In California over the holiday, I was with two eleven year old girls who were excited about watching the Oscars. California meant that the awards would start at 6:00 p.m., and that meant they could actually stay up to watch the whole thing. They love the movies, saying they would rather watch a movie than read a book, although they really didn’t know much about the ones nominated and were not rooting for any movie in particular. They had watched other award shows and what interests them is seeing the people and the entertainment.
Mostly, they liked comedies, such as the ones with Melissa McCarthy. They don’t pay any attention to the movie ratings but think no one cares about the language used. Asked about sex, the response was blushes and giggles. The one thing they don’t like and don’t want to see is violence. I said they have a lot of real violence around them these days and wondered if they ever get to discuss this in school. The answer from one of the girls was that they have talked some about terrorism. Her teacher knows a lot but doesn’t think it is her place to discuss these things in class.
Thinking about this response, I wondered if this reflects a concern in schools about discussing subjects that might have political overtones or a more general concern that parents might not want their children exposed to discussions of matters that may have an emotional impact. Parents are protective of their children and may want to be the ones to respond to the questions or fears they express.
On the other hand, parents often want to protect their children from knowledge or awareness of things that are going on in the world. Much of the news is horrifying and frightening and we want our children to feel safe and secure. But for better or worse, it is no longer possible to keep things from children. As educator Neil Postman pointed out in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, the world of technology has destroyed the ability to keep secrets until children are ready to hear them. The old divide between childhood and adulthood no longer exists.
Children no longer have to be able to read to know what is going on in the world. Television and tablets bring them news in pictures. Even little children walk around with cell phones. We may try to keep children from watching the news, but they are connected in other ways and it is hard to know what they are picking up. We have to assume they know more than we may think they do about events around them.
What we don’t always know is what they make of the information they are getting. Children’s response to events is influenced by where they are in their development as well as by general personality. Some children are more fearful than others, some have more anxiety. Young children don’t easily distinguish between fantasy and reality. Even what may seem non-threatening information may be received and integrated differently in a child’s imagination.
Yet information that is upsetting to us may seem to roll off a child’s back. Parents sometimes worry when children seem not to be concerned about or to react to things that happen in the way they expect. Children are concrete, and things happening outside their immediate lives or family may not have much relevance for them. Hopefully, parents know their children well and have some idea about how a child may process certain information. It is by talking with children about well publicized events that we can learn what they are taking in and help them absorb information in a way that they can best handle.
Often, it is our own anxiety we feel rather than our children’s. We wish to protect them from what we ourselves are feeling when actually they may be in another place. We also want to protect them from reality, and it is hard to hear the kind of news that threatens those wishes. Part of growing up is learning that parents are not all powerful and will not always be able to protect them. It is through our understanding and emotional support that we empower them.
Perhaps the Oscars offer parents and children a fantasy world everyone wants now and then.