Exposing one’s child to less media than his peer group can have unexpected and challenging outcomes as he gets older. This was driven home to me twice today.
First, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law, Julie. Julie and her husband are raising two delightfully smart and funny children and their parenting style is quite similar to ours. We were discussing Julie’s four-year old son today, who, it seems, is suddenly expressing a lot of fears. Four is an age of fears, without a doubt. But my nephew is scared about the way his peers are playing at preschool. Their play is frightening to him: pirates who chase and capture others, alligators who might “get” you. This little guy is uncomfortable with it and disassociates himself with it – which is fine, but of course no one wants him to be feeling scared and isolated from his friends. This is very normal play for children their age, and there is nothing wrong with it. But it is something that we came up against as well – Baxter was petrified by the way kids were playing when he was in preschool. Kids who haven’t watched much television or movies at this age often have no experience with such play themes and can be extremely sensitive to pretend play that depicts aggression or danger. Baxter was scared out of his pants over segments of Sesame Street until he was at least 5 years old. I kid you not. It was one reason we began showing him some mainstream movies around ages 4-5, but we did this at home where we could pause it and talk about what’s happening and fast forward through some of the worst parts. I also realize in hindsight that maybe introducing some books with scarier themes would have been useful at that age so we could have talked more to him and could’ve acted them out to demystify the fears a bit.
Not two hours later, I overheard a conversation between Baxter and a school peer. I listened, heart in my throat, as the boy barraged him with questions: “You don’t watch Pokeman??” “You don’t even know about Yu-gi-oh?” To say that he was shocked would be an understatement. “Don’t you have HBO Family? Loony Toons?” And finally, “Well, what kids’ channels do you have?” This last was directed at me. A school friend was recently overheard to say to our son, sighing with complete disgust, “I suppose you don’t know about Star Wars, either.” I generally do a good job of not stepping in and saving my kids from normal social situations, but even I couldn’t take it after a while. “We don’t really watch TV much at our house,” I offered. “Huh?” said the friend, surprised. “Yeah! We play!” chirped Baxter, catering to the party line. “Yeah, we usually play, or read books…go outside. We do different kinds of things.” I did my best to sound casual and not defensive, but wanted to remind Baxter of what he could say in response to such an onslaught. And you know, the boy said to me rather sadly, “We mostly stay in. We don’t get to go to the playground too much at all, even in the summer.”
I don’t question the way we’ve chosen to limit our kids’ exposure to the media (TV, radio, videos, video games, computer games) but I’m learning that it does require a child to have a strong sense of self to get through some of these social interactions with his friends. It’s really important to explain to children the reasons why we don’t do those “typical” things so that they understand it. After we said good-bye to the friend, we headed to the playground.
Wanting to see what my son was thinking about that conversation, I mentioned that his friend sure liked those card games and TV shows. “Yeah, he does!” said Baxter. “Does it bother you at all that you don’t know about all that stuff?” I asked, thinking that maybe some Pokemon exposure was due. “Nope,” he said, jumping off a ladder and racing his brother across the playground. Seems like he’s doing okay with it so far, but it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the coming years.