Last night I attended a presentation put together by PBS and the SV Moms giving parent bloggers a behind the scenes peek at what it takes to create the amazing Super WHY! show (one of Bunny and Wallie's favorites). We met the creator and executive producer, Dr. Angela Santomero, and she essentially stripped the show bare giving us the "based-in-educational-research" reasons why the show was created, why and how the characters were chosen, and explaining the goals of the show and presenting evidence that it really does help children learn to read. (If you've ever seen the show, you know it does.)
We are a fairly PBS-loyal family and I think it's because I am of the (40 whatever) generation that grew up on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Electric Company, Zoom, and 3-2-1 Contact. (Not having cable helps, too, because PBS is our only "kid channel.") There was no Nick or Disney channel in the 70's, and no cable where I lived, either. The reason why I love PBS is because I trust that if my kids want to watch a show, it's going to be kinder, gentler, and educational-er. Even if I've never watched the show before, I'd feel comfortable letting my kids watch any of their shows without me being in the room.
One of the things I have been thinking about since last night is PBS' attempt to keep the 6+ age group engaged in their programming. They recognize that they are experts on the preschool set and have programming (via their PBS Go brand) that speaks to younger elementary school kids, but increasingly it is hard to compete with other programming (Nick and Disney tween programming) as well as outside influences like what kids are exposed to at school. One of the they questions they posed to us (paraphrasing) was, "How do you keep your 6-to-8-year-old kids engaged in age-appropriate programs in light of all the media influences they are exposed to."
My immediate, gut-level response was, "I got this!" I knew the answer. The answer involves putting your foot down. The answer is "Because I'm the mom, and what I say goes in my house." That's why they can't watch what all the 'cool kids' at school are watching. I don't give a rip about the cool kids. I only care about my kids. My kids can want to watch Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Transformers movies all they want, but as long as they are 6 and 4, it ain't happening in our house. There are just certain movies, shows, and games where I draw the line. But...
Where does that line fall? Sometimes, I admit, I'm not so sure. Let me give you two of my favorite examples that most parents with young elementary school-aged kids can probably relate to:
- The other night some friends were over and all the kids were watching Bolt. As the credits rolled, one of the parents remarked that Miley Cyrus was the voice of the girl character. "Who's that?" asked Bunny. "She's Hannah Montana." the parent replied. Some of the kids nodded knowingly, but Bunny just looked blankly and shrugged. She's never seen the show and won't until I think she is old enough to understand that it's essentially a show about dating.
- Bunny also knows everything there is to know about Star Wars from what a Tie-Fighter is to who lives on Tattooine even though she's never seen any of the movies. Yes, she owns a light saber and loves to play with it, has sticker books and loves to flip through those, but we feel she's not quite ready to watch the movies. After some initial asking to see it at the beginning of first grade when all the boys especially seemed to be talking about it, she's backed off because we haven't given in.
Are we strict about limiting their television access to TV7-rated shows and under and movies to films that are G-rated? The thing is? Not really. There are some shows and movies that we definitely feel are not okay, and some that are, even if my kids aren't the intended audience. As parents we struggle with consistency on this issue, but we do take responsibility for the choices we make. For example, we listen to a lot of musicals in the car, and when Bunny took an interest in Les Miserables, in particular, I didn't hesitate to order the concert from Amazon.com so she could see the songs brought to life by the characters—yes, songs about war, prostitution, adultery, thievery, sex, suicide, death, and love. She LOVES the concert, has asked questions here and there about the subject-matter, but for the most part, she just enjoys the music and the singing. And I love that she she loves the music and singing so I do—I take responsiblity for letting her watch.
Another example is the movie Mamma Mia!, another family favorite, and a movie that Common Sense Media says is "iffy" for the under-10 set. A friend suggested we watch it saying her kids love the happy, feel-goodness of it, and how it gets the whole family up off their seats singing and dancing. Bunny's never seen High School Musical even though lots of her friends have (despite my breaking down and downloading it for a long plane ride hoping it might be a welcome distraction, but no, she did not want any part of it), but she and Wallie adore Mamma Mia! We all do. Is that a kids' movie? No, but again, the music wins us over. It's easy to gloss over some of the more adult themes like a character who sleeps with three men who may or may be the father of her child or all the smoking and drinking and carousing because the music is so fun. Mamma Mia! makes us all so happy, so giddy, that again, that pure emotion helps us to justify the viewing.
So Hannah Montana no, HSM no, but Les Miz and Mamma Mia! yes? I know. It makes no sense.
Over all, I'd say we've consciously made an effort to keep Bunny and Wallie a little media "immature" as compared with other kids their age. They do not play video games except for their Didj and Leapsters, they don't go on the computer to play games or participate on kid social media sites, and we don't let them watch programs geared for tweens. We have a Wii and about a thousand laptops around the house so it's not for lack of access. They haven't taken an interest yet, and we haven't encouraged it, either.
I have told Bunny many times that just because So-and-So's parents let him watch "insert program here," that's not how it works in our house. I am fine with her not knowing who Miley Cyrus or The Jonas Brothers or Zac Efron are. I am fine that she's just now starting to explore having little crushes, but isn't boy-crazy. To her a crush is just a strong feeling of friendship and that is a feeling we happily encourage, especially because she is only six (seven in a few short weeks). She certainly doesn't understand dating, and marriage is something that parents and princesses do.
The reason why we try to keep Bunny and Wallie a little media shy is because we feel that there is plenty of time for growing up, but sometimes I struggle with the fact that we restrict most tween programming but will delight in them singing "Take a Chance on Me" or "Master of the House." I wonder why some things are okay, and some things aren't. I think what it all boils down to is that we have a problem with the tween genre being targeted at a pre-tween audience. It's so overt and so much marketing money is being spent ensuring that young children won't ever be making their own choices about what is good or cool. And it bothers me that pre-tweens seem to eat it up so much. I realize that, depending on who you talk to, the definition of tweens can include 7- and 8-year-olds, but, please. Can't they just let my six-year-old remain a pre-tween for a little while longer?
I think most parents wrestle with what is appropriate media to expose their kids to, and ultimately, it really depends on the family and the kids. I've never been the kind of parent to make blanket statements about how I would raise, feed or clothe my kid. (Plus, I'm a Libra. Holla!) Having access to a variety of choices applies just as much to TV and movie programming as it does to parenting or feeding philosophies. Just as I cannot say we are 1-2-3 Magic parents or we only eat organic foods, I cannot say our kids watch only age-appropriate shows and movies, but we try our best to make their exposure is healthy and matches our values.
Sometimes I'm grateful to have "Because I said so!" to fall back on as a reason why they can't watch something, when that reason isn't completely clear to me. Muddled, mixed, muddied message? Perhaps. But sometimes, I need to buy a little time to think of a good one. In the end, I hope that every media decision we make, as non-sensical as some of them may seem, is always aligned with our core values. We all make the decisions we think are best, and I hope our choices enrich our children's lives, helping them to grow up to be critically-thinking, emotionally-intelligent, open-minded people.
And thanks, PBS, for making me think so hard about this.