How to Build a Geek Media Shelter
Much of the conversation during our weeklong seminar centered on sheltering shelter children from the influence of media and pop culture. Essentially, you shelter your kids whenever you assure that their life experiences promote their well-being. To build a shelter from the media, you need four strong pillars to support your protective parental cover: The standards you set based on your beliefs, your parental supervision, your strong and clearly communicated decisions, and the direction you give to steer your kids toward positive media choices.
The messages conveyed in movies, on TV, over the Internet and even through the lyrics we sing mindlessly while driving minivans across America tell our children what we value. We have to be sure that the messages they see and hear reflect the values we want them to hold in their hearts – this is the crux of setting standards to shelter your kids from the media.
If we accept that media has the power to influence our children’s attitudes and behaviors, we also must accept the responsibility to determine, as much as possible, the dominant messages their exposure will promote. No, we won’t be able to erect a barrier against every possible image that bounces off a satellite dish in deep space and lands, unwelcome, into their daily experience. But we can assure them that, to the extent we’re able, we will keep them from content that erodes their innocence, their optimism, and their sense that our world is a safe, secure place in which to grow. All media is educational media, after all – it’s just a question of what message is being taught. Our job as parents is to choose the message.
The standards you set will be unique to your family because they will stem from your beliefs and values. You may discover you’re strict about some things compared with parents you know, while on other issues you’re more lenient. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to making your family’s media guidelines, and the point isn’t specifically what you choose, but that you choose.
Our standards don’t change, but our specific policies may vary. Even within a family, every child is unique, so my husband and I try to view media content through the eyes of each child. One might not flinch when the shot rings out that kills Bambi’s mother, while another child may have angst over it for days. Therefore, judgments about appropriate content will also reflect the individual growth and development of each child. You can certainly look for guidance from your pediatrician, your child’s teachers, a school counselor, your best friend, your mother or even your UPS delivery person (wisdom is all around you). But in the end, being a parent means you’re responsible for creating and upholding the choices that you think are best for your kids.
The premise behind supervising media is to assert control over it, not vice versa. I know parents whose tactic to manage the media monster is to eschew it altogether, pulling the plug on television (or at least canceling their cable subscriptions) and refusing to ride the Internet wave. The people who do this swear it works and they’re happy, but it’s not the avenue for my family.
Instead, we view the media a lot like we do the ocean. It’s enormous and beautiful and full of amazing discoveries, and when the water’s right, oh, what a swim. But it also must be respected for its unspeakable power. Just like at the beach, our children may never swim those potentially dangerous waters without an adult hovering nearby to keep them safe.
So the Hicks household is pretty much like any other middle-class American home. If you look around, you’ll find an array of media sources including television sets, computers, DVD and video players, radios, a Playstation 2, four Gameboys and an odd lot of MP3 players, personal CD players and even some old cassette players. (I’m pretty sure the 8-track player is gone, but there’s a Beta machine in the storage room because my husband was certain it would be more popular than VHS.)
Exactly how do my husband and I supervise the use of all these media sources? We lean heavily on those four pillars. First, we set our standards and make rules to guide our children’s media choices, and we clearly communicate our expectations. A family meeting is a great forum to do this, but know that ongoing reminders will be necessary. I’ve never posted written rules on the fridge, but you certainly could do this if it would help.
Next, we limit the time our kids spend using media so that it’s only one of many activities they enjoy. We want kids who are well rounded, so we sometimes prohibit media just to force them to do something else with their time. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality TV and videos a day for older children and no screen time for children under the age of 2. Full disclosure: I did have a TV going with PBS Kids when my children. Since I had babies and preschoolers in the same house, they watched TV. They turned out fine).
Supervising content doesn’t mean I keep the TV remote under lock and key. Within the media time we allow, our kids can roam freely on TV stations and web sites we’ve designated as safe. Beyond the specific stations and websites we permit, we add more choices as we have the time to preview them.
This kind of hands-on supervision sounds more time-intensive than it really is. Fortunately, coincident with the onslaught of inappropriate media has been the rise in a great deal of excellent children's programming, with entire networks, radio stations and websites devoted to creative family fare. You don’t have to watch all the programs on the stations you’ve already approved (or play all the games on a safe web site).
As your children grow older, they’ll naturally want more variety in their media diets and this means you’ll have to pick and choose specific programs on stations up and down the dial. But when you do need to evaluate material, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to determine whether an entire series or network is off-limits; sometimes all you need to see are the commercials!
Our younger kids always have to clear any new movies, TV shows, websites and gadgetry with us. (Hidden bonus: While they’re waiting until you have the chance to make an informed decision, a “hot” new show or device often loses its appeal). Detailed information about new movies is easily found online with web sites such as www.screenit.com, allowing you to decide whether a particular film is appropriate for your kids or whether you need to preview it before letting your children see it. Song lyrics are available at www.lyrics.com. These days, you ought to read songs before you sing along.
A waffling and permissive parenting style makes it difficult, if not impossible, to shelter children from the media access they crave. Simply put: It’s hard to say no if you never say no. But saying “no” is a big part of bringing up geeks, and an essential part of sheltering kids from content that corrupts. At the core of geek parenting is the willingness to take a stand and declare, “This is not good enough for my child.” Yet I’d be remiss if I don’t warn you that this will make your parenting different from the norm. For example, it’s typical for parents to tell me, “I wish I had rules about the computer like yours.” I never know how to answer. What I want to say is, “You’re the grown up, for heaven sake! Make the rules!”
Certainly, reigning in the media habit for kids who are accustomed to unfettered access might be challenging, but I believe it’s entirely possible. Not to oversimplify, but it’s a bit like switching to skim milk. At first, kids think it’s thin and watered down, but eventually, they develop a taste for it. After a while, skim milk is perfectly satisfying, while drinking 2% is like downing a cup of wallpaper paste. In the same way, kids will feel deprived when you begin to limit their time with various media and monitor its content, but over time, they’ll realize there is plenty to enjoy within the framework of your family’s media standards.
Remember, too, that both kids and media are in a constant state of change. As your children grow and mature, your mandates about media will evolve along with them. Rules can change and it’s okay to be flexible. (“No TV on school days” for a young child may become “No TV until homework and chores are done” for a pre-teen.) It’s imperative, though, that you remain inflexible on the standards behind your rules. (“Getting enough sleep on school nights is our first priority; TV and other pastimes mustn’t interfere with adequate rest.”)
It’s not enough to just say “no” to media, and besides, there is much to enjoy and appreciate that’s good for kids. The fourth pillar, direction, means helping children find appropriate and beneficial media content. Fortunately, this is the fun part for geek parents. Rather than accept the mediocre content that passes for “cool,” we can seek out material that enlightens, inspires, entertains and educates our kids.
Guaranteed Geek: Tips to Shelter Your Growing Geek
For geeks of all ages:
For elementary school geeks:
For middle school geeks:
For high school geeks:
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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