This post previously appeared on Words Are My Weapons
I don’t know if it’s because I was raised in the carefree 70’s. Maybe it’s because I was a latch-key kid who spent a large part of my childhood unsupervised and left to my own defenses for extended spans of time. Or maybe it’s because I was the youngest of four children whose closest sibling was 8 years older than me and my older, weary parents were just tired by the time I came along. Whatever the reason, when it came to television and movies during my childhood, nothing was really off limits.
My children, ages 8 and 5, have always had tight restrictions on what they are allowed to watch. My husband and I have always been in complete agreement about what we deem acceptable. G-rated movies and educational cartoons like Blue’s Clues or Dora were the only options for them until about a year ago. Even now, though we allow PG movies, they are only the ones we decide are age-appropriate for our girls. In other words, their media consumption is completely controlled and scrutinized for appropriateness.**
My goal for my children’s media exposure is simply to guard their innocence for as long as possible. I take very seriously the amount of violent and sexual content and rude behavior (even in cartoon form) they are exposed to. I remember a few years ago, I was excited to watch the Peanuts Halloween special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, with my oldest. She was five at the time and we snuggled up on the couch together to watch this beloved childhood favorite of mine. It had been years since I’d seen it and I was shocked to watch it through my “mom” eyes. I never realized how really cruel and mean the kids are to Charlie Brown or how often the kids call each other stupid. My daughter looked up at me at one point and asked, “Why are those kids so awful to Charlie Brown?” and later “Why do the grownups keep giving him rocks? It’s so mean!” Wait, I thought to myself, why wasn’t this the cute cartoon I remembered? Why did I love this so much?
Maybe it was because the type of television I was exposed to when I was a child is a stark contrast to what my children experience. When I was a child, I didn’t have channels that carried unlimited entertainment developed solely for children. This was back in the day when many of us only had network TV and stations like the Disney Channel didn’t even exist. The best we had was PBS, and while they did carry some great children’s programs (I was a huge fan of The Electric Company), the shows were only available during limited times. Those PBS shows and a Saturday morning block of cartoons were all we had.
So to fill the gap in my television watching, I rounded it out with whatever shows and movies I stumbled across. My parents didn’t seem particularly concerned about what I watched. We had two TV sets, one in the living room and an old black and white set that somehow ended up in my bedroom in the 3rd grade. It was on that black and white set that I would stay up too late and watch whatever my heart desired. I also had no set bedtime, so I watched until my eyes closed from exhaustion. Many nights I stayed up bleary-eyed watching Twilight Zone reruns until the station signed off for the night. (If you are of a younger generation, the concept of “signing off for the night” might be confusing to you. Google it and you just might envision a different kind of terror.)
I was inexplicably drawn to frightening and disturbing shows and movies as a child, which inevitably gave me nightmares. I remember watching the original Omen movie, which tells the story of a family that unwittingly raises the Anti-Christ, and then being completely terrified and unable to fall asleep. After lying in bed sweating with fear, I covered my bed with every stuffed animal I owned (which was at least two dozen) and crawled underneath them with only my face peeking out through the patch quilt of furry teddy bears and puppies. I lay flat on my back, clutching my mom’s Bible between my hands for good measure. If Damien was coming to get me, then my stuffed animal army and the Holy Bible were going to protect me.
The Living Doll episode of The Twilight Zone instilled a deep fear of dolls in me. In the episode, a little girl receives a creepy doll that talks and threatens her step-father and appears to murder him. After watching it alone in my bedroom late one night, I became convinced my dolls were going to come alive while I slept and try to kill me. My defense was to lie in bed and say good night (out loud and by each one’s name) to every single of my dolls sweetly. I convinced myself this would show them how much I loved them and help me stay in their good graces. Dolls still give me the complete and utter creeps to this day.
In 1980, my parents subscribed to a wonderful new service called CABLE TELEVISION. Suddenly, my access to media intended for “mature audiences only” and most likely “not appropriate for elementary school kids” was expanded. HBO offered a stream of movies that no one in my house ever bothered to determine if they were appropriate for a nine-year-old or not. My parents and I watched such wholesome family classics like Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and Airplane with Leslie Neilsen. While the language in Stir Crazy made me flinch in front of my mom, the bouncing naked boobs in Airplane made me blush next to my dad. Neither seemed to think my sitting in the living room watching was a bad idea.
Watching movies became my new pastime and I watched whatever was showing when I happened to be sitting in the living room. With parents who worked until four or five hours after I got home from school, I was left with a lot of time to fill. I vividly recall the day I watched the black and white movie The Elephant Man, about the real life of Joseph Merrick who was born with severe physical deformities. The depiction of the horrors of the disease and the horrific treatment and cruelty that Merrick suffered in his life overwhelmed me with sadness. My ten-year-old self didn’t know how to deal with those terrible emotions and there were no parents at my side to steer me away from these heavy themes or at the very least, discuss them with me.
There are times when I have wondered if my husband and I are being too strict with the media our children are allowed to watch. As an adult, my television, movie and book tastes are reflective of my early years. I love scary and darkness and death. These are the themes I understand well and that I find myself drawn to repeatedly. In a strange way, I find them oddly comforting. I sometimes wonder if by controlling what our girls watch, we are not allowing them the freedom to discover subjects they may find interesting, subjects that lie beyond the boundaries predetermined by PBS, Nick and Disney, Jr. Are we coloring their future tastes so that only the most bland, saccharine, unrealistically happy subjects will interest them?
Then I watch them sleeping, half-smiles playing around the edges of their mouths, as they dream the peaceful dreams where murderous dolls and the Anti-Christ are not haunting them. And I know their sweet slumber is worth it.
**Update: in the 2 years since writing this post, my rules have relaxed greatly for my children’s media. While they are still not allowed to watch movies with more than a PG rating, they certainly have moved beyond the saccharine world of Nick, Jr. My 10-year-old daughter prefers fiction that is dark and creepy. I think that one is just in her DNA.