Violence in the Lives of Children


By Melissa Stanton

It’s little wonder that Matthew, like many eight-year-old boys, is a huge Star Wars fan. Although the original three films debuted two decades before he was born, Matthew* was keenly aware of the  franchise before he saw even a single movie. Stars Wars playthings fill shelves in toy stores. Star Wars Legos are must-have collectibles for many elementary school boys. Star Wars-related giveaways have often been the special toy inside Burger King kids’ meals.

So earlier this year, Matthew’s parents decided to have a movie night at home with the Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones DVD. About halfway through the PG-rated film, however, when a teenage Anakin Skywalker returns to his home planet and finds his mother, who is a slave, bound, beaten and left to die, Matthew’s excitement turned to panic. The image of the mom tied to a rack crucifixion-style remains on screen for barely five seconds. The entire sequence of Anakin’s mother dying in his arms lasts less than two minutes.

“That night, Matthew cried about going to bed,” says his mother, Lynne. “He was terrified I was going to die.”

For the first days and weeks after the viewing, Matthew insisted on sleeping in his parents’ room or having his mom stay at his bedside until he fell asleep. For months, Lynne reports, he became extremely clingy. When the family attended church, Matthew would become terribly upset. Apparently, the image of Jesus on the cross reminded him of the horror that befell Anakin’s mother.

It’s been more than six months since Matthew saw the upsetting movie scene. Although he’s not as weepy, says Lynne, before going to bed the second-grader seeks out his mom to hug and kiss her and tell her he loves her. It’s adorable to witness, and to an outside observer Matthew seems the sweetest little boy. He is sweet, but it’s sad to realize that his nightly display of affection stems from panic inspired by a depiction of violence.

“Violence is marketed to American kids,” says Lou Aymard, Ph.D., a child psychologist and the director of The Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College. “As parents, we need to look at the world through the eyes of our children. We need to see what they see and understand how they perceive what they’re seeing.”

Sadly, lots of children experience actual violence in their lives. They are the victims of physical aggression. Living in homes threatened by physical and emotional violence, they have witnessed violence or borne the consequences of violent acts against a loved one.  While the violence casually depicted on television, at the movies, in children’s books and through toys isn’t as harmful as actual violence, it can have a damaging effect on children, including those raised in a loving and safe environment.

For instance, flipping channels on the television at night might not seem like such a big deal. But reconsider, from a child’s point of view, the images flashing across the screen: a beer commercial with men ogling bikini-clad women, an advertisement for a gruesome slasher movie, a torture scene from an R-rated movie being shown on cable, a talk show with adults screaming at one another, a hospital drama with a bloodied child crying in an emergency room.

Each image may be on the screen for barely a second. The entire display may last just ten seconds. But those seconds and scenes add up. According to an oft-cited estimate, by the time an American child is in sixth grade, he or she will have witnessed 100,000 acts of television violence.

Violent Imagery Where You’d Least Expect It

When my son was a preschooler, we borrowed a library book that featured a train ride, a Wild West theme and an animal cast of characters. Several pages into the book, an armed wolf burst onto the train, announced a stick-up and shoved a gun barrel into the pig conductor’s mouth. This storyline and its illustrations were in a children’s picture book!

As libraries typically order books sight unseen, based on marketing materials from publishers or synopsis provided by industry reviewers, it’s likely that no one at the library had even opened the book before procuring it for the collection. It just so happened that I was on the board of this particular library at the time and attended meetings with both the library director and the children’s librarian. When I questioned the appropriateness of the book for children, these women informed me that the author was an award-winning children’s book writer.

I was speaking as a mother who had to explain to a three-year-old why anyone would put a gun in another’s mouth, and why doing something like that is horribly wrong. The librarians, neither of whom had children (and, frankly, weren’t particularly fond of their young patrons), were speaking as academics. They said that while I might have a problem with guns, not all parents do and, besides, what did I expect from a story about the Old West? They also lectured me a bit about why it’s the job of parents to select suitable reading materials for children, not the library’s.
They’re unfortunately right. Parents shouldn’t, and can’t, rely entirely on professionals or the filters provided by others when determining their children’s access to media materials.

Even the most revered children’s literature can be child unfriendly. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales or even the beloved Babar the Elephant stories (which feature a full-page illustration showing Babar’s father dead and bleeding from a hunter’s bullet).

Screening the media a child is exposed to doesn’t mean parents should become crazed censors. It does mean that certain books need to be avoided or read together, so any violence or misbehavior can be put into context.
As Jenny Garmon, a Bowie mother of two, reports, “I was surprised to hear my four-year-old calling out in a pretend baseball game, ‘Kill the umpire!’ He had heard the phrase at a reading of Casey at the Bat. I explained to him that ‘kill’ is an ugly word and I don’t like to hear it.”

An unfortunate source of unexpected violence is G-rated movies, such as Finding Nemo. In the opening sequence of the movie, a shark attacks the home of two tiny clown fish, killing the mother and all but one of her thousands of incubating eggs. The toddler seated in front of me at the theater screamed so loudly, and became so inconsolable, that she and her mom left the movie.

Garmon says she now stays clear of Disney movies, having had her son terrified by the mean dogs in Lady and the Tramp and the menacing penguins in Happy Feet. “We had to leave because of the Mafioso birds,” she explains. “They were so out of place in a movie called Happy Feet.” (The film was rated PG, which can be hard for parents and kids to reconcile since the movie was aggressively promoted to children.)

Marketing is the cause of many inappropriate images being thrown at unsuspecting viewers and children. “Theaters show previews for PG-13 movies during showing of PG-rated films,” notes Kaye Thrasher of Annapolis, the mother of twin fourth graders. “Several times the boys and I have left the theater and waited in the lobby until the previews were over. When I spoke with the manager, he said the trailers are prepackaged. I would think that if you’re going to see a PG-rated movie there should be no exposure to a PG-13 movie or otherwise.”

Without context, a frightening, aggressive or confusing image can lead to fears, as they did with Matthew. In four-year-old Brian’s case, such an image led to unwanted behaviors.

“Brian loves all things related to cars and trucks, especially monster trucks!” says his mom, Karen Collins, of Annapolis. “He received a toy that included a child’s DVD with footage of real monster trucks in action. But after watching the DVD, Brian started pretending he was a monster truck. He proceeded to crash, smash and bash everything in sight. He even pretended other children were monster trucks.”

To put an end to this unexpectedly destructive behavior, Collins and her husband discarded the DVD. “We’re still working with him on what kind of behavior is acceptable, as both pretend or real play,” she explains.

Why be Concerned?

Children learn how to behave by seeing how the people around them behave. The concept is called observational learning. “It’s like monkey see, monkey do,” says The Parenting Center’s Dr. Aymard, while describing a study in which children watched an adult beating on a clown-faced punching bag. Seeing the adult punching the bag, and having fun, the children wanted to do the same. When the adult was scolded for his actions, however, the children witnessing that reprimand didn’t want to punch the bag.

“If children see violence as being enjoyable, they’ll want to be violent,” says Aymard.

While American children don’t experience daily violence to the extent of children in Iraq and other troubled regions, violence is “pandemic in our society,” says Dr. Aymard, especially in its depictions on television, in movies and in the words and images of newspapers and magazines.

Adults can hide a newspaper’s front page and program their televisions to block certain types of programs or channels. Computer-savvy parents can even edit bad scenes out of movies. But, overall, there are few foolproof ways to control a child’s exposure to violence.

“Parents walk a fine line between socially isolating their children and letting them interact in society as part of growing up,” notes Aymard.

With vigilant parenting, children can be shielded from many forms of inappropriate media imagery. Still, we live in a real, complicated and volatile world. The U.S. military is fighting in multiple nations, our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, and pedophiles lurk on the Internet and even in our own neighborhoods. This past school year children and parents in southern Anne Arundel County were on the watch for the driver of a white van who was reportedly approaching children waiting alone at bus stops.

To quell a child’s anxiety about the world’s larger issues, Aymard suggests that parents show children, in a practical way, that Mom and Dad — along with many people in our government and throughout the country — are doing everything possible to keep them safe.

Aymard is also an advocate of martial arts programs geared specifically for children. “The training can shore up a child’s confidence,” he says, adding that a good instructor will discuss violence and protecting oneself from it at a child-appropriate level.  “There’s no way to completely allay all of our children’s fears,” says Aymard, “but we can help children feel safe and comfortable enough not to be overwhelmed by fear, or be influenced by the violence they’re exposed to.”

Helping a Frightened Child — By the Ages

“All of us have fears,” says Lou Aymard, Ph.D., a child psychologist and director of The Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College. “But when a child’s fear escalates, parents need to respond.”

■ Preschoolers and young children (ages 3 to 6) often don’t have the language skills and vocabulary to explain what frightens them. Child psychologists often use toys, dolls or action figures to help children reenact their fear and, hopefully, get control over it.

■ Since children between the ages of 7and 12 can talk about their fears, parents serve best by being “reflective listeners.” Example: “I can hear how frightening that was for you.” Aymard advises that parents not share their own frightening experiences with children of these pages. “Knowing that you have or had fears can make a child afraid that no one can protect him,” says Aymard.

■ Communication is key with teens. Listen to your older children, if they’ll talk. Share your experiences when appropriate and keep a watchful eye. For instance, according to Aymard, it’s good parenting to say, “No, you can’t go to the mall alone with your friends. Yes, you can shop with your friends, but I’ll also be in the mall.”

If a child becomes overwhelmed by her fear, so much so that she thinks, dreams and obsesses about her worry, Aymard recommends arranging a consultation with a pediatrician or child therapist.

Melissa Stanton, Davidsonville mother of three and former People magazine editor, is the author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide, to be published next spring by Seal Press. She can be reached via the website