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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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As a good parent, you hope your child learns to love and that he will be lovable in return.  You strive to provide a loving home base, surrounded by caring friends and extended family.  You carefully choose babysitters, schools and other community networks to add to this foundation.  These people will undoubtedly have a positive and long-lasting effect on how your child sees himself and how he interacts with others.

But what about the characters in books, movies, television shows and video games who are just as real to your child?  Childhood is a time of making sense of the world, especially the complex social interactions of human beings.  A child looks to fictitious characters and their dilemmas to confirm his own experiences and feelings and as examples to follow in his relationships.  When Winnie the Pooh gets stuck in a honey jar, it is easy to identify with Pooh’s predicament (think of your child’s frustration in getting his boots off!) and reassuring to see that loved ones stand by you in times of trouble.

Character Counts
How do picture book characters and other media models treat one another?  Is loving kindness part of the action?  Do your child’s favorite characters behave ruthlessly, or would they pass the scrutiny of a character education program?  Good examples of positive traits can be found in Character Counts, a curriculum developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, in which stories and other activities promote the six pillars of character.

The pillars are: Trustworthiness – being honest, reliable, loyal and courageous enough to do the right thing; Respect – being tolerant of differences and not hurting others; Responsibility – having self-discipline and being accountable for one’s actions; Fairness – playing by the rules and not taking advantage of others; Caring – showing forgiveness and helping others; and Citizenship – respecting authority, being a good neighbor and protecting the environment.  All in all, exemplary attributes.  When such behaviors become the standard in stories, a child can see a clear and proper direction for his own actions.

Simple Respect
Aretha Franklin spelled this one out for us.  It’s how we show the other person that we hold them in equal regard to ourselves.  Respect should be given graciously to everyone.  It is just as easy for a child to copy good manners as bad ones.  He just needs to hear examples.  Picture your child imitating such mannerly phrases as “May I take your coat?” or “Would you mind passing the crumpets?” or “I’d be delighted to show you the way.”

Plenty of books and movies include interactions between characters that leave no question as to their mutual regard for one another.  The opposite is to tell someone to “shut up,” or “zip it,” or to call someone “stupid” or “stinky” or worse.  A disturbing trend in our culture is to discount others who are less capable, less attractive, less knowledgeable, less well-off or just different.  In real life, such disregard is hurtful.  Bad feelings, low self-esteem, bullying, and other direct and indirect retaliation can follow.  In fiction it is often just meant to be funny.  But, wouldn’t it be nice if common courtesies became more routine?

Violence Research
No surprise here.  The National Institute on Media and the Family sums it up: over 1,000 studies since the 1950’s concur that children watching violence in television and movies are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors, attitudes and values.  A senate committee in 1999, and American Psychological Association in 2003, and many, many others have come to the same conclusion.

In a Chicago study begun in 1977, school-age children were evaluated for the amount of violent programming they watched.  Among the high-violence shows were Starsky and Hutch, the Six Million Dollar Man and Roadrunner (violence is rampant in cartoons).  Of the 557 original subjects, the researchers followed up with 329 of them who were, by then, in their early twenties.  Boys who had watched more violence were more likely after maturation to push, grab or shove their wives and girlfriends in response to an insult.  They were convicted of crimes at three times the rate of boys who did not watch the high-violence shows.  As grown women, the girls who watched more violence were four times more likely than girls who didn’t watch such shows to throw things at, shove, punch, beat or choke their husbands or boyfriends when angry.  Both men and women had a higher frequency of moving traffic violations if they were in the group that watched more violent shows.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, a 100,000 member organization of teachers and other early childhood professionals, outright condemn violent television, movies, videotapes, computer games and other media directed at children.  Their position paper states that “children are actively involved in learning” when they see such examples of social interaction.  There are far better lessons for our children than this.

Classic fairy tales, it should be noted, with their spell-casting, children-burning step-mothers and the like, were crafted by adults for adult entertainment.  At best, child development experts say that they can serve as a clear contrast between good virtues triumphing over the wayward path of evil, but only for older children.

Conflict Negotiation
What would you like your child to see as normal and acceptable?  Does one character ridicule, deceive, rob, threaten or hurt another character in order to “win” an argument or a contest between them?  Conflict is inevitable in human relationships.  You can use books, movies and games to teach positive conflict resolution.  Choose media examples of cooperation, compromise and caring.  Work together.  Meet halfway.  Think about the other person’s point of view.  Maybe there’s a better approach.  Maybe, just maybe, love is the answer.

Deborah Wood, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum – a multiple intelligences learning environment.

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