When Not to Watch Movies, Part 1

Posted on March 21, 2009 at 10:00 am

I was recently reminded of an incident I wrote about three years ago for the Chicago Tribune and it inspired me to re-post the essay:
My husband, daughter and I had just settled in for lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants when another family was escorted to the next table. The mother helped the little girl, who looked to be about 4 years old, off with her coat and lifted her into the booster seat.
Then, before removing her own coat, the mother placed a personal DVD player on the table in front of her daughter and hit the “play” button. Disney’s “Cinderella” started up, and the little girl began to watch. Without headphones.
Even after we moved to a table on the other side of the restaurant, we could hear the strains of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” as we ate our tandoori chicken and talked about how many things were wrong with that picture.
Here’s what we concluded:
First, the little girl’s parents were teaching her to completely disregard the feelings, the rights and the preferences of anyone else.
The DVD made it harder for us to hear one another and the waiter and impossible to enjoy the quiet music that is normally a part of the restaurant’s pleasant atmosphere.
Instead of teaching their daughter good manners and consideration for others, these parents demonstrated through their own thoughtlessness that they did not believe it was necessary to devote time or energy to thinking about how their actions might affect others.
Second, her parents showed the child she had nothing of interest to tell them and they had nothing they felt was worth discussing with her.
Family meals and car rides are the best time to share the stories of our days, to coordinate upcoming plans, to discuss the news in our communities and to make clear our values and priorities. This family communicated to its youngest member that she was neither valued nor a priority.
Third, the parents failed to take advantage of the opportunity to teach their daughter an indispensable life skill — the ability to participate in a thoughtful and courteous conversation. If her parents keep it up, this girl will become a young woman who has nothing to say to anyone and no way to respond to comments and question at school, with friends, on dates, at job interviews.
Children need to learn the structure of a conversation, namely how to listen, when to nod, how to look the person who is speaking in the eye and how to know whether the other person understands and is interested in what you are saying. The art of conversation also involves knowing how to include everyone in the discussion, how to select the appropriate details to evoke a scene or convey an opinion, and how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Like music, these skills come naturally to some people and are harder for others, but everyone can benefit from practice and example.
Fourth, the girl’s parents lost the opportunity to show their daughter how to pay attention to what is going on around her. The more we allow children to numb their brains and cut themselves off from their environment, the less we are able to encourage their powers of observation and inspire their imaginations.
By using “Cinderella” as a distraction instead of a fully engaging experience, the parents turned it into what Fred Allen called television, “chewing gum for the mind.” The children who will grow up to create the next generation’s “Cinderella” are the ones who are looking at the world around them and exercising their imaginations.
Parents should stretch their children’s attention spans, a challenge in this media-saturated world. One way to do that is to set an example by turning off television, iPods, BlackBerrys, cell phones and PDAs when the family is together.
When our children were growing up, we had a “no headphones” rule on car trips. I preferred having my children argue about which radio station to listen to (that disagreeing without being disagreeable skill takes a while to get right) than having each of them off in separate zones of solitude.
Children need to learn to be engaged observers. Parents should both set an example and explicitly teach their families to be junior Sherlock Holmeses, seeing what they can deduce from what they see, and junior Scheherazades, telling stories to develop their senses of narrative, drama and humor. Is that couple at the next table on a first date or do they know each other well? What language are those people speaking? What can you tell about a person’s profession, hobbies, education, political views and favorite sports team? How do you know?
As we looked across the room at this family — the girl watching the movie, the father talking on his cell phone, the mother looking down at her plate — we wished there was a “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” spell to turn their devices into pumpkins and get them to talk to each other.
NOTE: I got a few emails when this essay first ran asking me if it was possible that the child had some learning issues and was not “neuro-typical.” As someone who worked in a school for disabled children and has disabled family members I am always sensitive to this issue as well. I did observe her in brief conversation with her parents and it seemed clear that this was not the reason for the DVD.

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Commentary Parenting Preschoolers Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Dora’s Makeover, Part 2

Posted on March 19, 2009 at 12:00 pm

dora_new.jpg Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on the new “Dora.” I promised to follow up, so here is the latest picture of what the older version of Dora will look like.
As I have said, I am keeping an open mind, but the emphasis on “cutting-edge fashion doll play” in the press release was very disappointing. The new doll will let girls “customize their doll and watch as she magically transforms right before their eyes. For example, by changing Dora’s hair length, jewelry, and eye color on screen, the Dora doll magically changes as well.” The purpose of the doll seems to be about her appearance instead of learning, accomplishing, or kindness. The release goes on, “The online world will include descriptions and biographies of Dora’s Explorer Girls™ and an immersive online world that will be tied into the complete collection of toys….Adding to the play value of the line will be a wide range of accessories (sold separately) as well as the Dora’s Seaside School playset that will work with Dora Links to expand traditional offline fashion doll play as well as to expand the online experience.” I understand that Mattel and Nickelodeon are in business, but I would feel better if I thought they had given as much consideration to what is best for girls as they did to selling as much stuff as possible.

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Elementary School Marketing to Kids Parenting Preschoolers Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Does Facebook Make Us Colder and More Impatient?

Posted on March 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Social network sites risk infantilizing the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist.
The UK paper The Guardian reports that Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, has found that teen laptop.jpg
children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity”.

Social networking sites can provide a “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognized, and important”. Greenfield continued. This was coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation, which were “far more perilous … occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses” and “require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously”.
She said she feared “real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”
This seems a bit of an over-reaction to me. Young people will make a lot of mistakes on Facebook and other social networks as they do in other aspects of their relationships. This time of life always has been and always will be a stage characterized by intense feelings and difficult lessons. Social networking has its disadvantages — the ability to hide behind partial or full anonymity, the capacity for almost-instant escalation and distribution, the invasions of privacy. But it also has its advantages as a form of training wheels for the difficult relationship navigational connections. Adam Gopnick writes in a touching essay included in Through the Children’s Gate about how his 11-year-old could not answer the question “How was school today?” in person but was happy to communicate with him via instant messaging. They would even IM each other while sitting together watching a game on TV. Gopnick, initially thrilled by this mode of communications, ran into his own failure of understanding, but it all ended sweetly, with love and laughter.
In the New York Times, Peggy Orenstein reports Growing Up With Facebook about the way the past is not prologue but present on Facebook. Orenstein, like Slate’s Brian Braiker, was disconcerted to find herself tagged in pictures from her past that went from being tucked away in shoe boxes to being available to everyone. She wonders about the effect this will have on young people who no longer will have the freedom to cast off old roles and relationships when they go away to college.

There’s some evidence that college students have mixed feelings about being guinea pigs for the faux-friendship age. One student interviewed for a study of why and how college students use Facebook, which was published last year in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, admitted that being privy to the personal details of “friends” who she had not seen in years made her uncomfortable. “Someone from earlier in her life had broken up with a boyfriend,” an author of the article, Sandra L. Calvert, a professor and chairwoman of the psychology department at Georgetown University, told me. “She felt she knew all these intimate details about this person, yet they hadn’t actually been in touch for five years.” On the other hand, a study published in 2007 in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggested that hanging onto old friends via Facebook may alleviate feelings of isolation for students whose transition to campus life had proved rocky.

It could be that my generation was the anomalous one, that Facebook marks a return to the time when people remained embedded in their communities for life, with connections that ran deep, peers who reined them in if they strayed too far from the norm, parents who expected them to live at home until marriage (adult children are already reclaiming their childhood rooms in droves). More likely, though, the very thing that attracts us oldsters to Facebook — the lure of auld lang syne — will be its undoing. Kids, who will inevitably want to drive a stake into the heart of former lives, may simply abandon the service (remember Friendster?) and find something new: something still unformed, yet to be invented — much like themselves.

Or, perhaps they will evolve with Facebook and it will evolve with them. Instead of swapping pictures of friends behaving badly at keggers, perhaps they will post baby pictures and cupcake recipes. It is likely that some future Facebook group will be a place for the parents of young children in 2025 to talk about how to cope with whatever impact the latest technological innovation is having on their school-age children.
In the meantime, parents need to remind their children that middle school and high school friendships are tough enough without broadcasting their most humiliating aspects to the world. Parents should, of course, talk to kids about being respectful and responsible in relationships online and in RL (real life) and most of all make sure that they demonstrate the behavior they want to encourage. The more parents do to show kids that the greatest satisfaction comes from in-person communication in a context of trust and kindness, the more likely that social networking will be an adjunct to and not a replacement for the real thing.

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Dora’s Disappointing Makeover

Posted on March 7, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Here is the opening paragraph of a new press release:
Mattel, Inc. (NYSE:MAT) and Nickelodeon/Viacom Consumer Products (NVCP), announced today that Dora the Explorer™ is growing up! The companies have introduced a whole new way to look at Dora for girls five years and up. This groundbreaking initiative, featuring fashion dolls and accessories, is a completely new brand extension that empowers girls to influence and change the lives of Dora and her new friends. It’s innovative, diverse, wholesome, bi-lingual and entertaining.
“A whole new way to look at Dora” and “a completely new brand extension” both translate to “more things for us to sell,” of course. And my heart sinks to hear of plucky little Dora being turned into a “brand extension” “featuring fashion dolls and accessories.” So Dora is going to turn into Barbie now, all about what she wears and has instead of what she does and what she learns?
Judy Berman wrote on Salon’s Broadsheet that this makes the new middle schooler Dora “with a whole new fashionable look” sound like she’s becoming a Gossip Girl.

(S)tarting this fall, for the not-terribly-recession-conscious price of $59.99, your five year old will also be able to buy an older, doll version of the character. Though Mattel and Nick are waiting a few months to reveal exactly what she’ll look like, a bizarre silhouette accompanying the press release shows that, at the very least, Dora will have long hair and be decked out in a short skirt or dress and a pair of flats.

Dora_Silhouette_Final.jpg
Berman does not think this will go over very well with kids. “You can put a skirt on Dora and cinch her waist, but by the time kids reach kindergarten, they may well think of Dora as ‘baby stuff.'” But the authors of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D and Sharon Lamb, Ed.D, have put up an online petition calling for Mattel and Nickelodeon to halt Dora’s makeover.

What happened? FIRST it was Dora’s Magic Talking Kitchen, THEN Dora Princess, THEN Dora Babysitter in her cousin’s show, NOW DORA TWEEN.

Alas, we saw the signs. The cute flower lip gloss, the pinkified look, the sudden separation of Dora and Diego shows…What next? Dora the Cheerleader? Dora the fashionista with stylish purse and stilettos? Dora the Pop Star with Hoppin’ Dance Club and “Juice” Bar? We can expect it all, because that’s what passes as “tween” in the toy department these days….

dorathe-explorerposters1.jpg

We know that if the original Dora grew up, she wouldn’t be a fashion icon or a shopaholic. She’d develop her map reading skills and imagine the places she could go. She’d capitalize on those problem solving skills to design new ways to bring fresh water to communities in need around the world. Maybe she’d become a world class runner or follow her love of animals and become a wildlife preservationist or biologist. We’ll never know because the only way a girl can grow up in tween town, is to narrow that symphony of choices to one note. It’s such a sell out of Dora, of all girls.

I agree. It’s a sell-out of Dora and of her fans, another example of popular culture promoting the idea that any girl over age 5 doesn’t care about anything but how she looks.

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Teen ‘Idols’ — How to Talk to Jonas Brothers Fans

Posted on March 3, 2009 at 8:00 am

Do you have a Jonas Brothers fan in your family? Or maybe a fanatic?
Some parents have found their children’s devotion to the latest pop stars a little disconcerting. One father suggested that his daughter’s enthusiasm might merit a discussion of idolatry.
There’s a reason that they are called “idols.” Going back to Frank Sinatra and the bobby soxers before that to fan favorites like Oscar Wilde (whose fans were parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in “Patience”), the individuals holding the position have been highly transitory but the idea of the teen idol has been enduring.
Certain themes are consistent. They may be a little edgy — sometimes a mildly transgressive element of their appearance like the Beatles’ long hair or a pierced Backstreet Boy. But overall, they tend to be reassuringly safe, slender, non-threatening, often almost pre-pubescent. Names like “Bobby,” “Ricky,” “Donny” suggest that they are almost children. Groups like the Jonas Brothers, ‘N Synch, and New Kids on the Block are popular because they give fans a chance to join in affection for the group but keep a sense of individual connection to “the cute one” or “the smart one” or “the funny one.” JonasBrothers1028x768TigerBeat.jpg
It is very important for parents to recognize that these idols are a “transition object” for tweens and young teens that is an essential step in their emotional development. In between the time when their primary focus is the home and family and the time when they will leave to begin their lives as adults, teen idols give them a chance for a dress rehearsal of some of the emotions they will feel. That does not mean that these feelings are not love or that they are not completely real. It does mean that there is an element of fantasy. Think of it as love with training wheels.
No matter how obsessively they may study the lives of these young men, they do not really know them. What they know is the carefully manufactured creation of corporate marketers. But that is just right for this stage of development because it enables them to project their own feelings onto them. It is exactly this fantasy that helps kids begin the journey to emotional maturity, the same way that playing dress-up was a way for them to begin to make sense of the adult world just a short time ago. Indeed, the love of teen idols is a form of dress-up, experimenting with some of the feelings of adulthood without the messiness of actual relationships.
Just as important, these feelings provide a bond with friends at this crucial moment when those connections are just assuming a much more significant role. Fanship gives tweens something to talk about, a private language, training wheels for what will become in their adult years the ability to talk to each other about the things that matter in a way that will strengthen their trust and respect.
Parents should respect these feelings and use them as a starting point for some important conversations. Ask them which brother they like best and why. This may be a chance to share some of your own experiences (you know that Bay City Rollers poster is still tucked away somewhere) but the focus of the conversation should be on the fan. They should reassure the child that these feelings of love are very real and an essential step toward building their ability for love and appreciation of family, romance, and even the divine.

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Commentary Elementary School Parenting Teenagers Tweens Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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