Wow, even writing that word twice, two different ways, makes it sound awfully strange to me. And indeed, sheltering my little ones is kind of a strange dance, considering that I want them to be educated, curious, worldly, aware, and compassionate while at the same time protecting them from having to bear the weight of adulthood too soon. My husband and I had reason to think about one kind of sheltering we do recently, which led me to think about the whole act of insulating my kids . . . from certain aspects of life that we find to be too confusing, too painful, too heavy for their little hearts to bear, too complicated for their little brains to make sense of.
Last week, we took my son (my daughter stayed home with her grandparents) to a movie at a regular movie theater. The movie, by the way, was The Muppets, so the outing was admittedly self-serving. E and I had wanted to see the film, watched the TV show when were kids, and both feel pangs of nostalgia any time we see images of Kermit the Frog or hear the opening bars of “The Rainbow Connection.” Atticus, being 4 1/2, seemed to be of an appropriate age to go to a movie and it was a great opportunity to shower him with a little love without his sweet, but persistently present, little sister around.
Our only past experiences going to the movies have been at The Kennedy School, where you can watch a movie while sitting in a comfy couch and eating pizza or tater (tator?) tots. There are no previews and the only commercials are silent slides that advertise other McMenamins establishments or events. We saw Toy Story 3 there and Atticus and I went on a mother/son date to see Tangled a few months ago.*
But, going to a “real” movie theater felt more momentous to all of us, with the bigger screen, the fancy seats, the multiple movie options, and of course, the higher price. Expensive popcorn was purchased, just for the experience, and homemade treats were smuggled in.
Atticus was giddy, as were we, as we chose our seats in the completely empty theater. And then the commercials began.
I have to preface this section by saying that our kids do watch TV. I know the statistics about screen time and my husband and I have made an educated choice about letting our kids watch limited amounts of carefully chosen television shows, almost exclusively aired on OPB, our local PBS station. Occasionally, they will watch a Pixar movie, but again, these have been chosen/pre-approved by my husband and I. The beauty of this limited access is that our kids are not exposed to commercials when they watch television. They are not being preened and prodded to want certain products (well, except a Buzz Lightyear action figure, which Atticus asked for from Santa this past Christmas) and are not being asked to grapple with exposure to all of the shows, stuff, and ideas that they would be exposed to if they were watching the kinds of commercials that air on regular television.
Until now, I had always really thought of the ads before movies as annoying but innocuous. That would probably also apply to the previews. And while the previews and ads were geared to children and therefore not terribly traumatic or terrifying, my sheltered kid was exposed (over the course of 20 or 30 LONG minutes of waiting) to the following:
- images of soldiers brandishing large guns and aiming them at unknown targets
- images of whales trapped under ice and people weeping with despair at the knowledge that the whales would probably die
- images of dozens or products, including several video games made for children, one of which involved a boy neutralizing “bad guys”
- images of candy and soft drinks that he does not know exist and does not get to eat
- copy that indicated to my kiddo that he needed . . . to see these films, eat these foods, play these video games, and ask his parents to buy these products, even though we ALL know that he doesn’t actually NEED any of that.
. . . among other things.
All this is to say that I was a little naive as I skipped into the mainstream movie theater with my 4-year-old. It is obvious to me that the foggy, innocent memories of The Muppet Show and going to the movies as a kid (oh, wait a minute, I usually went to the one-screen movie theater on main street of my very small Colorado hometown) left me misinformed when it comes to that which my kids are/will be exposed to, even when their exposure is limited and controlled.
I’m not going to blame the movie theater or the writers or the companies that make the films, products, and commercials . . . I think they are all a little irresponsible, but in the United States today, we don’t really hold our companies accountable for their actions. We expect parents to make these choices and to, well, shelter their children to the degree that they see fit. And I have. And I will continue to do so. But sometimes, I am surprised by a) how much I feel the need to shelter them from and b) how much I think about it and/or already DO shelter them and c) how little other children are sheltered from things that I deem so damaging or scary or unnecessary.
Like I said before, it’s a dance. And as I fumble through the steps, I realize that I am a sheltered parent. The fact that so much of what I experienced at the movie theater surprised me and made me uncomfortable is proof enough that I have also insulated myself from certain kinds of media and certain experiences. Maybe this makes sheltering my kids a little easier . . . there is not a lot I need to hide from them right now, at least not in my own life, home, world.
In my original, lost post, I wrote a bit about how it is ironic that I shelter my son from certain things considering how incredibly curious and passionate he is about some pretty adult, serious things. Like space travel. On our coffee table right now is a book that is huge, heavy, and called Space Flight: The Complete Story from Sputnik to Shuttle–and Beyond. If you know anything about the history of aeronautics and space travel (which I do, because I have read this and many other books several times now), you know that a lot of people have been hurt or killed. At first, my husband and I skipped the parts about Apollo I, the Challenger, and the Columbia . . . but our kid, who is on the verge of learning to read, knows when we skip things and so, we started to NOT skip them. Sometimes, now that he knows, he actually requests that we read ONLY those sections. He is alternately a little somber and, like a lot of kids his age, not somber at all. His understanding of death is limited. “It’s too bad they got dead,” he’ll say. Which is true, of course.
So am I noble because I won’t let my kids play violent video games, but let him read books about astronauts who died horrible deaths? I doubt it, but I’m figuring out these steps as I go and trying to maintain some sense of reverence for humanity, human life, peacefulness, and compassion.
And, let’s be honest, I keep him sheltered partly for selfish reasons. I don’t have a clear plan about how to talk to him about death or religion or global warming or politics or war. Those topics come up now and then and we do our best, but in truth, I want my kid to spend a little more time being blissfully safe and, I guess, a little on the ignorant side.
So, we’ll all remain sheltered for a little longer. And I suppose we’ll thing twice about going to a regular theater again any time soon. Or, if we do, maybe we’ll have a lesson on being “media literate” first. The truth is that my little boy (and to some degree, my little girl) is already educated, curious, worldly, aware, and compassionate . . . but only in certain ways, about certain topics, and through the lens of certain sources. I think that it’s my job as a parent to be choosy about these things, especially when the media as a whole does not seem to be.
And now, it is clear to me that I am rambling and even verging on starting a whole new post/rant about the media’s responsibility to our children. Not good writing etiquette, Andrea!
Happy new year and bye-bye!
*McMenamins Kennedy School theater, along with the other McMenamins theaters, restaurants, hotels, pools, etc. are nifty, kid-friendly places to spend some time if you are ever in the Portland or Seattle area. There are MANY of them and while I wish their food was either a little bit better or just the same, but cheaper, I feel lucky to live so close to one and recommend outings to friends with or without kids all the time. Seeing a “mommy matinee” movie while eating pizza and drinking a pint of Hammerhead, all while your newborn sleeps (or cries) on your chest, is a singular and delightful experience.