Monday, May 09, 2005

Movies and Kids

Raising six kids in the modern world, you get lots of opportunities to consider influences like television and movies. Many parents are rightly concerned about avoiding violence, bad language and sexual content.

These are important considerations and the age and maturity of the child need to be considered as well. Not all parents think about these issues. I'll never forget our upstairs neighbor in one of our apartments mentioning to me that she let her two year old watch Jurassic Park because "she really wanted to see it." Not surprisingly, the poor child suffered from nightmares for quite some time after this foolish caving-in to her wishes. (Another neighbor in that same building encouraged her three year old daughter to look sexy.)

There is a certain feeling on one side of the issue that you shouldn't shelter your children, period. I think when it comes down to it, many parents who consider themselves in this category do shelter and protect their children to some degree and wouldn't let their two year olds watch Jurassic Park. I think it would be helpful for them to see that there's a big difference between sheltering and protecting their children as necessary and some sort of philosophy of isolationISM. (It is easy for people to lash out against extremes rather than rationally consider a position that is good and healthy for their children.)

Sometimes these shocking incidents and the shocking content found in many movies and video games harms our culture on another level as well. We become so attuned to avoiding this bad stuff that we miss a number of considerations on a deeper level.

Kicking the T.V. habit My husband and I (generation Xers) both grew up watching a LOT of television. This habit (as well as the habit of considering news-watching a helpful way of gathering information) is pretty ingrained in us. We're trying to break that up a bit for our own children. By avoiding cable and watching movies instead of TV shows we have generally steered away from viewing as a habit (as well as having more choices in what we watch).

There is some evidence that extensive amounts of electronic stimulation in the early years can have a negative impact on brain development - not necessarily affecting intelligence, but possibly more in the area of behavior. I wonder if some children are more susceptible to harm from this than others (such as hyperactive types).

Clean = good? When we come across a book or movie that is "clean" (i.e., no bad language, violence or sex) we might be tempted to embrace it as good. But this gives us no assurance that the movie is worthwhile! Is it true, good, beautiful? Is it presenting ideas or conflicts that are inappropriate for the child's maturity and understanding? Does it gloss over issues that are more complex and can lead to moral confusions later on? In some ways, I think parents feel pressured to support "clean" films because "that's what we've been fighting for, isn't it?" I think an appropriate word to consider is whether the movie is worthwhile.

One pet peeve of mine is religious children's materials that are ugly (not necessarily by intention). We recently watched an EWTN animated video called First Communion. It was incredibly ugly (the worst animation I've ever seen, bar none) and kind of a strange plot-line for young children anyway. This is not how I want my children to learn their faith. (And I am grateful to EWTN for many things - but I think this video is just bad.)

Someone gave us the Baby Mozart video and CD a number of years ago. This too was a great disappointment - it sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, all of the music is "dumbed down" to sound more to our ears like children's music (using different instruments and such). I thought the whole idea of the Mozart Effect was that real Mozart music was good for kids! To make things worse, the video, in addition to the super-sappy versions of Mozart's works, had images of toys going back and forth across the screen as its visuals. It was a glorified toy catalog! (Complete with information on where to purchase the toys at the end of the catalog.)

Movies as Babysitters I've always been turned off to the idea of plunking the kids down in front of movies for long periods of time to keep them content. I have to admit to trying it out in occasional moments of desperation - especially early on before ANY of them had reached the "age of reason" and we lived in a small house where we had to sit-out long, cold Wisconsin winters. What we found was that increased amounts of television/video viewing (even stuff we considered worthwhile) had a significant negative impact on their behavior. It became very clear to me early on that saying no to frequent requests to watch movies made my kids happier, even in the short run.

Motivation in Other Areas Watching videos is still a treat for the kids and we've acquired a nice collection to watch when we choose (we've never had cable) and we also subscribe to a DVD rental service. One of the simplest motivations to complete schoolwork is that movies and computer time are not available until after they complete required assignments.

We love movies and especially watching movies and documentaries with our children. They can be a nice way to get the children interested in a particular topic (and learn more about it ourselves in short order e.g. the Building Big with David Macaulay series) They are nice opportunities for conversation because everyone can be involved. We aren't total snobs - nothing is really perfect. We will overlook some bad acting and bad sets to appreciate a true story (e.g. The Great Escape). We might appreciate some movies for the beautiful scenery and language even if the plot is a little inaccurate compared with the book (e.g. I Am David). Some movies are just for the laughs (e.g. You Can't Take it With You). I think there are just too many good movies out there to waste time on ones that are not worthwhile on some level and there are too many better things to do in life than to spend too much of it watching movies.

These articles may be of interest...

"Children and Computers" by Jane Healy

CyberTots: Technology and the Preschool Child" by Jane Healy

Computers and Television Before Bedtime

"Brain Development" by Karen DeBord

A few of our family's favorite movies (we have rather eclectic tastes)...

Ben Hur (1958 - needs some editing for little ones)

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (so much more beautiful than the animated one - still very enjoyable for children)

Building Big with David Macaulay a five disc DVD set (Bridges, Tunnels, Domes, Skyscrapers and Dams) - originally broadcast on PBS

The Lord of the Rings (extended editions - needs editing for smaller children - the adults around here are a little tired of them, though)

Darby O'Gill and the Little People (our favorite Disney movie)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Pride of the Yankees (the story of Lou Gehrig - especially touching now that I have a good friend with ALS)

Prince of Egypt and Joseph King of Dreams (some of the nicest animation I've seen)

The Quiet Man (John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara)

Pride and Prejudice (BBC/A&E)

Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant et al.)

You Can't Take it With You (Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur)

The Song of Bernadette

Jesus of Nazareth

Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Brannaugh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, et al. - needs some editing for children)

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