Conditioning for Hatred and Violence
Play is the way children practice for the adult world. Anyone who has
watched a small child playing with a simple wooden airplane knows how a toy
can stimulate a child's imagination. Toys and games are the turnstile
through which the child passes to enter the adult world. Playtime should
be a magical juncture during which children can feel strong and empowered.
When they play, children should be able to work on their understanding
between make-believe and reality; they should begin to comprehend and
process basic ideas about morals and values; and they should be learning
about cooperation and the needs of others. Increasingly, however, as toys
of aggression, conflict and war proliferate, playtime is beginning to
resemble more tour of duty than a series of magic moments.
* Nineteen million toy guns were sold in the United
States in 1986. A year later that number jumped 73.7%
to 33 million sold;
* Sales of war toys have risen over 500% from 1986 -1990
to well over a billion dollars a year;
* Despite the fact that the winter holiday season celebrates
life and light, in the past decade more than half of the
best-selling toys and games during that season have
been various types of war toys;
* Sales of video game systems topped out at 69 million
units by mid-1994. The estimated projected net sales
of video game systems in 1994 was $4.7 billion.
Violence in our society is at an all time high, and children are
increasingly involved as active participants. Children's toys, it seems,
are teaching them that war and killing are perfectly acceptable methods of
dealing with conflict.
War toys are playthings which are used to solve conflict, gain power, or
win through the use of violence. The aim of a war toy is to wound or kill.
While it is true that war play has been with us for centuries (remnants of
what might be war toys have been found in Egypt and others have been found
which date back to the Middle Ages), what has changed over time is as
important as what has remained the same.
The Influence of Advertising
In the past, children have been the directors of their own play
experiences, selecting both the essence and inventory of their recreational
activities. But for the last several decades, and especially since the
introduction of the Star Wars toys in the 1970's, children have been
channeled into using single-purpose, character-specific toys to reenact
scenes they have seen in the movies and on television. The media and toy
industries began to determine the content of children's play, the
characters of choice, and the lessons they were supposed to learn from
them. By removing all restrictions that protected children from commercial
exploitation, the deregulation of children's television in the 1980's was
another major force in changing the shape of children's play. The
resulting collaboration between television producers and toy manufacturers
created a rich opportunity for product-driven shows to clog the airwaves
with programs touted as entertainment for children. But since young
children have a difficult time discerning the difference between
advertising and programming, these shows became what we can consider the
first infomercials, dictating toy choices to children at an alarming rate.
This program format quickly became the norm in children's programming. A
proliferation of war toy lines flooded the market, almost all directly tied
to violent cartoon characters. Children now had detailed daily instruction
on what toys to buy and how to play with them. Playtime changed
Where once children played outside, interacted with others and used their
fertile imaginations to engage in their rich fantasy lives, they now sat
glued in front of the television set for hours, passively fed information
on what to buy and how to use it. The locus of control had been taken away
from the child and placed firmly in the hands of adult toy manufacturers
whose bottom line was dependent on how big a share they could gain from the
lucrative juvenile market. The most profound effect deregulation and the
resulting advertising blitz had on children was to create the need in them
to own very specific toys, many of them toys of aggression and violence,
simply in order to play.
Why then are we so surprised that children seem to be obsessed with violent
actions when manufacturers and the media are literally filling our
children's world with increasingly violent images?
Toy Guns and Dolls
The most dramatic increase in war toy sales has been the increase
in the sale of toy guns. Despite the annual count of tragedies involving
children and teen are mistaken for the real thing by adults with guns, toy
designers are stretching to new heights (or sinking to new depths) to come
up with novel gimmicks for toys to make them more realistic and exciting.
Some of them are called "replicas" or "imitations" because they so closely
resemble real weapons. A quick stroll down the toy gun aisle of your local toy
store will reveal a frightening variety of options for children today:
* Official Police Play Equipment (Manley)
M-16 rifle, realistic automatic sound. Thirty inch police
belt, police stick, play walkie-talkie with holder, badge,
handcuffs and keys, whistle, sunglasses, handcuff case.
* Tidal Force Pump and Shoot Water Gun
Shoots up to 50 feet. Three times as much on three times
the water power. The ultimate water gun with pump and
* Voice and Sound Combat Force Rangers Mac 7
with Volume Control (DSI)
Gunner target! Fire! Kablam! Huge three inch speaker
trigger and twist handle to change volume.
* Drencher Battle Sound Water Gun (Blue-Box Toys)
MP-12 battle sounds. Motorized continuous stream of
water with four electronic sounds. The exclusive
motorized Drencher with continuous stream of water that
beats all others!
* Thunderstrike Motorized Megablaster (Tyco)
Airblasters. Extended ammo system. Action grip.
Flexible wrapable ammo tube wraps around you then
stays in place. Your fire power is unlimited. Hinged hip
stock makes Thunderstrike right- or left-handed.
* Airblasters Super Stick Blaster Motorized Blaster (Tyco)
Fires six sticky bullets. Rapid fire action. Motorized
action enhances accuracy and distance.
Test your aim with super stick bullets.
* Airblasters Night Tracker (Tyco)
Shoots night glow tracer ammo. Dual barrel blaster.
The Night Tracker charges bullets so they glow in the dark.
Marketed in tandem with many of these weapons are the replicas of the
characters who use them in the cartoons and advertisements, already named
and with their personalities and functions clearly defined. These dolls
are equipped for the 90's, linked with provisions, or what the Army
currently calls "organic assets", that would rival any nation's armed
forces attack vehicles, artillery lasers and missile systems.
If the violent nature of these characters and their accouterments wasn't
enough, they frequently portray racial and sexual stereotypes promoting
hatred in our society -- able-bodied white men as the heroes, foreign-born
males, some with disabilities, as the evil characters, women as victims --
setting children up for dangerous prejudices and bigotry later on in life.
The growing realism of these toys is playing an increasingly important role
in war play. Simply stated, these war toys reinforce negative, aggressive
behavior, especially when supported by exposure to violence on television
and in the movies. These toys are teaching our children that:
* people who look and act differently should be defeated;
* possession of weapons is acceptable;
* killing and other forms of violence are acceptable ways of dealing with
* people do not suffer or really die as a result of war and conflict;
* a militarized world is perfectly acceptable.
Each time we purchase these toys for our children, or allow others to give
them to them as gifts, we communicate our tacit approval of their usage to
the children who receive them. Playing with war toys that have been
provided to them by adult care givers, reinforced by violent cartoons and
instructional television advertisements produced by adults, delivers the
message that violence is a perfectly acceptable and normal way of life.
The child's room is dark except for the eerie glow of the television.
Its occupant sits staring in front of the screen for hours on end, his body
frozen, tense from the pumping adrenalin. Only his hands move, jerking to
stab at the joystick and buttons on a small black box. Periodically he
emits sounds, a growl, a grunt, an anguished moan. He is deeply engrossed
in a video game.
If you are a parent or care giver of a child in the 90's, this scene is
probably quite familiar to you. You aren't alone. One in every three
homes in America now has a video game unit of some kind. Add to this the
colossal number of handheld video game units sold in the last decade and
the fact that every shopping mall and movie theater is electric with arcade
versions of the games. We have created a situation in which no child in
America, rural or urban, rich or poor, is far away from a video game fix.
Video games were the first medium to offer a child the opportunity to
interact with the moving, visual images on the television screen. They
began the expansion of the small screen entertainment industry into our
children's lives, and continue to play a major role. Among the many
reasons for the enormous interest and fondness children have shown for
video games are these:
* Children can elevate their skill level over a relatively short
period of time with little physical effort. Compared to most
sports or other activities like learning to play a musical
instrument where the learning curve is slow, stretching
over months and, in some cases, years, the skills to
master most video games are accumulated at light speed.
* The games themselves can be programmed to match the
player's skill level as he moves up through levels of
difficulty, allowing incremental adjustment of the
* There is no physical danger involved (short of cutting off
blood circulation by sitting in one position too long). You
don't sprain your ankle running for a ball, fall down and
break your glasses, or get shin splints when you play a
* Video games offer a substitute world in which to operate,
away from the stresses of interaction with parents, school
* Children can enter into the lives of their favorite
characters on the screen and take action as those
characters, activating the dormant medium of television
and giving them a sense of omnipotence and control.
Many of us, watching our children play video games for hours on end, wonder
what a steady diet of these games is doing to their physical, mental and
From the very first appearance of computerized arcade games, there
have been questions about the level of violence in such games. Violence
and aggression are not only pervasive themes in most video games, but a
child's ability to win is in direct proportion to his ability to maim and
kill. In a study by the National Coalition on Television Violence which
surveyed the 95 most popular video games, 58% of them were games of warfare
and 83% featured violent themes. A child must rely on force to win rather
than reason, always leaving behind a trail of blood and gore. Simply
stated, there are only two real choices in these games -- kill or die --
and violence is the only guideline by which the players function.
Despite the clusters of children often seen hovering around an arcade game
or in front of a television that is hooked by an umbilicus to a Nintendo
set, there are rarely team players among them. Proximity, in this case,
does not equal community. Typically, an autonomous individual, acting
alone, performs an aggressive act against a screen enemy. The player must
kill or be killed, shoot or be shot, fight or lose by himself, usually
dying a terrifying death. As a bonus, the advances of
modern technology have made possible a frightening degree of realism in
which to play out these deadly scenarios by digitizing the movements of
real actors playing the parts of the characters.
Because the societies depicted in most of these games are hierarchical, the
player must destroy the other characters in a "winner takes all" scheme in
order to advance through the various levels of the society and game. This
creates another problem with serious social consequences. Rather than
learning and using skills of negotiation and mediation to move forward,
children learn to shoot first and talk later, if at all. Add to this the
fact that many of the enemy characters in these games are not Americans but
foreigners, continued exposure to these games is training our children to
accept conflict and violence against people who are different from them as
an integral part of life. Even while our schools and neighborhoods are
rapidly becoming diverse, we are conditioning our children to have less
tolerance for differences, and are legitimizing the violence against one
another by our unspoken agreement to allow them to play with these games.
Another complicated perspective of video violence is that game
producers know that their audience is 75% male and they cater to that
segment of the market. The active characters in most games are
invariably male while the most prevalent role for female characters is that
of victim. The covers of the 50 most popular video games show an
overwhelming imbalance between men and women -- 115 male and 9 female
characters -- a ratio of 13 to 1. When women are included in these games,
they are usually acted upon rather than initiating action.
Sex bias and gender stereotyping in video games, as in other media, has
stunning implications for both boys and girls. Children learn that girls
are weak and dependent, constantly in need of assistance, conditioning boys
to assume dominant gender roles. In addition, because childrens' interest
in computers begins with games, the fact that the most popular video games
are more appealing to boys than to girls because of their aggressive and
violent storylines (a fact easily proven by a quick visit to any video
arcade) contributes to the continuing imbalance of males in the computer
industry and other fields requiring technological skills.
Having a "long attention span" means simply having the ability to
distinguish between areas of stimulation, to prioritize them, and then to
focus on the most important ones. Children begin to gain this ability
fairly early on, learning to wait their turn and to suppress their need for
immediate gratification albeit with great difficulty at times. But those
who spend time playing video games on a regular basis have a greater delay
in the development of their focusing ability. Because video games appeal
to short term, impulsive thinking rather than the longer term, critical
thinking, they can create an alteration in a child's sense of time,
producing an inability to sustain attention. Many parents and teachers
have found that they must condense their instructions so that theycome to
the point much more quickly in order to keep video-bred children attentive.
We are producing a generation of children who will not be able to sustain
their attention for longer than it takes them to lazerize and obliterate
their enemy on a television screen.
The small screen, whether on a television set, a home computer or
an arcade game, has become universally accepted as the information-delivery
system of choice. School systems all over the country are allocating major
funding for computer-assisted learning centers, and the sale of home
computer game units is soaring. Yet how much do we really know about what
our children are exposed to through these games? What are the
rationalizations we have made to each other in order to allow this medium
The argument that these violent and bloody video games are appropriate
outlets for adolescent aggression is faulty. Most research shows that
playing these games supports and sometimes spurs violent activity. The
belief that the fantasy world in video games bears little or no resemblance
to real life in inaccurate. Some of the most popular games depict inner
city police officers shooting drug dealers and street gangs rivaling one
another, effectively functioning as instruction manuals for insuring the
proper response in similar, real life situations.
Boob tube. T.V. Idiot box. Telly. Whatever we choose to call
it, television is omnipotent and powerful. It has the persuasive capacity
to entertain us, inform us, shrink the world around us and tell us where to
shop, what to buy and how to act. As such, television has surpassed all
other forms of media to become the primary tool for mass communications.
With more than ninety-eight percent of all homes in the United States
equipped with at least one set, television is, perhaps, our strongest
socializing agent, and its programming helps shape our personalities,
attitudes and perceptions of reality.
For some, television is a bastion of free speech, sacrosanct and
untouchable. But for others, the very thought of television's
pervasiveness and power raises a red flag, especially when it comes to the
content of television programming and its effects on children. What
children see, they imitate. And what they see on both broadcast and cable
television is violence, real and simulated.
The debate about curbing television violence is not new. What has changed
over the years is the degree to which violence has become standard fare.
When Congress first investigated the issue in the 1950's, sixteen percent
of "prime time" programs featured violence and crime. By 1961 the figure
had increased to fifty percent. And by 1990, although thousands of reports
had been conducted showing the detrimental effects of the proliferation of
violence on television, nearly eighty percent of prime time shows broadcast
at least one overt threat to hurt or kill a person.
The accumulated research of nearly three thousand studies indicates a
strong correlation between the viewing of violent images and aggressive
behavior. What's more, evidence has been mounting that children's exposure
to violence on television has long lasting effects on their behavior.
The impact of television on children is most easily understood within the
context of normal child development. All infants have the capacity and
desire to imitate adult human behavior, an instinct evidenced by their
frequent mirroring of adult facial expressions. They do not, however,
possess the capability of recognizing whether or not a particular adult
behavior ought to be imitated. The importance of this information is
compounded when combined with the knowledge that children as young as
fourteen months of age have been found to exhibit behaviors that they have
seen on television.
Up to age three or four, many children are not fully able to distinguish
reality from fantasy on television programs. Their grasp of motives for
the behavior of characters on television and the subtleties of the moral
conflicts in which they engage is not well developed. Studies have shown
that children believe, for example, that Sesame Street really does exist;
that the characters on television can see and hear us; and what they see on
the screen is actually inside the set. In their minds, the world of
television is entirely factual, and while they may learn differently as
they grow older and as their communication skills increase altering their
reality perceptions, these earliest impressions remain with them -- images
of violence as an exciting, swift and effective way to solve conflicts,
unencumbered by any inherent long term consequences of pain or tragedy.
Effects of Violence
An eleven-year-old boy in Alabama shot his pal in the neck with a
.22 caliber rifle, mimicking a television commercial for a child's game
with guns. A seven-year-old Oklahoma boy hanged himself after watching a
cartoon where hanging was depicted. A five year old child set his house
trailer on fire after watching an MTV segment featuring Beavis and Butthead
extolling the glories of setting things on fire. That blaze killed his
three-year-old sister. The causal link between children's exposure to
television violence and their propensity to engage in violent behavior is
no longer conjecture. Life is beginning to imitate art with increasing
A variety of effects have been found to be associated with repeated viewing of television violence:
* Increased aggression
Viewing TV violence increases the likelihood that
children will use violence against their friends and it
increases the severity of the violence they will use. (After
extended viewing, children begin to see violence as a
normal response to stress and an acceptable means of
Viewing television violence decreases in children
feelings of sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others.
They also feel less remorse about their own aggressive
behavior. In the opinion of Dr. William H. Deitz, Jr., chair
of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Task Force on
Children's Television, children who are exposed to a lot
of televised violence seem to become deadened to gore.
"If you are desensitized to violence, " Dietz says, "your
feelings about blowing somebody away on a subway are
less likely to be tinged by remorse." Children also
become less concerned about the aggressive actions of
other children, sometimes developing a "bystander"
mentality in which real violence is viewed as unreal.
Children who watch a lot of televised violence feel the
world around them is a more dangerous place than those
who don't watch much television. The American
Psychological Association suggests that with
increased viewing, exposure to media violence
increases fearfulness about becoming a victim of
violence and may compound some children's natural
anxieties. Other, more subtle effects have also been found:
* Decrease in the sensation of danger
Viewing TV violence can remove or reduce inhibitions
that would normally preclude aggressive behavior and
can create an unrealistic impression of crime and
violence and their consequences. As a result, children
are more likely to become engaged in self-directed
behavior that exposes them to further risk of
* Reinforcement of cultural stereotypes
Much of commercial television, violent or not, reinforces
familiar stereotypes, presenting exaggerated or extremely
narrow representations of people and their activities that
may give children distorted opinions about the world.
Studies have made it clear that heavy viewing of action
shows by 8-10 year old children leads them to develop
negative images of blacks, for example, viewing them as
less competent and less obedient to the law than whites.
Women are often in need of rescue, and seem incapable
of defending or helping themselves. Single women are
likely to be attractive, and they are often victims of
violence in the first 15 minutes of an adventure show.
Girls who watch more game shows and fantasy-action
shows accept the stereotypes of women as less
competent than men and in general show more prejudice
against their own sex.
* Domestic violence
Viewing violence on television can contribute to later
domestic violence. Dr. Judith Reisman, in her 1991 book,
Soft Porn Plays Hardball, states that if a young man
becomes sexually excited while watching a young
woman, and that young woman is brutally attacked, the
violence becomes part of the erotic repertoire in the
young man's imagination.
* Unreality about conflicts
Children who watch television can be misled because
most programming makes it appear that there is, or at
least ought to be, an easy solution to every problem they
encounter; and if there isn't, that there must be something
wrong with them, their parents and society. Also, by
depicting most conflicts as resolved in no more than thirty
or sixty minutes, no matter how difficult, television viewing
can greatly reduce a child's attention span and capacity
for dealing with adversity and conflict on a protracted basis .
The long term effects are no more promising. In a twenty-two year study
conducted in upstate New York, Dr. Leonard D. Eron discovered that the more
frequently children watched television at age eight, the more serious were
the crimes they were convicted of by age thirty and the harsher the
punishment they inflicted on their own children. Dr. Eron believes that
what one learns about life from the television screen is transmitted even
to the next generation. Whether watching children's cartoon programming
(where the increase in violent actions jumped fourfold after deregulation
in the 1980's) or the nightly news, the indication is clear that childhood
television viewing is becoming a better predictor of teenage and adult
aggression than social class, child-rearing practices and a host of other
Though it is natural and easy to blame the marketplace -- the television
and advertising industries -- for the dismal state of programming today, we
have to remember that ultimately, the marketplace is not the raging
avaricious entity it is often depicted as being; it is neutral. The market
is us. It simply amplifies and multiplies society's cultural trends of the
moment. And with advertisers spending as much as $500 million annually to
reach us, we need to do as Martha Bayles, a former television critic for
the Wall Street Journal, suggests: stop using a constant (the profit
motive) to explain a variable (the amount of violence in the media).
Instead, use another variable -- namely, the deeper cultural changes that
have occurred over the past several decades.
The Next Step: Real Violence
A popular song campaigns joyfully, "Our children are our future,
let them lead the way." Despite the obvious logic of this lyric, the
decline in youth well-being on a variety of indicators leads us to
seriously doubt the value of that future. Regardless of our rhetoric about
the positive steps we intend to take to address our quality of life issues,
the daily lives of many children bring them into recurrent contact with
real violence. Consider these statistics:
* The chance that a teenager will die a violent death (by
accident, murder or suicide) increased 12% from 1984 to
1988. (Source: the Center for the Study of Social Policy;
* Of 535 elementary school children living in Chicago's
south side, 26% had seen someone shot and 29% had
seen a stabbing. (Source: Children's Defense Fund.)
* One in six youths nationwide between the ages of 10 and
17 has seen or knows someone who has been shot.
(Source: Newsweek/Children's Defense Fund poll.)
* Children under the age of 18 are 244% more likely to be
killed by guns today than they were in 1986. (Source: FBI
Uniform Crime Reports.)
Even children who are not exposed to direct violence suffer profoundly.
Fear of crime and violence in our communities has become as debilitating a
social response as any to a world that is presented, realistically or not,
as being on the verge of the apocalypse. The resulting helplessness and
hopelessness that children feel as prisoners in this state of perpetual
hypervigilance is amplified by the fact that they often do not understand
what is happening around them and have no idea what to do to escape.
This fear of crime can also be depicted statistically:
* More than half the children and 73% of the adults
questioned in a recent poll said they were afraid of violent
crime against them or a family member. (Source:
Newsweek/Children's Defense Fund poll.)
* Thirty-six percent of young people questioned in another
poll say that they are worried about the danger of their
being physically attacked, with 57% of them most worried
about someone carrying a gun. (Source: Harvard School
of Public Health/Joyce Foundation study.)
* Thirty-five percent of young people believe that it is very
likely that "my chances of living to a ripe old age will be
cut short because of the threat of my being wiped out from
guns." (Source: Harvard School of Public Health/Joyce
* When asked what was the single most important reason
they carried a weapon, 41% of the young people polled
said "for protection against possible attacks by other
people." (Source: Harvard School of Public Health/Joyce
Children living with violence and distrust, whether actual or virtual, are
being denied the consistency, predictability and sense of purpose that they
need to grow into independent, productive adults. In many ways we may be
unwittingly decreasing rather than increasing their ability to deal with
future conflict and violence with our incessant, yet indiscriminate focus
on the subject!
From the start, our own paranoia about people who are different from us and
about the dangers lurking around us places physical and emotional
restrictions on our children. After extended periods of living in virtual
war zones, children begin to see life as a series of things happening to
them over which they have no control, rather than as a process over which
they can orchestrate, or at least influence their future. Related to this
failure to establish a strong sense of mastery over their environment are a
variety of critical social dysfunctions that are becoming more and more
familiar to us as we watch our children grow: low levels of motivation as
they perceive that they have no impact on the world; reactionary behavior
patterns coupled with a resistance to behavior management techniques
because they have not developed an understanding of cause and effect; an
inability to see themselves clearly, or to take responsibility for their
actions, assigning blame to "other" rather than "self"; disassociation from
their feelings and desensitization about human life, resulting in
increasing instances of senseless harm and even murder of others, including
other children. The flight path of these children, our children, will
deliver them into a permanent sense of insecurity and inability to deal
with any type of conflict as they grow into adults unless we take immediate
steps to ameliorate the damage.
An obvious enigma appears: how can we reassure our children that the world
is a safe and inviting place for them to explore when the evidence
indicates otherwise? How can we instill in them tolerance and respect for
all humankind when all sides seem to be equally engaged in brutally
deflecting that respect?
It seems that a careful balance must be struck between acceptance of
diversity and preparing children for life in an increasingly violent world.
And since mass communication is, and will continue to be a major point of
entry for information about their world, children need to learn to become
critical viewers and understand how the media, newspapers and television
news programming in particular, both report and create what happens in that
One key point is this: unbiased reporting is a myth. Information, events,
and discoveries are reported by humans who have applied an interpretation
that reflects their own personal values and beliefs. News reporting is the
product of some organization, usually a for-profit entity, which is devoted
to getting it, interpreting it, and disseminating it while being sponsored
by another for-profit group which has a stake in making sure they get the
largest market share of viewers.
With fewer adults around to guide children in making their media choices,
and then helping them interpret what they see and read, many children have
difficulty understanding the difference between reality and the constructed
world of the media. Because the profit motive is a critical factor in
determining both what and how the news is presented, and conflict and
violence are clearly major selling points, children should be taught to ask
some essential questions about the print or broadcast news they choose.
Developing critical viewing skills does not mean distrusting all
elements of a news program or news article automatically. It is crucial,
however, to develop an awareness in children of the degree to which the
media influences how they see themselves and each other, and to help them
understand how the news makers' perceptions and decisions shape their
world. Stereotyping, for example, is particularly dismaying in the mass
media. Since reporters have to condense their information into smaller and
smaller "sound -" or "news-bytes", they usually don't have the time to
fully flesh out the people about whom they are reporting. Yet they must
convey very quickly a clear picture of the appearance and motivation of the
people in the news. In such situations, it is easy to rely on stereotypes.
During our rescue mission in Somalia a few years ago, a military
spokesperson said in reference to why some of their soldiers were caught in
an attack, "The organic assets didn't arrive on time," meaning support
troops. In press briefings, civilian casualties are referred to as
"collateral damage." "Ethnic cleansing" has become the standard news
phrase for genocide, and "takeovers" and "kill the competition" are
expressions regularly used in reporting about the corporate world. The
distinctive feature of this language is that humankind is buried in
lifeless, antiseptic jargon. These types of references to war and
conflict describe hostilities and the struggle of opposing forces.
On the other hand, isolated random instances of violence or disaster are
frequently described in the most gruesome sensationalized manner, making
the event seem more spectacular, seriously distorting our world view in the
attempt to attract the largest audience share. In extreme cases, of
course, the events surrounding the media coverage become the stories
themselves, as in the 1994 O.J. Simpson story, and the ensuing mayhem
further obfuscates any real understanding of the original ordeal.
Acceleration of News
Two hundred years ago it took weeks to learn that a peace treaty
had been signed, a president had died, or another territory had been added
to our country. Today, the press are often the first on the scene, and we
are there with them to greet the soldiers through the magic of
instantaneous broadcasts. These reporters, however, rarely know the
language or culture of the country from which they are broadcasting. Yet
because of the immediacy of their presence they become direct participants
in the conflict. Leaders often communicate to one another through their
televised speeches, and decisions are made based not on mediation and
negotiation, but on what thecontent of the CNN broadcast is on a particular
The prominent position that we have willingly given the news media in our
lives allows our children to read, see and hear much more than they ever
have before. They now have instant and repeated access to sounds and
images of starving orphans in Somalia, local scenes of domestic and
community violence, and everything in between. Teaching children to be
media literate helps them sort out truth from fiction and fact
from opinion, giving them a healthy respect for the world without being
misled into thinking that everyone they see is a potential danger to their
body and soul.
Responding to Kids' Concerns
On almost any day of the year there are some corners of our cities, towns
and neighborhoods where hatred, conflict and war are being waged. Whether
they are active participants or not, our children are never exempt from the
blight of these conflicts. Everything that creates equilibrium in a
child's life is disrupted, including mental and physical health. And
studies have shown that if children learn that hatred and conflict are the
only options, those behaviors become normalized to them, the negative input
becoming ingrained. These children will be more than likely to perpetuate
that course of action into their adult lives, passing it on to subsequent
These children can tell us a great deal about the dynamics of injury and
danger. But the impact of what children can tell us depends on what we as
adults are prepared to hear. How can we best respond to children's
concerns? And what do we do with this information?
Conflict and violence are on the minds of even our youngest
children. We must listen to them as they express these concern to us, and
take them seriously. If we remain silent or ignore their fears and refuse
to engage in dialog with them about the issues, the message we deliver to
them is that neither they nor their anxieties are important to us.
Instead, respect them by letting them know how committed you are to their
Reassure them about that which they can be reassured. One young child
during the Gulf War thought that the Iraqis were going to bomb his school.
More recently, another child began having nightmares about a serial killer
she saw captured on a television news broadcast. In these cases, simple
and straightforward information can be comforting.
Above all, be honest about your own apprehensions. It is far more
frightening for children to feel that their care givers are hiding
something from them or are too scared to talk than to hear them express
their own uneasiness.
Today's children feel that they are inheriting a dangerous world.
They are angry at us for the increases in racism, hatred, conflict,
violence; for having allowed the decay to happen; for tragically abandoning
them to their dire standing as children without a childhood. But hatred,
conflict and violence aren't just things that happen to people. They are
problems caused by people. If either through our example or our reluctance
to address the issues we allow our children to remain ignorant about each
other's differences, we are contributing to the problems. A much more
proactive response is to help our children convert these problems into
opportunities to meet the challenges of our social ills. At a very early
age, children can write to their political leaders and newspapers to
express their views. They can communicate their feelings through art,
poetry, dance, or song, and exhibit them to have their feelings
acknowledged publicly. As they grow older, they can conduct research to
gather information that helps them understand the issues, inform and
educate their peers, and mobilize them to further action. They can
participate in humanitarian efforts, advocate on behalf of children and
provide inspiration for others to do the same.
A person would have to be unconscious not to recognize the overwhelming
presence of violence and hatred in every aspect of our lives today. Any
vision of a future without it is impossible to achieve if our children have
been raised to be passive consumers of violence, racial and gender bias and
militarism in their toys, books, games and media. Children learn how to be
adults from us. Whether we show by example, or "approve" violence,
stereotyping and other forms of brutality by allowing our children to watch
certain programs or play with certain toys, we can just as easily lead them
down a better, brighter path.
We are all concerned with what our children encounter in today's world, and
what its effects might be on subsequent generations. It is time we
involve them in helping create the solutions, despite the unknowns and the
complexity of our political and social systems. If each of us brings even
a fraction of our intellectual, professional and moral resources to bear on
the issues of violence and conflict, listen to our children about their
concerns and fears, and guide them toward effective action, we might have a
shot at securing a better future for them and for ourselves.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
In the current social climate, where images of violence and aggression
bombard children every day, it is not a good idea to ban war play.
Children are often attracted to what they are forbidden anyway, and there
is a danger in making a child feel guilty about having to sneak access to
what is popular. But simply remaining mute, creating an "anything goes"
atmosphere, does not contribute to a child's healthy development either.
Here are some tips to consider when making your choices about these issues
with your children:
* Know what the influences are on your children. What television programs
do they watch? What is the content of the programming? What behavior have
they picked up from the programming to use in interactions with their
* Visit the toy store in advance of taking your children there and
establish some structure for the childrens' subsequent visit. This is much
easier than setting a child free, a child who has been primed to consume
through television and other media, awash in a sea of coveted objects.
* Read the descriptions on the packages of toys at the store.
* Help your children to evaluate their toys. If the toy doesn't look
exactly like the advertisement, if it doesn't do what it did on television,
or if it falls apart because it is cheaply made, use these occasions as a
basis to discuss what they have learned from the experiences.
* Understand all the dangers inherent in playing with toy guns and stop
giving them to your children. They may still use a stick or other object
as a gun, but buying them tells them that you think guns are okay and
should be used as a way to solve conflicts.
* Buy as few single-purpose war toys as possible, choosing the most
open-ended designs whose functions are not fully defined by their
appearance, the images on the package, or the television program that
* Monitor the amount of time your children are involved in war play. They
might need some help extricating themselves from that into other compelling
types of play.
* Help your children learn to use playthings in new ways. Try making
suggestions which help your children see that there are more possibilities
for a toy than dictated by the manufacturer.
* Encourage your children to make their own toys and props. Deciding what
to make, how to construct them, and then actually producing them offers
opportunities for complex, critical thinking, problem solving, and a
feeling of accomplishment. When children make their own toys, they reclaim
ownership of their play as their ideas become part of the process.
* Go public with your protests. Public opinion forced G.I. Joe off the
shelves during the Vietnam War, and more recently convinced a
Massachusetts-based toy retailer to burn its fake weapons, producing enough
electricity to light forty-eight homes for a month. Political and
community action works. Arrange a meeting with the manager of your local
toy store and ask them not to carry war toys. Hold a public hearing on war
toys and cartoons. Write letters of protest to local television stations
that air violent cartoons. Put on an alternative toy fair.
* Change the rules of war games to make them cooperative.
* As a family, learn to play non-violent games that require cooperation
* Make your home a "violence free" zone and ask others not to bring war
toys into your home.
* Collect war toys from willing children in your neighborhood and give
them a public burial with an appropriate eulogy.
* Inform your childrens' teachers about your disapproval of the presence
of war toys and your support of a weapons- and violence-free zone at the
school. Spearhead a fundraising drive to stock the zone with non-violent
and cooperative games and toys.
* Talk to your children about their fears and anxieties rather than simply
arming them with toy weapons.
* Publishers and media production companies take years to develop most
learning materials. Schools take their time, also, to evaluate and adopt
new texts. Many parents and teachers, however, race to get the latest
games for their children with only a cursory knowledge of their contents.
Go slowly in choosing what video games your children play.
* Play the games yourself. If you take an active role in previewing them,
you will get to know the games and build the knowledge base to argue
intelligently with your child about your decisions.
* Don't ban video games if your child is already playing them on a regular
basis. Find the moral in the madness instead. Discuss with them the
context of any game your children want to play. Besides bringing up the
obvious use of violence, point out the more subtle messages the game is
communicating such as racism, sexism and other types of discrimination.
* Purchase or rent games that require two or more players, and encourage
your child to invite others over to play the games with him.
* Guide what your children watch on television and limit their viewing
time. Although this is an old recommendation, it is more easily
accomplished now with the help of a recent invention: an electronic lock
that permits parents to preset which programs, channels, and times they
want to make available to their children. In addition to limiting their
children's viewing options, the use of this lock reinforces parental
authority because it operates even when the parents are not home.
* Plan your children's viewing times with them. Giving them choices
within certain guidelines, use a TV guide or newspaper listing to help the
children decide in advance which shows to see for the week. And then turn
the television off when those shows are over.
* Watch television with your children. If you don't know about the
material to which they are exposed, you will be ill-equipped to make
decisions about which programs should be off-limits to them.
* Offer alternatives to watching television. Use a VCR and good
children's movies, or substitute open-ended activities that offer
opportunities to be active and creative.
* Teach your children to be "stereotype detectives:" have them find
television characters who depict racial, ethnic or gender stereotypes and
talk to them about how better those characters might have been portrayed.
* Your consumer dollar can be a strong force against bad programming.
Boycott products produced by sponsors of objectionable programs, and let
the company, your local station and your local newspaper know that you are
doing it and why.
* It took twenty-five years to get the Children's Television Act (which
requires television stations to provide educational viewing choices for
children) on the law books, but it won't be enforced unless we hold
television stations accountable to meet the mandate. Lobbying works best
on the local level. "A station doesn't want to look like Godzilla in its
own community," says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's
television. Remind your local stations that failure to do so could result
in the stations losing their licenses. If you are uncertain about the
stations' plans andactivities in this regard, ask to see the public file
that the law requires them to maintain containing the information.
* Conversely, express your thanks to networks, sponsors and local
stations, both privately and publicly, for showing programs that support
your values and viewpoints.
* Work with your local stations to produce and offer programs and services
designed to support children and families -- quality children's shows from
around the world, programs produced by children themselves, and programs
that are designed to support parents in their efforts to raise healthy and
* If you are a doctor, dentist or other medical professional who's office
has a waiting room, post a sign stating that your office is a
"television-free zone," and provide other options to keeping your patients
and clients engaged while they wait. Part of the public health approach
should be to promote child care alternatives to the electronic babysitter.
* Record objectionable programs on your VCR and send them to the Federal
Communications Commission with a letter identifying the city and state from
which the broadcast aired, the call letters of the station, and the reasons
you object to it. Address your tapes and letters to: Complaints and
Investigative Branch, Enforcement Division, Federal Communications
Commission, 2025 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20554.
* The National Telemedia Council states that it's not what you watch on
television, but how you watch it. Help your children analyze all of the
programs they watch. Discuss with them how images and content form
* Have your children compare newspaper stories and news broadcasts about
active acts of violence with television dramas about violence. Ask them to
tell you how they think real life acts of violence differ from those
depicted on television.
* Give your children journals and ask them to jot down a note about every
reference to aggression in the media that they encounter during a week's
time, real or fictitious. Have them include not only television and
newspaper accounts, but images and stories from magazines, billboards,
music, advertisements for toys, posters, etc. Not only will this give you
a platform from which to begin a serious dialog about aggression and
violence, but your understanding will increase about the sheer quantity of
aggressive messages to which they are exposed on a daily basis.
* Hang a world map somewhere in your home. This will give your children a
sense of distance from zones of war and conflict while enabling you to talk
about different parts of the world as you point them out.
* Have your children cut out news stories about several ethnic or racial
groups for one month. Give them folders to keep their stories separate
according to group. At the end of the month, review the contents of the
folders with them. Are the images of blacks in the news mostly negative?
How many references are there to Hispanics? Native Americans? Asians?
Are the positive articles of Asians about academic success? Are the
positive articles about blacks about athletics? Take this opportunity to
talk to your children about negative effects of stereotyping, using news
bias as an example.
* Make sure your children understand these five important ideas about
television, explained in "Children and Television," Media&Values No. 52-53,
1. We help create TV as we watch it.
2. TV's world is made up.
3. TV teaches us that some people and ideas are more important than others.
4. TV keeps doing the same things over and over again.
5. TV is in business to make money.
Responding to Your Children
* Translate large and confusing events into smaller concrete terms for
your younger children, and give only as much detail as the child asks for.
Lengthy explanations of political or economic forces won't help your child
understand conflict and violence, but short answers in age appropriate
* Ask you child's teacher for help by encouraging the children to talk
about events in the news that might be scary. Children feel better when
they hear that the reactions of their peers mirror their own, and the group
discussion about an event might lead to some concrete action on the part of
* When listening to your children, consider the following tips:
1. Do not let other noise or activity distract you. Pay attention to the
verbal and non-verbal cues your children are expressing.
2. Look for the important theme that the children are communicating to
you. It may be hidden with other issues.
3. Wait before you respond, making sure the children have expressed what
they need to say about their feelings.
4. Paraphrase what you heard from the child, and ask if that's what they
are saying to you.
5. Be ready to respond to them, even if it's only to say that you don't
have the answers.
6. Share your feelings and concerns with them in age appropriate terms.
Take time to explain. And give them confirmation for having talked to you.
NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: email@example.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the author's permission.
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