group earlier in the day (are you surprised?) and got what sounded like very good advice: it is OK for kids to experience a little bit of fear and to have the chance to feel brave and work through it.

The kids were excited. We got our popcorn and took our seats. The reviews went by with only one highly inappropriate trailer which my kids didn't seem to take notice of. The movie starts and I think to myself, "this is going to be so great! I am sharing a movie with my kids"! Literally, three minutes later, the witch reaches her gnarled hand into baby Rapunzel's crib, and my son shoots his hand out to block her, whips his face behind my back and wails "No! No! Get me out of here! Scary! Scary!" I tried to calm him but he was having none of it; I walked him out to the lobby where we sat and talked.

I tried to explain how it wasn't real. We came up with ideas of what he could do when he is scared. I asked if he wanted to leave or try again and assured him that I didn't mind if we left. He wanted to try again so...back we went. Just in time to hear the witch telling Rapunzel in a menacing voice "Don't ever ask me about leaving the tower again"! Well, our son leaped out of his seat, looked at me in terror and took off down the stairs. So much for our movie-going experience.

My sweet, sensitive boy
He has always been extremely sensitive to people's emotions, facial expressions and intent. My gut instinct about this movie was that it would have an underlying current of scariness, as all Disney movies do. But every review I read said it was different, that it was funny and clever. Maybe it is, but it is also scary for a sensitive boy who is not quite 4. And what about our daughter? She seemed to like it better, but at 2 in the morning both kids were up for almost 2 hours, unable to sleep. Our daughter said her tummy hurt. 

Our kids have a couple of friends who watch a lot of television and who see a lot of movies that I wouldn't feel comfortable exposing our kids to. These kids have seen "Star Wars", "Spiderman", "The Nightmare Before Christmas", "Batman", "The Princess and The Frog" and so on. After seeing "Tangled" I wondered to myself whether my children are overly sensitive or if I've done them a disservice because they aren't being allowed to experience that sense of overcoming a fear. But, what I feel in my heart is that their friends who are watching things that are developmentally inappropriate for their age, are over time becoming desensitized to violence, cruelty, ugliness and pain. How does one explain to a 4- or even 5-year old that people can say "I love you" but not mean it? Or that people can be nice to you only in order to get something from you? What is the rush to share these themes with such young children? Do I really want my children desensitized to all of that?

Watching a movie with Grandma
The decision to limit television in our house has been good for our family. I believe it has lead to our children having an extensive and expressive vocabulary, great creativity, the ability to pretend and best of all, increased interaction between the four of us. 

Now that they're a little older, they do watch some shows and a couple of movies that I think are pretty terrific and which they really seem to get some positive things from. I do try to limit the amount of screen time they get and I always watch new shows or movies with them the first few times so they can ask questions and I can explain anything that may seem confusing. 

Watching together is also a great way to make TV less of a mind-numbing experience and more of an interactive family experience; get the popcorn out, make some hot chocolate and have family movie night now and then! There are actually some really worthwhile programs on these days, but their lessons can easily go over your children's heads if you are not guiding them. Television can't simply be a baby sitter (although I will cop to using it on school mornings especially) if you want the values in these programs to be understood. 

Television and movies can be a wonderful source of entertainment, education, and expansion; but it needs to be shared wisely and with caution when it comes to children. With that being said, I wanted to share a short list of what I think are some good programs and movies when you decide you are actually ready to let your kids know what that big, black rectangle on your wall is: 
  • Ponyo by Hayao Miyazaki. This beautiful Japanese movie is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, but it is so quirky and charming and unlike the Disney version in every way that it's not even worth comparing. When my husband and I prescreened this movie I thought they kids might be scared by some scenes. There is a giant storm when Ponyo tries to become a girl and a scene where the Ponyo's friend (Sosuke) can't find his mother and he cries. But nothing about this movie frightens our children; in fact, they adore it. I love it because it's beautifully illustrated, teaches children about keeping promises as well as being respectful to both people and nature.
  • "My Neighbor Totoro"
  • My Neighbor Totoro also by Miyazaki. This has to be one of the best children's movie's I've ever seen. The story of two smart girls who have adventures with magical creatures who live behind their house. Again, there are a couple of things that I thought might be scary: the younger sister gets lost and everyone is very worried about her (she is found), the mother is thought to be very sick and the children are scared that she might die (it turns out to be a misunderstanding as she is not that ill). Again, our kids were not in the least frightened and would happily watch this movie over and over every day. It is beautifully illustrated and truly a lovely film full of magic and Miyazaki's continued interest in promoting a love of nature.
  • Ruby's Studio: The Feelings Show is a terrific DVD put together by a group of mothers from whose goal is to produce media that increases our children's social and emotional growth. Through a series of wonderfully thought out vignettes, our kids learn about expressing and recognizing their emotions, how to handle big feelings like anger, and that even grown ups and animals have feelings. The animation and live action are visually beautiful, the music is catchy and and it's great to have a live action role model in Ruby (think Mr. Rogers, but way prettier and much more hip)!
  • Little Einsteins was one of the first videos we let our kids watch. Despite the bad rap the Baby Einstein videos have gotten, the Little Einsteins are actually quite clever. There is classical music, teamwork, foreign destinations and art involved in every episode. My kids now have some introduction to things as varied as Matryoshka Dolls, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, The Laurentian Library and Henri Rousseau. The episodes are very innocent and interactive.
  • Franklin is a television show we watch on NickJr. Although it's about a turtle and his animal friends, it's really just about a boy who struggles with the same things your kids may be experiencing: being mad at friends for "copying" him, coveting a fancy, new toy boat even though he already has one etc. These sweet, kind stories are short (about 11 minutes each) so the "negative" actions aren't drawn out for too long and more time is spent on the resolutions. For example, when Franklin cheats on a spelling test he very quickly realizes it was wrong and offers to give his friend who didn't cheat, the prize he won for doing so well. NickJr is also almost entirely commercial free, so you don't have to battle the "gimme's" that result in too much commercial interruption. 
  • Toot and Puddle is also on NickJr and is based on a best-selling book series. What I love about this show, in addition to the attractive animation, is that Toot and Puddle (who are rosy-cheeked pigs) have a joie de vivre heretofore unknown in swine; they go on Himalayan adventures to find a yeti, they meet new friends on the Australian Outback, they explore their own backyard to find materials to build a new clubhouse with some other words, they are always curious, always learning something new, they ask useful questions, they learn how to work with others and to value the points of view of many different types of "people".
  • is a website you should bookmark and remember. Here you will find detailed descriptions (by parents and children) of just about every movie, television show and video. It is broken down by The good stuff (ie: Educational value, Messages, Role models) and What to watch out for (ie: Violence and scariness, Sexy stuff, Language, Consumerism, Drinking, drugs and smoking) as well as what age it is appropriate for. 
All of this information is hopefully helpful to you, but in the end I will remind you that all you have to go on is your intuition and your sense of your own child. I should have followed my initial instinct about "Tangled" (which, by the way, is rated for an audience of children ages 5 and up, according to Common Sense Media) and remembered that although my kids are really mature in many ways, they are not sophisticated, jaded or savvy movie goers. I will stick with sweet and gentle "Toot and Puddle" for now. Disney can wait.

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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11 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Anonymous said...

You are one step ahead of me. We have been waiting to find a movie we could go to.........We will keep waiting. My girls were panicked and have not stopped talking about Rudolph. They were climbing behind me in fear.

I told them that poor dental hygiene causes one to be cranky & that is why the monster seemed so bad. Maybe I should not dilute the scary parts.

I love your articles

Anonymous said...

I'm in complete agreement and sympathy with everything you say about exposing kids to unnecessary terror. Have your kids gotten over the film by now?

There's a delightful series of short, gentle, contemplative Harold and the Purple Crayon DVDs that my nephew loves and that are very effective in getting him ready to go to bed.

The Twin Coach said...

I thought the kids were over it, but my son just asked this morning what would happen if a mean witch came into our house to take his "stuff". And that was after only 5 minutes of the movie! It's just crazy. Thank you for the Harold suggestion! I am definitely going to take a look at it. Someone also recommended the Curious George animated movie.

And I"m obviously staying away from Rudolph! ;) Thanks for your comments!

Marie said...

The Curious George movies are great. I highly recommend the Christmas one and the first movie about how they met in Africa. Very well written.

Nathan M McTague, CPCC said...

Yaaay for Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro. Best Kid movies. Ever.

The Twin Coach said...

I am in total agreement with you, Nathan! We love all of Miyazaki's movies. We actually just got "Kiki's Delivery Service" & it's the newest hit at our house. Equally as charming and a great female lead character. Your girls might like it. Oh, and thank you for the Facebook "like", I really appreciate it! Happy New Year!

Linia said...

Not to be a naysayer, but I'm truly not understanding the harm in "a little TV watching." My husband is a big sports fan and longs to watch football games with his kids. I can honestly say I started learning Spanish from watching Sesame Street. And my husband and I both have fond memories of Electric Company, Kids Incorporated, etc. The connection to ADD might be a enough to make one think about TV watching, but this article from Additude Magazine suggests that the link isn't full sustantiated.

I guess I just don't buy into the "all or nothing" school of thought. I'm not removing the TV from our lives, but I certainly don't intend to put my kids in front of the TV for endless hours. Moderation is everything.

As for your kids' friends watching scary stuff, that's a parenting issue, not a TV issue. There is lots of age-appropriate material (for all ages) available that's not scary or too grown up.

Erin said...

Great article - I know I'm coming late to it! My 5 year old son still hasn't been to a movie in the theater - he is very sensitive and so I've been looking for the right one. His younger sister went with me to see "Brave" but she slept through it (so no scary issues there!) I had originally planned to take him to see Toy Story 3 in the theater but I'm glad I didn't, when we finally watched it here at home, he was terrified by the incinerator and still refuses to watch it again or even talk about it, years later.

We have found that it's better to watch movies here at home, where you can pause, talk about what's going on, and easily gauge their reactions (and turn it off and not feel like you've wasted a bunch of money!) There will be plenty of time to go to the movies, we don't need to rush it!

I also agree with Linia, it is a personal parenting decision, but my kids have also learned a TON from watching TV. That being said, I'm very restrictive about the types of shows that they watch, and very few commercials if any at all (thank you DVR)!

Gina Osher said...

Hi Erin, I totally agree with you about watching movies at home. My children do much, much better with films seen at home than they ever would in the theater. The only movie we've seen in the theater that didn't have scary moments so far was "Winnie The Pooh" (very, very sweet) and "The Secret Life of Arriety" (from the same studio that did Ponyo etc.). We've seen Toy Story 3 at home & I am certain it would have scared the hell out of them in the theater! Even at home there was a LOT of discussion about the emotional stuff that was going on in that was pretty sophisticated for kids (deception, lying, tricking etc.).

My kids are pretty sensitive, but I also don't expose them to a ton of media. When I do, we are consistent about explaining, watching with them, discussing any content that seems confusing etc.

In my opinion, a family that encourages open communication and expression of emotion and limits the amount & they type of TV/film their children see is better off in the long run.

That's not to say that some TV or showing a movie that scares your kids by accident once in a while is going to ruin your children forever. My children watch some TV now. What they see is limited to very mild, slow, kind shows. And I agree with the DVR idea! Commercials are insidious! I don't see it being a bad thing for a 5 year old to watch a little Dora.

I personally do think that a child who is under age 2 shouldn't watch TV. There are enough studies showing that it harms brain development to make me feel that's a stand I am going to make. Obviously it's a personal parenting decision. My decision was to have no TV until after age 3 & then limit it for as long as I was able to. For us I think this has been really beneficial.

Thanks for joining in the discussion! I just wrote a recent post about movie violence that you might like as well:

Erin said...

I actually got to this post from your movie violence post - a friend of mine sent it to me. When I went to see Batman, there were multiple small children in the theater - and we're talking under age 4!! I just could not imagine taking any small children to that type of movie. If they love Batman (and you're wanting to indulge them - which is a whole different topic!) there are plenty of cartoony type Batman stuff you could get for them. And to take them just so you don't have to get a sitter is craziness. I sympathize with not being able to afford/have access to a babysitter, but then wait till it comes out on video!

Gina Osher said...

A lot of my friends have said the same thing about the Batman movie...lots of children in the theater. I totally don't understand it! And you are so right...just wait for the DVD if you can't get a babysitter! I get why people take kids to see "kids" movies, even if I personally feel they're not appropriate. But why someone would take a child to Batman is beyond me.

Thanks for your comments, Erin!
- Gina

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