Sunday, January 25, 2009

When Violence Creeps into Children's Lives

Ignore the date, above. A version of this article appeared in Chesapeake Family magazine (October 2007).
* = Name changed for privacy.

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 Star Wars franchise before he even saw a single film. Stars Wars playthings fill shelves in toy stores. Star Wars Legos are must-have collectibles among many elementary school boys. Star Wars-related giveaways are often the special toy inside fast food kid meals.

Knowing their son’s fascination with Star Wars, Matthew’s parents decided to have a movie night at home with the DVD of Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones. However, about halfway through the PG-rated film, when a teenage Anakin Skywalker returns to his home planet and finds his mother, who is a slave, bound and beaten and left to die, Matthew’s excitement about the fantasy action and plot turned to panic. The image of the mom tied to a rack crucifixion-style is onscreen 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 else 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 the second grader of the horror that befell Anakin’s mother.

Half a year after seeing the upsetting movie scene, the eight-year-old was still seeking out his mom wherever she was in the house 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 display of affections stem from a panic inspired by a fantasy 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 in Arnold, Maryland. “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.”

There are so many children who, sadly, experience actual violence in their lives: They are the victims of physical aggression, they live 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, and even in children’s books and through toys isn’t as harmful as actual violence, it can have a damaging effect on children, including on those fortunate enough to be raised in a loving and safe environment.

For instance, a dad flipping channels at night might not seem like such a big deal. But think, from a child’s point of view, about the images that are 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 have lasted just ten seconds. But those seconds and scenes add up. According to an oft-sited estimate, by the time an American child is in sixth grade he or she will have been exposed to 100,000 acts of television violence.


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 summaries provided by industry reviewers, it’s likely that no one at the library ever even opened the book before procuring it for the collection. It just so happened that at the time I was on the board of this particular library and attended meetings with both the library director and the children’s librarian. When I questioned the appropriateness of the book for children, I was told by these women that the author was an award-winning children’s book writer.

While I was speaking as a mother who was having to explain to a three-year-old why anyone would put a gun in someone’s mouth, and why doing something like that is horribly wrong, the librarians, neither of whom had children, 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 what media materials their children should have access to.

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, a Maryland mother of two told me, “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 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 are G-rated movies, such as Finding Nemo, in the opening sequence features a shark attacking 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 a movie theater showing screamed so loud, and became so inconsolable, that she and her mom left the movie.

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, an Annapolis 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, or in four-year-old Brian’s case, unwanted behaviors. “Brian loves all things related to cars and trucks, especially monster trucks!” says his mom, Karen. “He received a toy that included a child’s DVD with footage of real monster trucks in action. But after watching the DVD, Brian proceeded to crash, smash and bash everything in sight. He even pretended other children were monster trucks.” To put a stop to this unexpectedly destructive behavior, Karen 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,” Karen explains.


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. However, when the adult was scolded for his actions, the children who witnessed that reprimand didn’t want to punch the bag. “If children see violence as being enjoyable, they’ll want to be violent,” say Aymard.

While American children don’t experience daily violence to the extent children do in, for example, Iraq, and in many of the world’s most 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. Yes, 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 what a child is exposed to. “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 currently volatile world. 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, and many other people, 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 level a child can understand.

“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.”



• Violent images and language in movies (even in G- and PG-rated flicks) and on television, especially in commercials and cartoons. (Have you ever really watched the shows on Cartoon Network?)
• Toys and video games that mimic or promote violence
• Violence in children's books (even kiddie picture books)
• Abusiveness against women and provocative behavior depicted in music videos, reality TV dating shows, magazines and tabloids
• News coverage about horrible violence in the world (Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, to name just a few troubling hot spots)
• Bullying and meanness among peers
• Internet predators and malicious strangers (such as the much-feared pedophiles, child snatchers, run-of-the mill flashers and perverts)
• And, every October, gruesome Halloween imagery and costumes


A scary movie. A dark bedroom. A big dog. A thunder storm. A neighborhood crime. Being separated from mom or dad. Each experience can be worrisome, or outright terrifying, to a child.

“All of us have fears,” says Lou Aymard, Ph.D., a child psychologist and director of The Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland. “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 7 and 12 can talk about their fears, parents serve best by being “reflective listeners.” Example: “I can hear how frightening that was for you.” Aymard advices that with children these ages, parents not share their own frightening experiences. “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.


Copyright 2008 Melissa Stanton
To be reprinted only with the written permission of Melissa Stanton or her authorized agent.


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