Besides the fact that I used to be a child, I first encountered children’s media and literature in an undergraduate class taught by Dean Duncan at Brigham Young University in 2002. It was an excellent course, piquing my interest enough to eventually, years later, bend the direction of my whole career. The class was illuminating for many reasons, but mostly because of the phenomenological stance that Duncan took towards children’s media—the belief that the process of watching films is just as important as what those films contain. This belief places a great deal of responsibility upon media consumers, but it also greatly empowers them; no longer are they passive receptacles but active collaborators in their own media experiences.
What I would like to discuss this week are the main strategies that Duncan has offered for parents to better engage with media and use it in the upbringing of their children. All credit, therefore, goes to him. My primary source in preparing this discussion was a BYU Magazine article from 2001, by Duncan, in which he outlines some primary methods by which to empower parents. For the past several years, however, he has also run a program entitled Children’s Media Review (notice the permanent link to the right), which uses faculty, students, and others to create articles, reviews, and films. The writing here is top-notch and the entire website is a tremendous resource (particularly the article “Media Strategies for the Home” gives additional insight to material I will cover here). Given, therefore, that you can cut me out as the middleman and go straight to the source, I’d still like to ignore that possibility and go ahead and discuss how I think we can better utilize media in our lives. (All quotations are from the BYU Magazine article.)
Like it or not, we live in a world supersaturated with media. More than anything else, media will characterize the world which our children will experience, and we must be prepared to raise them effectively in such an environment.
Though we generally use the term media as a singular, it is actually the plural of “medium,” which denotes “an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished.” Media are not ends unto themselves, but means to an end, which end I believe to be a more meaningful life. For people of faith I believe it to be increased discipleship as families and individuals. It should enhance, not detract from, our familial relationships.
To explain how I believe we can best effect this result, I’d like to begin by having us adjust our attitude towards media. Quite often parents are leery of television and films, focusing on protecting their children and avoiding that which is inappropriate. This is not an unhealthy attitude, as there is indeed a great deal from which we need to shield our children. But, as a means to an end, media in and of itself is neither corrupt nor beneficent, although it can be used for both purposes.
So, accepting that we should avoid the demoralizing components of media and turn our attention to how to best utilize the good, I for one believe that the media is absolutely overflowing with positive, wonderful things, so much so that we could never possibly get to it all. Part of the purpose of life is to search after lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy things, and such a search implies an active, optimistic effort. Merely avoiding the negative influences of media is a bit like avoiding junk food without making up the difference by eating fruits, vegetables, and grains: we’re only getting half the benefit.
As we permit such an optimistic, active attitude to awaken us, our minds will be freed from idleness and we will find exponentially greater joy in our media experiences than before. Even more importantly, we will improve our families and our lives. I have found that perhaps the greatest danger of media, for children or adults, is not sex and violence, but the threat that media—television, specifically—will replace familial interaction. Its greatest possible boon, however, is precisely that it can enhance these interactions and relationships.
I’d like to outline Duncan's seven principles for maximizing our experience. These apply particularly to parents guiding young children, but they also apply to our own mature media experiences, even after the young ones have gone to bed.
It has been said that it is an easy thing to go right if we start right, but if we start wrong it will be a hard thing to get right, and this principle applies to media consumption as well as other areas of our lives. That said, the fact of the matter is that many of us have started wrong, so the easiest thing to do may be to unplug for a while and start over.
Turn off the electronic media and “dust off your library card.” Remember that all media are connected, and a film operates on the same principles as a book—story is the most fundamental element, regardless of medium (momentarily excluding visual art and music from this discussion). Try to discover the connection between written and visual media. Pay attention to nuances of story. Especially read classics that have been popular for generations. Try, as your finances allow, to have such books in the home (at least try to put as much emphasis on buying books as on buying or downloading movies and shows). Particularly revisit children’s literature. Far from being immature, these stories are beautiful and uplifting. If you can do this with your children, there is a double benefit as you grow closer exploring this world together.
When your hectic consumption rate has been slowed enough to arouse your sensitivity, it may be time to plug back in, but not at the expense of the books, which should stay out and frequently open. A continued balanced effort will bring out the best in both visual and written media.
That may seem like an impossible task, but I am living proof that it’s both feasible and beneficial. When we were first married my wife and I had broadcast television, the same networks we had been raised with and seen all our lives (though Fox still somehow seemed new). When we moved to New York in 2002, however, we couldn’t get reception and cable was financially out of the question; when we moved to England one year later we refused to pay the television license fee, and by then we were on a roll. The result was nearly six years without television programming—we relented to the cable bill two months ago so that I could watch more preschool programming—and we unequivocally loved it. There was not a single moment that I wished to able to watch the news, Law and Order, Friends, 24, or anything else. We’ve now rejoined the world in principle, but not much in fact. I’ve vaguely heard of things like House and Bones and Gray’s Anatomy, but I’ve never seen them—and both my wife and I feel that without television our spare time became meaningful and our lives were enriched for not spending every evening living vicariously through sitcoms and soap commercials.
Upgrade your own habits to set the example for your children, and then make sure they follow suit as much as possible. Again, media contains more subtle dangers than sex and violence: “Materialism, cults of celebrity and popularity, celebrations of impertinence and self-absorption, even plan tackiness—all are rampant in our media, and they are too often presented and received uncritically.”
Allow only things you approve of to be viewed, read, or listened to. As much as possible know what your children are partaking of (take the time to watch, read, or listen to it yourself). Keep televisions, computers, and even those old-fashioned radios in public rooms, not bedrooms, and periodically examine the content of iPods, iTunes, etc., if you allow such things at all. Make media consumption a family activity as much as possible.
3. Active Reading
The quality of our experience is just as dependent on us as on what we consume. In academic terms this philosophy is called phenomenology, but in practical terms it just means not to be a sponge, to recognize the phenomenon of consuming media as much as the content of the media itself. In doing so, you won’t just absorb what is presented to you without scrutiny. Also strive not to dismiss something—for critical reasons—because you initially don’t like it. In his seminal work An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis (we often forget that professionally he was a literary scholar) wrote that there are no good and bad texts, just good and bad readers. An open, active mind can reap a reward almost anywhere.
The problem of passive absorption is greatest with film and television. Reading a page requires active participation by the reader or the text ceases to be read. But with a prerecorded medium, the show continues to pass over the viewer whether he’s engaged or not, and we are therefore much more prone to let a film wash over us. Many people think of films as relaxing precisely because they don’t have to think about them, but this is exactly the wrong position to take.
Read a film or a television show like you would a book. The little extra energy this requires will pay enormous dividends. As a family, respond and discuss, especially concerning the aspects you do not agree with. This does not mean you qualify the movie as either “good” or “bad,” nor should you start to dictate, “Well, they [the filmmakers] should have done this.” Instead, try to determine why the filmmakers did what they did, what they were trying to say, and how you feel about that commentary on life. Instead of asking someone if a show was good, ask what they learned. This requires childlike humility, but we often learn more when we’re aware that we are learning, and we can also more easily reject that which is unwholesome when we are thus made aware of its presence.
I believe that the amount of what we watch is even more dangerous than the content of what we watch. Mindless hours of innocuous TV or Internet cost us dearly, and we should take to heart our own mothers’ admonition to not be a boob in front of the tube.
If we are to build strong families, strong lives, or a strong society, then our greatest enemy is arguably idleness (or perhaps distraction). When we live our entire lives vicariously through television shows or online entertainments then we are not really living at all, and are rather wasting away the limited days of our lives.
The best way to overcome idleness in our media consumption, besides the unplugging mentioned earlier, is to have a purpose every time we turn on. Avoid surfing. Turn something on to do or see specifically what you want to do or see, and then turn it off when you’re done. There can certainly be times when it is appropriate for family bonding to just “see what’s good on,” but if it is a perpetual personal habit, it can be spiritually and emotionally corrosive. Then our idleness turn into idol worship, and our families and values can be displaced as the center of our homes.
Above all else, don’t let media interfere with family interactions. Again, keep television out of certain areas where more significant interactions should occur, specifically bedrooms (even and especially your own), the kitchen, and the dining room—and then don’t eat all your meals on the couch.
5. Location and Decorum
Of course there are areas in the home where media belongs more than anywhere else in the world. Going out to the movies can be a wonderful experience, but for ideal use of media, especially as a family, we must consume it in the home.
The type of interaction and familial discussion I’ve been describing require that you be in a location that allows you to talk out loud during viewing. I am absolutely convinced that this is the best way to watch a film. It is impossible for your brain to turn off if you talk your way through a movie, even if you are completely alone. Also, your parental voice can be a guide to your children as they seek to navigate often challenging texts.
To quote Duncan:
"TV programs and films should be read aloud, like a picture book. Parents should provide running commentary, discussing story and character, theme and meaning, image and sound; they should rewind and repeat and ask leading questions. This approach makes impossible the open-mouthed, empty-eyed gaping usually associated with TV babysitting. And in modeling such active reading, we insure that our children will become informed and literate."
The makers of DVRs seemed innately aware of this—you can now rewind live television! Take advantage of this as often as appropriate, whether for instruction or comedy. (Most recently Loretta and I did this during an episode of Kipper when all of Kipper’s laundry blows away in a storm: when Tiger falls into a bush, we must have rewound it seven times—the first time we watched it, with more in subsequent viewings—and Loretta has hardly ever laughed so hard.)
The desire to seek after the virtuous and praiseworthy and lovely does not mean we should look in the same place all the time, whatever our favorite place may happen to be. Rather, as with food, a balanced diet will provide us and our children with more insights and edifying experiences than could be available through any single source.
I mentioned that we should read the canon of classical children’s literature. For a while now in academia it’s been popular to reject the canon in favor of texts that are new, postmodern, postcolonial, etc., but I’m still enough of a traditionalist to support it, provided that we then move beyond into less well-known waters. With films and television this means it’s okay to start with Disney, PBS, and Nickelodeon, provided that at some point we start to explore beyond it. As we do so with our children we may be surprised at their capacity for interest and comprehension beyond what we anticipated. Try foreign films, silent films, documentaries, different types of animation, and so forth. Foreign films, for instance, can be rewarding if for no other reason than that they make us assume a new perspective. They can also be more prone to probe deep issues than American fare, and the very fact that you must read subtitles aloud means you are reading the film.
In exploring variety we should move beyond movies, though. Expose yourself and, when appropriate, your children to the magic of live theater. I have wonderful memories of going with my own parents not to movies but to puppet shows, the circus, planetarium shows, and live plays. Listen to different music than you are used to (again, investigate foreign music). In all ways try to open up new doors for yourself and your family. There is no single source of joy or enlightenment, and you will be uplifted by investigating many different sources.
7. Duration and Extension
Media by its very definition is a means to an end, in this case to returning to our lives invigorated and ready to try harder and do better. But most movies, particularly features, are too long for children to properly digest and apply in this way. If we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what we consume, then we should take smaller bites.
Try the principle of extension, which consists of smaller installments and more of them. Just like you would read a long book a chapter a night to your child (I have wonderful memories of Charlotte’s Web and Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back in this regard), consider watching a portion of a show and then extending the experience over time. This allows for increased commentary from you and contemplation for the child. Discuss the program between installments and after its completion. In this way it took Loretta and I about two weeks to get through Mary Poppins last year, but a wonderful two weeks they were.
Also examine other related material and cluster, create activities based on a theme. With Mary Poppins, the most obvious thing was to dance—“Mary Poppins, step in time!”—and dance we did. Play is an obvious activity: we regularly pretend to be the Wonder Pets, for instance, and in the bathtub we have a marvelous time both when she is Ariel and I Flounder escaping from a shark and on different days when her little octopus is Charlie and her alligator Lola, even though they bear no resemblance at all to Lauren Child’s characters. My favorite example, though, is when we taught Loretta the rudiments of baseball after she saw it on Lazytown—teaching kids sports, after all, is exactly why Magnus Scheving created this show in the first place. But play is not all you can do. Draw a picture, tell a story or experience, create your own picture book, “build a model, play a game, write a letter, [or] make a visit.”
Here in New York City there are wonderful opportunities to integrate specific films into our activities. The Empire State Building can serve both for a young boy entranced with King Kong and a teenage daughter who loved Sleepless in Seattle. A wise father could take that same daughter on a morning date to Fifth Avenue to have breakfast at Tiffany’s. Loretta was vaguely interested in her first trip to Coney Island until the Wonder Pets saved a squirrel there, and then it was all she could talk about for weeks before and afterwards. And so on, though it doesn’t have to be so geographically specific. While Little Bill goes to the Bronx Zoo, for instance, the experience is transferable to any city anywhere.
"…Last fall some of our little ones were reading “The Surprise” from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad All Year. In this lovely story two friends try, with pure intent and little success, to help each other with some seasonal cleanup. After we closed the book, we went outside and raked leaves and talked about service and secret sharing, about plans that go awry, and about the satisfaction of even making an effort."
And then he summarizes:
"It is the combination and accumulation of activities on a theme that make active, informed, edified media consumers. More important, these activity clusters mean that, in part through media, we’re constantly learning together and enjoying one another. Moreover, parents and children become bound by common experience, common principles, common strivings, and mutual accomplishments.”
For my own summary, then, remember that media are tools to build our families and our lives, and should be used only as means to those ends. Human interaction is more important than any medium, show, or song. Even the most worthy book, film, or program, could get in the way of more important experiences. It is perfectly plausible for you to feel prompted to put down even the most important book—the scriptures, for example—in order to go tickle your child or help her with her homework. Remember that these are the experiences that will matter. But if we properly engage media into our lives, such experiences just might be more frequent than before.