Because our weather has been so wacky, I've been moving our seedlings back and forth from the back porch to the kitchen. Outside I know they'll be getting enough sunlight, but since it's been rather chilly at night, I bring them in at night to keep them warm. I'm no expert gardener, but I know enough to know that certain plants really don't do well in the cold. Especially seedlings that are just getting started.
All of this has gotten me thinking about protecting our young kids - our seedlings - from certain elements. I know homeschoolers are often accused of sheltering our kids too much. I'd like to share some thoughts on that front. They may be a bit disjointed. I'm actually looking at this as the beginning point of a conversation. I'm curious about what other parents feel about this topic.
Also, I recognize that it's very easy to get judgmental in these kinds of conversations. I try very hard not to judge, but when I do, I at least try to acknowledge it. So I'll be noting the places in this post where I know I'm being judgmental.
Here we go:
I'm not a proponent of keeping reality from kids. I want my children to understand the struggles people deal with in the world, and I don't want them to go out into the world unprepared for what they're going to face. They need to know about the realities of injustice, war, hunger, drugs, sex, peer pressure, etc. etc. etc.
And my husband and I introduce those things to our kids, according to their maturity and capacity at any given time, in a frank and honest way. No subject is off limits - when they have questions, we try to answer them clearly. And if they don't ask, we bring up things we feel they should know.
The real issue here is the question of when, how, and how much.
Because while I'm all for open conversations and preparing kids for the real world, I do believe in sheltering kids from certain things while they're young. They don't need to be bombarded with all that they're going to face and process as adults. Because they're not adults. They're kids. And they should stay kids while they can.
Innocence is valuable. It's a safe harbor in which kids can learn to navigate in calm waters, to build up strength and endurance before braving the storms. Innocence doesn't last forever, and it shouldn't. But that doesn't mean it's expendable.
It seems to me that "shelter" and "innocence" have become dirty words in our society. And that's really scary, considering how much more kids are exposed to than when I was a kid. I don't think I need to go into detail about what is available at our fingertips. Even families I know who are diligent about protecting their kids have had run-ins with pornography and other unsavory elements. It's really really hard to shield our kids from things they aren't ready for or shouldn't be exposed to. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Here's an example of a trend I've noticed along these lines, and my clearly judgmental feelings about it:
I overheard a conversation a while back where a mom was saying she had finally watched "Twilight" with her daughter, who had been begging her to watch it because every other girl in her class had seen it. This wouldn't be an issue, except that her daughter was in the first grade.
I can't see a single good reason for a first grader to watch that movie. There is nothing in that story for a first grader, and there's a whole lot that a 6-year-old isn't psycho-emotionally ready to digest. And I'm not even talking about the vampire stuff. It's a young adult story with young adult themes. There are about 1000 other movies you could show your 6-year-old. Just because everyone else is doing it (which I'm sure was an exaggeration on her daughter's part) doesn't mean it's a good idea.
Even more insidious, I think, is what kids are exposed to on TV. Our kids don't watch much TV. We're big fans of PBS, we like movies and make excellent use of Netflix and Redbox, but regular TV doesn't really have a place in our kids' lives. Not that we forbid it - we just don't watch it. That has been a conscious decision on our part because so much of the television programming aimed at kids is filled with commercialism, materialism, and a whole host of things that fly in the face of the values we want to instill in our kids.
My feelings on this actually started when The Muse (our eldest) was a toddler. We'd watch PBS kids shows together - Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, etc. But I started becoming uncomfortable with "Arthur" and "Caillou" - two shows on PBS, which presumably would be about as benign as you can get.
I noticed that Arthur's sister, D.W., was super rude and snotty most of the time. And I noticed that Caillou was a huge little whiner most of the time. Toddlers imitate what they see - that's the primary mode of learning at that age - and I didn't want my toddler imitating that behavior. Sure, there was always some moral to the story at the end. But a 2- or 3-year-old generally doesn't have the ability to analyze the behavior they're seeing and assimilate the moral at the end. If they see Arthur's sister taunting him, they'll internalize that that's what sisters do.
So I started really analyzing the things I was showing my kids. I believe that television is a powerful medium. And even if kids don't directly imitate the things they see, they internalize them on some level. That can be great, if well done and with parental guidance. And that can be quite damaging, especially if they're watching something alone, and especially if it's something socially acceptable or popular and reflects a distorted view of reality.
An example for older kids: We were watching some show on either Disney or Nickelodeon one day at my in-laws with my nieces and nephews. I can't remember the name of the show, but it was rated TV-7. A parent would see that rating, and assume it was fine for their 7+ year olds, right? In my 10 minutes of watching, here's how the scene unfolded:
A teen boy is working at a soda shop. His teen friend is sitting at a booth making out with a teen girl. The first boy approaches the table, clears his throat, and waits for them to stop kissing. Finally, the girl gets up, smiles dreamily at make-out boy, and leaves. The first boy asks, "Did you even know that girl?" to which make-out boy shrugs and replies, "What? I bought her a Coke first." The audience laughs and the plot moves along to something else.
Really? This is what second, third, fourth graders are watching? Without an adult there to discuss all of the sexist, degrading implications of that scenario, what message are kids tucking away in the recesses of their minds? That that's how teenagers behave? That it's funny to be a sleazy womanizer? That girls are sex objects who can be bought with a Coke?
Occasionally I'll flip on Disney or Nickelodeon just to remind myself why we don't watch them. It doesn't take long. Most of the kids and teens are rude and obnoxious to their parents and to each other. There's entirely too much emphasis on early romantic relationships. And too many of the girls do that dumb girl talk thing I wrote about a couple of posts ago.
Perhaps there are parents who watch all of these shows with their kids and discuss what they're seeing. But I doubt there are that many. And why would they? There are so many better things to do. I think most parents see the name "Disney" or "Nickelodeon" and assume that since they are shows made for kids that they must be harmless. I just don't see it that way.
And studies don't see it that way, either. What kids watch does affect them. Even if I didn't take umbrage with the content of the shows, the commercials are just as bad, if not worse, most of the time. Our kids are hammered with sexual images and messages, not just from TV and movies, but practically everywhere they go. Even standing in line at the grocery store is a PG-13 experience with all of the women's magazine headlines. So we limit exposure where we can, and that starts with what we choose to put on our TV.
Much of what I just wrote about has to do with sex. Do I want to shelter my kids from sex in general? No. As they get old enough, we have open conversations about it. But I do want to shelter them from unhealthy messages about sexuality, from oversexualization of women and girls in particular, and from the constant barrage of sexual images that streams into our lives without most of us even noticing it.
The grocery line really gets me every time. The number of times the phrase "bikini body" is used on those magazine covers at this time of the year is mind-boggling. We already have so much to fight against as moms with girls. I think sheltering our kids from as many of those messages as we can while they're young and most impressionable is vital.
Nothing puts the world under a microscope like having kids. I'm sensitive - hyperaware, even - to how my children are internalizing the sights, sounds, images, and messages around them. And truly, there are so many great, inspiring, productive things for them to see and do. Things like art, music, reading, playing with friends, exploring nature - even watching movies that are real works of art that broaden the imagination and make you think. And there are also terrible, difficult, important things for them to see and learn about, such as war, poverty, genocide.
Honestly, I'd rather expose my kids to those realities of the world, harsh though they may be, than to pop culture fluff that masquerades as reality. I know parents whose kids watch all kinds of teen shows, but who won't show their kids something like "Schindler's List" because they think it's too disturbing. I'd rather my kids watch "Schindler's List" than most of the shows on Nickelodeon. Really. Of course, I'd hold off on "Schindler's List" until they were old enough to handle and understand it. But as far as limiting their exposure to things, I'd rather keep them from the mind-numbing drivel that passes as kids entertainment (yup, there I am being judgmental again) than from real history. I think kids have more capacity to process reality than we give them credit for. And I think trying to process popular television "reality" can be rather confusing.
So yes, I do shelter my kids from much of kid/tween/teen pop culture and most commercial television programming. Unapologetically. Will it mean they won't always fit in? Probably. Am I okay with that? Yes. Is always fitting in a prerequisite for making lasting, real friendships? Absolutely not. I love that my 11-year-old and her friends sit around talking about their favorite books and movies or make up role-play games. I really don't think they're missing out on anything. I've even (in a very non-judgmental way, I promise) offered to watch those Nick and Disney shows with my eldest, if she wants. She has no interest.
I want my kids to stay kids as long as they need to. There's such a rush to grow up younger and younger, and I think that's sad. Not just sad - I think it's wrong. As a society, I think we rob kids of their innocence well before it's appropriate to do so. Once it's gone, it's gone. Why rush that?
My feeling is that shelter is a good thing, especially for young kids. Just like those seedlings I move indoors every night, kids need our protection from certain things. Gradually exposing them to the elements seems a wiser course than sticking them out the cold and hoping/expecting them to be tough enough to take it. So I'll shelter my kids - not as long as I can, but as long as they need it.
What are your thoughts? Is shelter a bad thing? Is innocence an outdated notion or a vital part of a healthy childhood? Do you limit your kids' exposure to certain things? If so, what and why? If not, why not?