Monday, April 18, 2005

Parental Media Regulation

My farewell from the last stable employment I had outside of the home (I've done some freelance consulting, along with lots of work on this, plus parenting, since then) was just before L was born. It included lots of uninvited but still welcome parenting advice which largely consisted, as far as I could tell, of a number of the women with children on staff trying to scare me. After a healthy dose of this, another woman with children briefly entered the conversation, listened for a few minutes, and said, "Don't worry. Parenting is easy. You just sort of do it," before turning her attention away.

I really appreciated that. By and large, that piece of wisdom seems to be pretty much true -- it takes a lot of time and can result in sleep deprivation, but it isn't particularly difficult.

I have the sense that as time marches on, there may be some ways in which this becomes less true, however. I imagine these ways will be related to L's expanding sphere of autonomy and increasingly complex field of wants and desires. One aspect I have been particularly thinking about recently, as he has developed the ability to express an interest in watching particular television programs ("Emmo" for Sesame Street and "choo choo!" for Thomas the Tank Engine, along with the ever-popular "Do-ah" for Dora The Explorer) is the role of parental regulation of media consumption.

In fact, this is something I've wondered about for years, probably since I was a potential target for such regulation myself. I never remember it being a big problem for me, though; I never remember being told not to listen or watch or read something in which I was interested. I remember feeling that I should not be displaying interest in anything remotely related to sexuality, or even acknowledging such interest in any way, but that was never spelled out to me directly. And I think when it was discovered that my eight-years-older cousin was leading my three-years-younger sister and I in an exploration of the classic movies of the horror genre he was quietly asked to cease and desist. But that's about it. I wasn't one to push boundaries of this sort, but I don't remember feeling that I had to.

I also thought about it in the era before L (and have also done so more recently) when I have encountered others who applied or suffered from such regulation. Sometimes, of course, it is so far from what I would consider reasonable that it's easy to dismiss -- the friend who couldn't own Nirvana's Nevermind because the baby on the cover is as naked as, well, the day he was born, for example. Or more recent public controversies in the United States, like the one in which an episode of Postcards From Buster was pulled by PBS because the backdrop included (in a way that was never mentioned in the narrative) a lesbian couple who own a farm in Vermont, or the firestorm after Janet Jackson's nipple made an appearance in a Super Bowl halftime show. (Frankly, I think we'd all be a lot better adjusted if seeing nipples of all genders and descriptions was so commonplace as to make it completely unremarkable regardless of the age or gender of the viewer.)

But this sort of intervention happens in more progressive versions, too, and with more progressive intent. I can understand wanting to shelter young children from brutal portrayals of trauma or violence. I can sympathize with attempts to moderate media intake of oppressive imagery and narratives. I can appreciate not wanting to force kids that are too young for it to deal with adult sexuality. But is there a right age to see a cinematic murder? In a media environment saturated with oppressive images and narratives, is filtering out a few of the ones you happen to object to the most really going to make a difference in a young person's development? And how much of an impact do attempts by parents to micro-manage access to media really matter, in the grand scheme of things? The society we live in is messed up and oppressive, and trying to avoid that doesn't change it.

I don't have it clear in my own mind, yet, but I think what is needed to resolve this apparent tension is to think differently about the role of the parent. Often, I think, parents with progressive values uncritically accept a quite conservative vision for what parenting is supposed to be. In this case, that would mean chucking the laundry list of right-wing so-called values, such as those that put the heat on poor Buster, and replacing them with progressive values, while still seeing the role of the parent as being somewhat analagous to the role that the state plays in society -- i.e. that parents should create a list of "dos" and a list of "don'ts" and should enforce those on their children, and the difference between more conservative and more liberal parenting is the content of those lists. This practice is defended by arguing that the only alternative is a complete abandonment of parental responsibility.

I don't agree with that, though. I think rethinking the role of parents means starting from the acknowledgment that we are not outside and above life, issuing objective decrees that are the ultimate in wisdom about what is or is not appropriate. Some parents would agree that we are not these things but would argue that we have to behave as if we were anyway, as a form of leadership or something, but I think that too easily turns into domination. I think every single bit of parenting has to be engaged in with the explicit acknowledgment, to ourselves and to our children, that both they and we are people on a journey and we don't have all the answers. I think that means a much more explicit recognition of children, even young children, as autonomous and capable (though without ignoring their limitations). I think that means participating in critical engagement about consumed media with children, and with other adults while children are present. It means creating a home media environment that is rich in liberatory imagery and narratives. It means living a critical engagement with media in a way that is integral to your own life and not thinking about these things only when it comes to your kids. It means modelling for them your own ways of dealing with different narratives and imagery -- your analysis as well as your gut-level enthusiasms and aversions, and how those things interact, and how you act on them.

How this translates into practical terms for me remains to be seen, of course. But I suspect that, at its best, it means not straying too far from, "Don't worry. Parenting is easy. You just sort of do it." But that's only possible when this issue is not treated as being primarily a discrete question involving regulation and limitation of your children, but rather when it is seen as one facet of your own journey through the complexities of our media environment.

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