Thursday, February 21, 2013

EW's Jeff Jensen On Raising Your lil Geeks In a World of Violent Pop Culture

I am not a parent (at least of humans -besides, I don't think Sherman is affected by pop culture). However, I seem to be engaged in conversations with parents on a regular basis about children's exposure to violence through media. While I do believe it is the responsibility of every parent to monitor and direct the media intake for their children, I also understand there are influences out of parents' control (i.e. friends at school). Jeff Jensen (@EWDocJensen) too understands these issues. This EW article is sound perspective for parents who don't want to alienate their children from media, but who are concerned about the media their children consume and also care enough to spend the time talking with their children about life.

The Parent Trap
via Entertainment Weekly #1246 Feb. 15, 2013


THERE HAVE BEEN only a few moments in my life when I've felt like a successful parent, and one of them occurred in 2008 while watching Speed Racer. It was the intense bit where the villains threatened to put a man's arm in the piranha tank. "Dad," said my son, then 7, "I don't think this movie is appropriate for me. I want to leave." I was a little annoyed — I was enjoying the Wachowski siblings' heady, hyperactive live-action cartoon! — but I was also impressed with Ben's ability to recognize his threshold for violence in entertainment. I wanted to affirm that, so we left. To this day, we still don't know if those poor fish got fed.

Ben's victory seemed to validate a policy my wife and I adopted early in our parenting to regulate our children's pop culture intake and limit, if not eliminate, their exposure to screen violence. We waited until they were 7 to show them a live-action film that was more intense than, say, The Lion King, and even since then, we have limited their selection to a small offering of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movies: Star Wars. Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. We're stingy about allowing them to see anything with depictions of real violence against human beings. My kids will never play a first-person shooter game — or any game — in which the objective is to kill another person, dead or undead. At least not in our house.

From the beginning, our motivations were mostly personal. My wife and I are religious, and we wanted to cultivate the spiritual values of our faith. But the times influenced us too. It was the early 2000s. Columbine was on our minds. America was vengeful after 9/11 and spoiling for war. My wife and I wanted kids who rejected violence as a solution to problems and a means of expression. By being careful, deliberate, and self-conscious about exposing our children to violent material, we hoped to teach them to take guns seriously, and model for them a thoughtful engagement with culture in general.

What makes all this a bit tricky is that I am a geek. I was weaned on Star Wars and Spider-Man comics. I came of age on morally ambiguous vigilantes like Wolverine ("I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice") and glib gun-toting action heroes like Bruce Willis' John McClane ("Yippee-ki-yay, mother-shutyourmouth!"). Long before I began to value stories like Star Wars and Watchmen or characters like Spider-Man and Batman for their themes — including two at the heart of most violent hero-fiction: "With great power comes great responsibility" and "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster" — I sought them out because they were "cool." But at a certain point, I wanted to know what that meant, because I recognized how pop culture had profoundly influenced me — my humor, my temperament, my notions of good and evil, my sexual attitudes, and more — whether I wanted it to or not. Pop culture didn't turn me into a psycho. But it did inspire me to become a journalist who writes about pop culture. I wanted to better understand the stuff that shaped me.

And shapes me still. I remain a passionate consumer of entertainment, and my tastes skew toward dark fantasy that tends to contain a great deal of violence. I love me a good blood-spurty, head-bursting zombie kill as much as any other fan of The Walking Dead. One of the most exhilarating action sequences I've seen in recent movies was Chloƫ Grace Moretz's Hit Girl creatively killing a hallway full of bad guys in Kick-Ass. Yet I am more discriminating and selective in what I see these days, and I need more than just "cool" to get me raving about it. I need provocative themes, emotional resonance, or sly satire to justify the spectacular sensationalism.

I want my kids to be more discerning about entertainment than I was as a kid, and more aware of how they are relating to pop culture. So my wife and I might need to rethink some of our parenting strategies, which until now have erred more on the side of avoidance than engagement. My son has never seen The Walking Dead. But his friends have, and they're obsessed with it, and now so is he. He told me last week — just days after he went through the frightening ordeal of a school lockdown when a student reported a man on campus with a gun (false alarm) — that he and his buddies wish they could "live in a postapocalyptic world eating canned food and shooting zombies all day." When I asked him what was so appealing about that, I wanted him to say something like, Don't worry, Dad. It's just a fantasy that offers catharsis for the fears I feel about our scary world. Instead, he said, "I don't know. I just think warfare is cool." I get where he's coming from, and I don't take his sentiments too seriously. But I would like him to reconsider the sentiment nonetheless. And I have an idea where to begin: I think it's time he started watching The Walking Dead with his old man.

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