Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Helping Kids Deal With Violence

I am of the original Saturday Night Live Generation and one skit in particular from "Weekend Update" has come to mind these last few weeks.  The character is Emily Litella (played by the incredibly talented Gilda Radner), an editorial responder who is passionate about her opinions which are never quite right.  In this particular skit "Violins on Television"

Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update: Emily Litella on Violins on TV

Emily responds asking what is wrong with violins on television pointing out the benefits of exposing kids to classical music. When she finds out that the station's editorial was about restricting violence on televion and not violins, she pauses, smiles and says, "never mind." Unfortunately, while this is quite funny, violence on television, in books, and in life is not.

This past year my son's best friend's father was one of seven people shot and killed in cold blood at his workplace by a disgruntled employee.  There was brief national coverage and this calamity was forgotten except by those touched by the tragedy.  Earlier this month again, the nation reeled from the violent shooting of Congresswoman Gavrielle Gifford and 18 others, and again, the debate has surfaced on how to control violence (and mental health) in our lives.

Over these past few months I have been wrestling with the question of media control of violence - both as a result of these violent deaths and because I have been recently been researching and advocating for the use of comics and graphic novels (bound comics - not the sexually graphic adult novels) in the classroom which in the 1950's were restricted by a Congressional Panel.

In 1954 psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that the overt and covert depictions of violence, sex, and drug use in mystery, superhero and horror comic books encouraged similar behavior in children.  This publication led to a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry which in turn led to the creation of the Comics Code which banned the use of violent images, certain words (such as "terror" and "zombies") and dictated that criminals must always be punished.  This nearly destroyed the comic book industry.

In researching modern graphic novels for use in classrooms, I have found some outstanding works of literature and art. Because of the prose, relevant topics and the illustrations, these books can and should be used to help visual learners learn to read. They are excellent vehicles for teaching social cognition (as kids can learn to better 'read' facial expressions), and are also excellent vehicles for teaching how to make inferences and abstract concepts. Many, however, contain varying degrees of violence.

As I read some of these gems (I Kill Giants - about a 5th grader's struggle to deal with her mother's cancer; Chinese Born American - about assimilation and Chinese culture; Laika - about the Soviet's sending the first sentient being - a dog into space - to name only a few of my favorites), I keep thinking what a loss it would be not to have these books.  Then I think of books like Lord of the Flies - (which I had to read for school) about kids stranded on a desert island who turn to cannibalism to save themselves or the Harry Potter series all chocked full of violence.  What about the local news broadcasts and nightly television shows or even the road rage we experience while carpooling?  The bottom line is that there violence is all around us. If we were to censor books, we would have to censor news, advertisements - everything.  I just don't see that happening.

The solution is that we have to teach our kids HOW to 'read' the violence on the screen and in print and How to address issues of violence and HOW best to respond.  The solution is not avoidance, it is how best to meet violence head on with alternative solutions.

Here are a few things we as parents and educators should do:
  • Read violent books, view violent cartoons and shows together discussing the pros and cons of violence.  You might even want to discuss why the author chose to depict the scene that way. 
  • Discuss the types of visual icons and images that illustrate violence and violent intent. Help them recognize the pre-violent' signals in facial expressions and posture.
  • Discuss the character's alternatives - what could they have done to limit the violence.  How might they have resolved their conflicts without violence?
  • Discuss alternative ways to respond to violence.
  • Debate the censorship of violence in the media. 
  • Discuss different ways to address rage.
I'd love to hear your response and what you are doing to address violence in your child's life.  How do you help your kids deal with violence in media, in books, and /or violence in their lives? 


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    2. Excellent post...I like the idea of discussing books, etc. with kids. Thanks for visiting my blog--I'll have to check my comments settings. To answer your question, sweet potato hummus tastes very different from traditional hummus, but is oh so delicious...hope you'll try it!

    3. I think, Meryl, that what you and I both seem to be reaching for is the basic concept that teaching children critical thinking skills is the "cure."

      Critical thinking is also the one thing most missing from our educational system.

      Was good to hear from you on the letter to the president blog post.

    4. Hi Meryl,

      When I was a parent to one child, a mild-mannered, non-aggressive daughter, I was adamant that children should be allowed to read anything that encourages them to keep reading.

      I still feel that way, but now that I have a somewhat more aggressive, three-year-old, son I find myself editing some language as I read aloud. The word "kill" comes up so often!

      I know this will change when my son is able to read on his own (in fact, he's already called me on my edits) but I still believe that talking about the hard issues in a book prevents them from happening in real life-- or at least makes it easier to discuss them.

      You're right, though; discussion and critical thinking are key. I love the idea of brainstorming alternate, non-violent, outcomes. In fact, I think I'll try it tomorrow with the _Snow Spider_. Thanks!

    5. Dear Patricia,

      I would love to hear how your alternative brainstorming works/worked!