The Kids Are Alright
“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”
A nyone lucky enough to be a kid in the 1970s, before cable emerged like the Hydra and smote every other home in America with its many heads, had at least one TV channel, way up on the UHF dial, that dished out a steady diet of fantasy-rich, lowbrow televised crap. Mine was St. Petersburg’s channel 44, which pumped my little head full of The Adventures of Superman, Three Stooges shorts, Star Trek, Kung Fu, Abbott and Costello flicks, Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy epics, Ultraman, Battle of the Planets, Roger Corman films, the entire Godzilla/Gamera/Mothra oeuvre, and Rat Patrol each and every weekend, like clockwork. Add supplemental doses of James Bond, Marvel Comics, and The Six-Million-Dollar Man, and according to the prevailing wisdom of the day, I should have become a twitching, frothing mass of sheer preadolescent rage. But I grew up to be as normal a teenager as one could be during the Reagan Era, and went on to father two beautiful children.
Today, as I watch my seven-year-old son playing videogames and ingesting his daily doses of Pokemon, Power Rangers, and his latest passion, Yu-Gi-Oh!, I suppose that as a responsible parent I should be concerned for his psyche—that old flawed wisdom still prevails. But despite the fact that he spends a good portion of his day causing imaginary mayhem as the Red Ranger, Spider-Man, or a particularly bloodthirsty velociraptor, he’s also perhaps the most empathic child I’ve ever met, distressed when he sees a felled tree and passionate in his defense of any insect that makes its way into the house. In fact, knowing that his parents are both committed anti-gun freaks, he periodically goes out of his way to let us know that he doesn’t want a real war, he just likes to play war. Rock on, Jake.
It’s only natural that concerned parents be wary of the entertainments being hashed out to their little ones. After all, it is the primary function of children to be receptors, to take in information and process it into templates for future behavior, and when we perceive that some of their teachers are gun-toting or metal-claw-wielding cartoon gladiators, foul-mouthed hip-hoppers, and busty vampire slayers, our anxiety over the lessons learned is understandable.
The trouble is, anxiety is never a good state in which to make decisions, especially about matters as precious as our kids. Anxiety makes us overreact, and in the face of such deep societal traumas as the Columbine massacre and September 11, it can make us hysterical. Witness the aftermath of the former event, well-publicized cases in which kids were expelled from schools for doing typical kid things like dyeing their hair, dressing in cool black, expressing an interest in videogames, and conjuring lurid and violent scenes in their creative-writing assignments, simply because a bunch of overzealous grownups decided that these behaviors fit some sort of bullshit profile of teenage sociopath. At a time when it was more important than ever that young people be able to take refuge in comforting self-expression, these kids were punished for it. As one young gamer puts it, in response to the infamous Columbine-videogame link, in Gerard Jones’s remarkable book Killing Monsters, “Those games have been played by millions of people, and only two of them did that. Only two out of millions. I’d say the problem was with those two people, not the games.”
The sentiment is remarkably simple, and yet it runs counter to decades of national hysteria concerning the effects of media violence on our children. The primary reason for this, as Jones points out, is that as psychologists and politicians have dithered and wrung their hands over what the media are doing to our kids, precious few of them have actually asked kids what is being done to them. Jones, a parent who has a unique perspective on the topic as both a pop-culture scholar and a former writer of superhero comics, has done just that. When not appearing as an expert at child-psychology symposia and on talk shows, Jones conducts classroom workshops on using stories and sequential art to help children and teens express their emotions, and his field reports are both startling and revealing. Far from the maladjusted budding maniacs that violent kids’ media is supposed to have created, most of Jones’s students express feelings of positive empowerment as a result of experiencing TV, comics, and music that address them in the same raging language as their inner psyches.
Although it may make adults squirm, the idea of the healing power of confrontational media makes a lot of sense when we place ourselves in the shoes of a child. As I said before, children are here to learn and adults are here to impart knowledge, but if “knowledge is power” then the lack of knowledge equals powerlessness, which is the central and foremost fact of a child’s life. We grownups know that our kids will eventually be able to do everything we can do, but we tend to forget that “eventually” is a lot further off in kid-time. Constantly frustrated by their inability to control most of the aspects of their own lives, it is only natural that children will seek empowerment in the one area in which they do have control, their fantasy lives. In fantasy, kids can be superheroes or dinosaurs or ninjas, people with the goods to overpower things which scare them, people who can’t be hurt. In this way children achieve the self-confidence to continue to meet the challenges of parents’ expectations, a growing society of peers, and one big damn scary world.
Compare that message with the ones coughed up by parent-friendly fare like Barney, in which the point seems to be “as long as you never stop smiling, you’ll never get hurt,” or Teletubbies, where the grotesque little gremlins constantly make messes but never have to clean them up, and emulating the self-actualization and courage displayed by the Power Rangers looks even healthier. That’s some righteous mojo there, and before parents attempt to discourage such violent play, we should ask ourselves what the effect will be of telling our kids that the fantasies which make them feel better are bad.
Jones’s contention about the benefits of rough play is ably supported by the testimony of child psychiatrists, clinicians who actually work one-on-one with children, as opposed to the battery of psychologists who over the years have used laboratory testing and, as Jones systematically reveals, highly suspect data to arrive at their negative conclusions. Jones also presents a great deal of anecdotal evidence from formerly anxious parents who have witnessed positive changes in their children’s self-confidence as a result of allowing them to follow through with media consumption and subsequent play that comes naturally to them.
This is not to say that Jones advocates a purely laissez-faire approach to parenting. Throughout his book, Jones stresses the need for parents to remain involved in the process, but in a facilitating manner—“Why do you like X-Men so much?”—rather than as a censor. Nor does he suggest that parents should not make their opinions about programs, games, and music known, only that they should be expressed as opinions rather than as judgments. In my own house, I have made clear my distaste for the popular Japanese cartoon Dragonball Z, not because of its (extremely) rampant violence but because so little of the fighting appears to be tied to plot or resolution of any kind.
At first, I simply forbade my son from watching it, but after he came to me looking deeply ashamed and confessed to sampling the forbidden fruit, I realized that all I had done was to make him feel bad for wanting to watch a cartoon. I relented and let him know that it was okay to watch DBZ if that’s what he wanted, and his interest waned pretty quickly, primarily because he’d rather watch ‘toons that he knows we both like. Though my opinion of the show was still a factor, a source of anxiety became an act of empowerment for him because I removed the specter of disapproval from the scene and thus elevated the value of his opinion. It works.
In fact, everything in Killing Monsters works, placing it in sharp contrast to the endless sky-is-falling rhetoric of the last few decades, which seems designed for no other purpose than make us fear both the media and our own children. When Bob Dole is on the election stump railing about Quentin Tarentino movies he’s never seen, when school officials are tossing kids for simply expressing themselves, when Steven Spielberg is pixel-editing guns out of the hands of the FBI in his re-release of E.T. so that perhaps children will be unaware that law-enforcement officers use guns, and when lawsuits which contend that students will be turned into slavering terrorists if they even look at the Qu’ran are being taken seriously, it’s high time we stop listening to the “experts” and start paying closer attention to our kids. They seem to be the only ones with a clue.