Thursday, January 30, 2014

Talking With a Friend About Kids and the Culture


Spoiler Warning: 

If you haven't seen Frozen -- and I do not want to spoil it for you -- you may want to come back to this post at a later date. 


Another mom and I were recently emailing about all the influences on children that seem beyond our control. What's good for them? What's bad? What must be limited? What needn't be limited? How can we guide our kids through pop culture and help them become critical thinkers?

My daughters and I saw (and loved) Frozen, a movie that was part of my recent discussion with this mom. Other Mom and I were talking about how obsessed young children get with these movies, and she was wondering what effect certain things have on kids. For example, when a little girl hears Elsa sing,

No right, no wrong
no rules for me
I’m free

... does she take it to heart? Will she, too, think that being true to herself means slinking into a dress with a thigh-high slit and adding a little more wiggle to her walk? Or, will said little girl just be thinking, "Sparkles! Pretty! I want to build an ice castle, too!"

How much do kids internalize messages that are belted out by a beloved character? Can children sift through the chaff to get to the wheat? Do they know wheat from chaff, or is it all just glitter and a great hairdo to them?

With my friend's permission, here's what I wrote to her. This is a reconstruction of two emails and a short in-person discussion. I haven't polished it up, and I changed things only where a transition, etc., didn't make sense. And, wow, I use a lot of smileys when I email....  :) :)

Yes, I do know exactly what you mean, and you are doing the right thing. You are forming her as we speak, by navigating her through this process. The very fact that you are correcting things, pointing things out, giving her things to think about (even though her little five-year-old brain can't yet grasp all the implications) are forming her every minute. My girls used to get obsessed with the worst Disney role models -- of course they loved Ariel, who disobeys her father and acts like a spoiled brat and still gets everything she wants in the end. (Editor's note: And of course we still sang "Part of Your World" at the top of our lungs. And, you know what, sometimes disobedience based on conscience is called for. Was Ariel's dad being a bigot? That's worth talking about, isn't it?)  
So, yes, I think it's good that you worry a little, because that means you're viewing critically, and you're teaching your kids to view critically. Just remind yourself that it's a lifelong process -- we keep talking, talking, talking to them, helping them sort through everything our culture throws at them. Nagging them, really.  :) I guess I decided a long time ago that there were two choices -- shelter them from all of it, or guide the exposure, and let that guidance take the form of loads of discussion. But there's never just one discussion that settles it once and for all. Not only is it "never just one discussion" but it's not even just one discussion about one movie -- there are always multiple discussions about a particular movie, a character's choices, etc. And sometimes it wasn't even so much a back-and-forth discussion -- it was me pointing out things that the kids could (and probably did) overlook, helping them not to take a movie's secular message to heart, casting those things in the light of faith, helping the kids to think in those terms, you know? Even as young as four, five, six, etc. I used to, VERY often, say things like, "Well, in real life we wouldn't want to ... (fill in the blank), but he/she/it doesn't understand what it's like to be Catholic does he/she/it?" :)  Or, "In real life, we wouldn't want to show that much skin, but you're right, that's a very pretty dress that princess is wearing." :)
You know what I mean. We'll be fighting this fight our whole life, because our faith is counter-cultural, but I have found that it works out (at least so far) to do the "guided exposure" thing. Because there is so often some real beauty mixed in with messages that leave God out. I think it's important to point out that the beautiful parts do come from God and Truth, even if the person sending the message (composer, writer, singer, screenwriter, novelist, whatever) doesn't acknowledge God.
Keep doing what you're doing. It will pay off, I'm sure. You're a great model of faith for them, and you're a great mom.
And let's face it -- there's something powerful about that song. Let It Go appeals to the desire in all of us to fully be what we're called to be. But what we're called to be is open to a lot of interpretation. 
When you look at the whole of the movie, the very thing Elsa is celebrating in that song is actually the thing that's also destroying her kingdom, and she has to give up the isolation she's embracing in Let It Go in order to save others. The final message of the movie, too, has to do with sacrificing one's self as an act of true love. So overall I found it to be a very good movie --  flawed in some ways, as most things are, but good.*
I still say things to Ramona like, "Wait, Elsa just said there's no right and no wrong!" and she responds, "I know, Mom, I know. It's just a song." :)
Musicals do that to us -- they sweep us away. I guess I feel like that's part of the lesson, too, for my kids (and for me.) That just because something sweeps us away doesn't mean we interpret it to be all good, or the perfect message, etc. 
When Ramona and I talked more about Frozen, I asked her what she thought of the line, "Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know...." and she said, "Well, the trolls tell Elsa that she needs to learn to control her power, and her parents just tried to make her hide it and pretend it's not there. It's never good to keep secrets from people you love, so I think it's another case of bad Disney parenting." (Editor's note: I love that kid.) 
I think it's way better to worry a bit and address it and deal with it than it is to blindly accept everything the culture throws at us, as many people do. On the other hand, many people swing too far to the other end of the spectrum. Why does it have to be either, "Ban it all! Don't watch! Don't look!" or "It's just a movie! Lighten up! Nothing to talk about here!"

As is usually the case, for me anyway, the truest path lies somewhere in between, in the balance. 

*I didn't mention this to my friend, but I absolutely loved the idea of turning the "love at first sight" thing on its head. I loved Kristof the moment he said to Anna, "Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?" Oh, yeah. I shipped it then and there, and knew there was going to be something terribly wrong with Hans. And who doesn't love a snowman who is ready to melt for you? 


sarah said...

Interesting. My dd watched Disney movies but never cared much for them because there was no paleoarcheology involved. So it's fascinating to me to see these conversations and what many mothers have to sort through. Lucky girls to have such mindful mothers.

tanita♥davis said...

I think this is what I missed growing up - the realization that this is a LIFETIME TASK. I think my parents were really hard on us, because they expected us to know better "right now," when we had to be reminded over and over. Saying, "It's just a song," would never have worked in our house; if it was wrong, you weren't supposed to be singing it. Period.

The way you're doing this seems to me to be crucial to the development of a lot of things, including empathy...

This is like ... like writing process, in a way. Watching someone else go through the nuts and bolts of how they parent is kind of fascinating, even if you don't have kids.

Karen Edmisten said...

Sarah, your daughter kills me. No paleoarchaeology involved! Gotta love that.

And Tanita, the thing about, the "It's just a song," part... that's the part of the equation that means the kids are teaching the parents, too, I think. They need to remind us that they're not idiots.

Sometimes, when I'm going overboard, and pointing something out for the hundredth time, my kids are RIGHT to say to me, "Lay off, Mom! We KNOW right from wrong, and we still love this song." And then I say, "You're right, I love it, too! Let's belt it out one more time!" :)

Karen Edmisten said...

Also, Tanita, I think that's so interesting about your observation about your parents being hard on you. I do think that kind of authoritative approach can backfire in a variety of ways (though they obviously raised an amazing person or two.) :)

Thanks for the comment about developing empathy. That is so important to me and if what we're doing is helping to develop empathy in our kids, well, I just appreciate that you said that. Thanks.