I have always loved stories, as long as I can remember. As a child I had a vivid imagination, and I lived in those stories: the ones I read or watched on the screen, and the ones I made up myself. I especially loved strong, brave characters fighting against injustice and evil. At that time, there were not so many female characters that fit the description, but I fell in love with the ones that did. In my mind, I adapted them so that I could see myself in them, living so many great adventures. I am pretty sure that they were more than just stories, and that they are still part of who I am today.
We learn a lot from our heroes, even if we know that they are fictional. We are fascinated and inspired by the qualities we admire in them, by the struggles and challenges they face, their values and visions of morality, how they lead and how they solve those problems. There is so much to learn from stories, because a good story does not just tell you things, it makes you feel them, and it stays with you even once it is over. We learn without even realising it, and so do our kids.
Researching violence brought up, for me, a darker side of this learning. I met young people who had once been very fascinated by guns and war, just as they had seen in movies, and who had signed up to be real life ‘heroes’. Except, as they told me, their experience of war turned up very different from what they had imagined, and it scarred them forever. Of course, movies were not the only reason why they took up guns, yet stories did matter. They mattered because those boys and girls had already experienced violence through their much-loved movies and TV shows before seeing what it really was in real life, and that influenced the way they understood and made sense of it.
I am not really trying to argue that watching violence on screens necessarily makes children more at risk of being violent. Although some research does warn us of the dangers of watching violence, this is not really the point I wish to make here, and a yes or not answer would not be enough. The point for me as a parent is to be better prepared for how to help children understand violence and other social issues, and to develop their critical thinking.
I would not encourage children to watch violence on screen. However, children today are exposed to a whole lot of inputs, models, and information that shape their thinking in ways we may not be aware of. You may find out that they have grown faster than you know and have opinions on matters that you had not yet thought of discussing with them, including justice, violence, politics, war, attitudes towards genders and social groups. These are conversations we need to be prepared for.
Perhaps, the truth is that we do not really ever have all the answers, but the good news is that we do not need to. What we do need is to open the conversation. And I mean a genuine conversation, one where we hear the other side and learn together. It does not need to be a lecture. I remember when my mum banned some of the shows I liked because they were ‘stupid’. Though she definitely had her reasons and very good intentions, what I felt was shame, both because I believed her – and I thought that I was therefore stupid – and because at the same time, I did not know how to stop myself from wanting to watch those shows, nor I could I really grasp what made them ‘stupid’. It was even more difficult when I was curious because all my friends were watching those shows, and I was already having a hard enough time being the awkward one in the group.
The popular culture our kids are exposed to today may not be the educational stories we would ideally want to tell them, and if you are able to make a good quality selection that reflects your values, better so. In fact, I would definitely encourage that. But even when kids are exposed to cultural products that expose them to not so educational, and even problematic content, we can still create learning and bonding opportunities, if we use them to encourage critical thinking. A conversation would allow us to understand more deeply what our children are thinking and feeling, and guide them by suggesting new ways of looking at things. Here are some tips and ideas to do this.
1. Know the content
The more you know about what the kids are watching, the more you may be prepared to provide guidance and make appropriate choices, depending on their ages, independence, or your parenting style. Watching it beforehand would be great, but you may not always have the time! There are other resources available online, for example parental guides that list details of the violence depicted and language used. For example, you can search for parents guides on imdb.com. You may also talk to other parents about their experience – though the final decision on what is appropriate for your family is yours. Most of all, having an open dialogue with your children and a relationship of trust, particularly when they grow older and get more independent, is the one best way to have an idea of what is the content they are exposed to and interested in.
2. Watch it together
Watching the video content together would allow you the flexibility to know what is going on both on the screen and with your child, share the experience, provide support or intervene if needed, and talk about it.
3. Know the viewer
Not all children are the same, and their levels of sensitivity or fascination for violence can be very different from one child to another. You know your child better than anyone else, so you are the best person to make the call. And we can always get even better at knowing our children. Watch their reactions, listen to their questions and comments, and make room for opportunities to know about how they feel. Avoid judgement – if you can! – so that they can express their concerns as freely as possible in a safe environment. Keep in mind that if a child is scared or even terrified of something they have watched, they do not always cry or ask to stop watching. Avoid dismissing their concerns by saying things like ‘it’s just a movie, it’s not real’ or ask them to stop crying. Listening and providing emotional support is a way of helping them regulate those emotions, it does not make them weak or dependent on us.
4. Feel their excitement
Excitement is a good way of starting a conversation. You may already know that your children love a particular character or scene, why not dig deeper? Why exactly do they love and admire their favorite characters? What qualities do they admire in them? These questions could lead to talking about broader issues, for instance how they perceive justice, courage, strength, or the qualities a ‘hero’ should have. You could also draw from this and talk about how the children see themselves and who they would want to be.
5. Question and problem-solve
Asking questions is a great way of developing critical thinking, even more than providing ready-made solutions. Narratives are usually written in a way that makes us cheer the heroes, no matter what they do. Afterwards, however, we may be able to question their conduct, for example, by focusing on specific actions. Was the conduct of the heroes always right? Does the child fully understand why the character acted in a certain way?
An exercise could be imagining to remove the action away from the context, for example by imagining that that action took place in a more realistic situation that the child may be familiar with. Ask your child, what would you have done in that situation? Were there other options?
You could go back to a certain problem the hero was facing. Could you think of other possible ways of solving it that did not involve harming?
Discussions such as these could allow you some insight into how your child understands what happens in the context of the narrative, the emotions involved and possible dilemmas.
6. Flip the narrative
Narratives usually tell us a story from the perspective of the hero, so that we feel little empathy for the villain. This is even easier if the villains are evil creatures without empathy. But what if we tried and told the story from the perspective of the villain? What would we find? This could be an exciting opportunity to use imagination and fill a gap in the story, by looking at it from a different angle. Was killing or hurting the villain the only solution, or can you think of any other creative ending?
7. Highlight the consequences of violence
What happened after someone was injured or killed on screen? How did the characters react? How did that make us feel? Quite often, when a hero succeeds in killing the enemy after much struggle, we love it. That is because it is shown in a way in which there is little emphasis on the suffering caused. Those killed or harmed by the heroes, including not only villains but also other casualties and destruction, we just do not notice. On the other hand, the suffering and threat induced by the villains is amplified.
There could be endless imaginative exercises that you could play to fill in the gaps. For example, go back to a scene with casualties, and focus on one of them. Who was that person? Who were his/her loved ones? What will happen next to him/her or their loved ones? What are they going to do?
Another simple idea, could be to just remove the characters and focus the conversation on the possible consequences of that violence in a more realistic way.
One of the functions of stories is to address our real fears. That is why we have monsters and monster slayers. Often, the villains are a voice into our own ‘dark side’. Stories are a window into our most intimate fears and wishes, and as such, they are more real than we would ever admit. Stories are real because they are us. And at the same time, they are not. They are this wonderful thing called imagination, which allows us endless possibilities to switch things over, changes bits and pieces, explore new paths.