"DeGaetanto's book helps parents understand the latest research on media use, its implications for child development, and what they can do about it." Suite101.com
Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Humanby Gloria DeGaetano
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This illuminating investigation takes a fresh look at the role of media in children's lives. An overview of the formidable challenges parents face and creative ways to overcome them are included, as are strategies for turning a home environment from "high-tech" to "high-touch." Moving beyond demonizing the media, this work, like none before it, articulates the difficulties of parenting in our depersonalized society. It offers hopeful alternatives for all parents wanting to protect children from, and teach children about, media's impact.
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Parenting Well in a Media Age
Keeping Our Kids Human
By Gloria DeGaetano
Personhood PressCopyright © 2004 Gloria DeGaetano
All rights reserved.
Today's Parenting Challenges
The media have become the mainstream culture in children's lives. Parents have become the alternative. Americans once expected parentsto raise their children in accordance with the dominant cultural messages. Today they are expected to raise their children in opposition to it.
Being a parent is a precious gift. When children enter our lives, the outpouring of love we feel can be surprising. We wonder, "How can I love someone so much?" At the same time, we can wonder "What happened?" since most of us are totally unprepared to go from thinking only of ourselves to thinking of our children 24/7. Children take up residence in our heads, as well as in our hearts ... and our lives are forever changed.
While our love for our kids can ease many difficulties, it can't erase the fact that parenting today is often quite a struggle. In a highly technological, fragmented society such as ours, many parents I meet feel isolated, misunderstood, and confused. These are tough times in which to parent well. While parenting has never been easy, over the past century our role has certainly become more complex. It's a very different job description from that of our great-grandparents, grandparents, or even our parents.
How Parenting Has Changed
In the first half of the 20th century, parents raised their children in pretty much the same way they had been raised. Child rearing practices were modeled after their extended family and the practices of their immediate communities. Being a parent was simply something that one did — not something someone had to read a book about to understand how to do. The abundance of information about right or wrong child-rearing techniques, so prevalent today, did not exist. Very few agencies provided direct services to parents. And no one taught "parenting" skills. The word "parenting," along with the concept, had not yet come into use. These parents, even though living in an increasingly industrialized world, were largely tied to time-tested traditions when it came to rearing children.
The primary parental tasks in the early 20 Century included feeding, clothing, and sheltering children until they were able to support themselves, or until they left home through marriage. Since physical existence required more manual labor, leisure activities were at a premium. Choices on how to spend family time, for instance, were limited. There were always household chores to do, and often plenty of kids around to help out. Families were larger back then and children played a much bigger role in supporting the life of the family than they do today. As a young girl in the 1920s, my mother recalls Sunday church services and a community meal afterwards as the one time during the week that her large family gathered "for fun." The rest of the week was taken up with her studying and chores after school. Her parents, too, were busy with their gender-specific roles. As a coal miner, my grandfather worked long, arduous hours and my grandmother managed a household of seven children.
Yet within this structured schedule my mother has fond memories of aunts, uncles, and cousins dropping in during the week, talking with her, laughing, joking, bringing food, or spontaneously sharing a family dinner. My mom couldn't escape into her room to watch a video or play a Gameboy at the dinner table, as children can do today. She had to stay at the table and listen. Observing the adults interact from this close proximity, like all the other children of the era, she learned about adult rules, communication, and social expectations. Both parents and children benefited from this communal aspect of simpler living. Having extended family members around helped with parental responsibilities, while giving children opportunities to participate in personal interactions that parents couldn't always provide.
The developing field of psychology brought new theories about human development. John B. Watson, the pioneer of behaviorist psychology, offered this advice to parents in 1928:
"The sensible way to bring up children is to treat them as young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning ... Put the child out in the back yard a large part of the time. Build a fence round the yard, so that it can come to no harm. Do this from the time it is born ... let it learn to overcome difficulties almost from the moment of birth ... away from your watchful eye. If your heart is too tender, and you must watch the child, make yourself a peephole, so that you can see without being seen, or use a periscope."
The Atlantic Monthly praised this guidance as "a godsend to parents." I can imagine both my grandmothers, born and raised in the "old country" of Europe, one from Italy, and the other from Poland, shaking their heads at the absurdity of this so-called "advice." Being close to their extended family's inherent wisdom, they knew better. Like many new mothers in the 1920s and 1930s, my grandmothers would find Dr. Watson's counsel ridiculous. But advice like this did not reach many parents at this time. Radio was just emerging as a means of communication; television was not yet in American homes. And, there wasn't any compelling reason yet for parents to look for outside advice on how to parent. Accordingly, ideas from experts were often ignored.
By mid-century, however, the social landscape of America had changed. Families had endured the depression and World War II. During the war, women helped run the factories, gaining a new sense of independence and competence. A generation of men, fueled by the GI Bill, went to college, where they were exposed to new ideas. The demand for consumer goods, pent up from both the depression and the war, drove the production of a material abundance never before experienced. As families moved to the suburbs, extended families became fragmented. Nearby strangers replaced community ties. New parents discovered that they were largely on their own, and began to search for advice. By the late 1950s, they were ready to listen.
Led by Dr. Benjamin Spock, the movement of learning to parent from credentialed experts, instead of from close relatives, transformed parenting. Spock's ideas caught hold and ushered in a more "hands-off" policy of child-rearing. The pendulum swing went from controlling children to "being their friends." But conflicting theories and contradictory information emerged, leading to confusion, experimenting, and new challenges. This parent generation also wanted to give their children more than they had been given. And they wanted their children to have less responsibility than had been forced on them. Over- indulgence joined permissiveness as the touchstones for being "good parents."
During the 1950s and 1960s, another fundamental change occurred in the nature of parenting that would affect us profoundly in our modern day. In 1959, the word parenting entered the dictionary. It identified an increased involvement with and commitment to one's children. Parenthood, a word whose origins go back to 1856, was the way parents defined their role in the first part of the century. Parenthood, a noun, connoted a state of being. Parenting, both a noun and a verb, defined a way of doing. Parent educator and writer Polly Berrien Berends points out that "the word, parenting ... turns parenthood, which is a state and stage of adulthood, into a verb and makes it into something that's done to the child as if it's the parent who causes the child to be human." Diverse child rearing theories fueled the notion of parenting, and the state of being a parent became more and more a list of activities that parents did for their kids.
The parental job description grew from supplying basic needs, to giving the best of material things, meeting children's emotional and psychological needs, and providing them with quality education. During the 1970s and 1980s, participation in their children's socialization became a part of the parental task list. This meant making sure young children have "play dates" with peers, and older kids go to the right amount of birthday parties, school outings, sports events, etc., along with all the transportation required.
Today, we can include on our parental "to do" list finding the best schools for our kids, choosing childcare for infants and preschoolers, after-school care for elementary age kids, and making sure our teens are where they should be after school. We also have to teach them about and protect them from drugs. We have to provide relevant sex education. With the emergence of sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, parental worries increased. With so many forms of screen entertainment, our responsibilities have also come to include monitoring children's use of television, videos, and video games. With the proliferation of computers, it now means making sure that our kids are computer literate, so they won't be "left behind." At the same time, we have to make sure they are protected against pornography, cyber stalking, and cyber bullying. With the widespread labels ADD or ADHD and the use of prescription drugs to treat children, many parents must work with schools and authorities to determine what is really "wrong with" their kids. And, post 9/11, we can add new dilemmas such as explaining terrorism to tots.
Modern-day parental tasks and responsibilities are indeed mind-boggling. Yet, on top of all of this, we face some very specific challenges that are present simply because we parent within an unsupportive culture.
Challenges Specific to Our Time
The negative elements of an industry-generated culture have always in some way been a concern to parents. What about parents' reactions to Elvis' seductive hip-swaying in the 1950s? Or the shock of Madonna's fashion sense in the 1980s? Parents have always voiced their opinions about the ever-changing "pushing of limits" so integral to the industry-generated culture. This is to be expected. There are significant distinctions today, however, that need to be clearly understood in order to be productively addressed.
Challenge #1: Global conglomerates influence behaviors and attitudes on an unprecedented scale.
In the '50s ten year-olds were not being sold Elvis but by the '80s little girls were dressing like Madonna. Over the years multinational companies have increased their hold on our kids. Judith Rubin, writing in Mothering, reminds us that "marketing professionals cross-reference, cross market, and cross-pollinate products and entertainment. By intentionally blurring the distinctions between products, entertainment, school curricula, and advertisements, marketers readily capitalize on young children's limited ability to differentiate between them. It's no accident that in the children's section of Barnes and Noble, the books starring such television-based characters as Blue, Arthur, and Clifford are displayed most prominently, while the classics get the cheap seats."
This decision of book placement in a popular store chain is one example of how large businesses can be so influential on our kids and impact our parenting on a daily basis. When the people who create, produce, and disseminate the TV programs or movies also have a lot of reach into other sectors, such as bookstores, we are virtually surrounded by focused messages, driven by maximizing profit. In the past, media companies were not nearly as influential. In fact, in 1983, as many as fifty companies owned the majority of the media. By 2001, six companies owned and controlled global media production and dissemination. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, ironically decries media's consolidation of power, "Media concentration is a frightening thing. It's owned more and more by Disney, General Electric ... Westinghouse, which now owns CBS. You have two of the four major networks owned by people that have huge investments in nuclear power and nuclear weapons — both GE and Westinghouse." Time Warner, the world's biggest media corporation, is also the second largest book publisher in the world, the largest music company, and the owner of many of America's leading magazines, including Time, Fortune, Life, People, Money, and Teen Magazine. And, along with TCI, Time Warner is the owner of television cable systems serving 47% of the American cable audience. The merger of Time and AOL in 2000 opened even more pathways for mass dissemination with Internet users.
Rachel Eden, a mother of a five year old daughter, writing in an article, "Children's Creative Thinking in the Face of Commercialism," points out, "The late Herbert Schiller, noted author, professor, and authority on corporate power and the media, gets to the heart of what is really happening with corporate mergers. In a speech titled, 'The Corporate Packaging of the Public Mind,' Schiller explains that these mergers between corporate media systems create a 'corporate packaging' designed to play on our sensory perceptions and perpetuate an outlook and consciousness shaped by the images they present. This is carried out through the local mall filled with the same stores owned by one chain. Many schools align themselves with corporations in exchange for funding or supplies which brings commercialism directly into the daily lives of students. In essence, our children become conditioned by this homogenized intake and the messages being promoted 'are reinforced throughout the social order.'"
Eden, a third-grade teacher, sees children's imagination eroding every day in her classroom. "I have students who can't come up with an idea for a story unless the current toy can be the main character. It isn't the isolated incidents that concern me but rather a continual inability of children to conjure up their own ideas without relying on what the media has presented to them. There are youngsters who cannot create a story unless it revolves around a TV character or superhero, whose lunch items are colorfully decorated with the latest craze from the box office or Burger King, whose entire outfit and matching backpack are walking commercials for some movie. These children are so immersed in Disney, Nickelodeon, and Nintendo that they no longer have access to their own images and creative imaginations. Instead they are limited to thinking in the images the media has provided for them."
Mary Burke, a mother and child psychiatrist, worries about the replacement of the imagination with packaged media products. "This was recently made concrete to me when I set out to order a variety of character toys for my sand tray, I was appalled to find that the local sand-tray supplier only carried Disney characters! I could no longer find witches, princesses and heroes, only the Disney versions of Snow Whites's step-mother, Cinderella, and Aladdin."
This "homogenized intake" pervasively influences our children. One Seattle mother of three children, calls it "Any Child USA." "Malls are Anywhere USA and our children become Any Child USA. Instead of our children being who they are, they now have the wants and needs of people who don't know them." By influencing on a mass scale, the industry-generated culture shapes attitudes and impacts our children's identities in profound ways. Since it's shaping millions of children simultaneously, peer group pressures to conform increase as corporations get increasingly savvy in selling straight to our kids. Children, of course, have very real needs to fit in and to be like their friends. As we work diligently to help our youngsters develop their unique identity, we have to counter homogenized thoughts and behaviors our kids learn from their peer group, without ostracizing them from their peers. This is a tricky job. Trying to parent well within this framework raises a critical parental question that we all have to answer: Whose messages do we want to be most influential in shaping the emerging identity of our children — the messages from an industry- generated culture or the messages from parents?
Challenge #2: The erosion of community standards through the co-opting of social institutions.
The second major distinction between parenting today and parenting in the past is the erosion of community standards through the co-opting of social institutions. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, social institutions kept corporate intrusion to a minimum. Gary Ruskin, president of Commercial Alert, a non-profit dedicated to countering commercial messages, points out: "Junk food marketers, for instance, tried to invade schools, but for decades their presence was relatively insignificant ... The curriculum of junk nutrition began in earnest in 1989, with the launch of Channel One, an in-school TV marketing program. Chris Whittle, Channel One's founder, had the ingenious idea of harnessing the schools to show daily twelve-minute TV broadcasts that included two minutes of ads. Since then, Channel One, now owned by Primedia, has been adopted by 12,000 schools. About eight million children watch its ads for Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Hostess Twinkies, M&M's, Snicker's and the like." We expect MacDonald's to be more interested in selling Happy Meals than they are concerned about our kids' health; we don't expect schools to ignore our kids health needs. When schools join to amplify corporate messages, they dismiss parental concerns.
Excerpted from Parenting Well in a Media Age by Gloria DeGaetano. Copyright © 2004 Gloria DeGaetano. Excerpted by permission of Personhood Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Gloria DeGaetano is the founder of the Parent Coaching Institute and the author of Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence. She lives in Bellevue, Washington. Diane Dreher, Ph.D., is the author of The Tao of Personal Leadership and associate dean of arts and sciences at Santa Clara University.
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