Monday, July 24, 2006

Fantasy Violence and Children

As a kid growing up in suburban Chicago, I loved stories with a violent edge to them: Hansel and Gretel destroying the evil witch, Jack killing the giant by chopping down his bean stalk, Bugs blowing up Elmer Fudd, or Ultraman kicking the behind of a bad Japanese actor in a giant, rubber monster suit. On the playground, these stories took the form of Cowboys and Indians, where no one ever wanted to be the Indians because they never got to use guns.

As I got older, the stories changed but the violence remained. Be it the balletic violence of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, the superhuman violence of Superman or Spider-Man, the widespread carnage in sci-fi or fantasy shows like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or the more realistic violence of 24, these stories never ceased to resonate with me on some level.

Nevertheless, I am one of the least violent people I know. Despite spending the last 21 years training in various martial arts, I have never been in a real fight in my life nor do I ever want to. I have never owned a gun (although I do confess to an extensive collection of traditional Japanese weaponry) and have no plans to. I detest violence in reality.

When I look at my son, I see a similar pattern taking hold. Ultraman has been replaced by The Power Rangers and the Cowboys and Indians battles of my youth now take the form of epic light saber duels. (For some reason, all of the 14 kids in our complex own toy light sabers and meet behind our place for daily battles). Yet my son is one of the gentlest and most non-violent boys you will meet.

This phenomenon long baffled me. With the consumption of so many violent stories in my youth, why have I not grown into a homicidal maniac? Especially since that is exactly what our society tells us happens. Violence is a problem in our society, as it is in most. Many have decided that the cause of this problem is the portrayal of violent stories in the media. Children who watch violent shows, they say, build up aggression and are taught that violence is the way to release that aggression and solve problems. Thus, they imitate in real life what they watch on screen.

I have long suspected this was a shallow, naive, and ill-informed response to a complex problem. I certainly do not want to minimize the problem of societal violence nor minimize the role that the media may legitimately play, but blaming television or film violence as the primary cause is a bit like blaming the Hostess company for your weight problem. We often crave easy solutions to complex problems.

The truth is that many factors are at play: the abdication of parental responsibility, societal attitudes, school culture, etc. Focusing on the media as the primary problem and suggesting shielding children from all violent content without distinction is problematic for two reasons: 1) It removes the focus from the other significant causes and thus creates a situation where removal of violent content becomes the "solution" that may not solve anything. 2) It distorts the actual role of violent stories in a culture.

When evaluating violence in the media, we must approach it with the complexity that the issue requires, paying attention to the very real difference between fantasy violence and realistic violence, to the form of presentation, to the context in which the violence occurs, to the purpose that the violence serves in that story.

The fact is that violent stories permeate the Bible from beginning to end. We like to tell the flood story to our children because it involves cute animals, but have you actually read it lately? It is a horrific story of death and destruction -- the infliction of violence on a massive scale. Or, why do we tell the story of David and Goliath to our children? A young boy murders another man in the name of God. From Old Testament narratives, through the poetry of the prophets, the parables of Jesus, and the visions of Revelation, violence is never long absent from the pages of Scripture.

One way of relativizing this is to say that these stories are there only as negative examples of how violence is bad. No doubt some are, but in most cases the violence is an inherent part of the message: remove the violence and you distort the message. The violence in the parables of Jesus or in the visions of Revelation serve to communicate a spiritual and moral message.

Do we ignore the role of violence in the Bible or do we acknowledge that violent stories can be valuable catalysts for moral growth?

I did not really know how to address the complexity of the role that violent stories play for children until I read a controversial book by Gerard Jones titled Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Hero, and Make-Believe Violence (If interested, you can find the book at Amazon by clicking the link to the right). Jones has worked both in the media and with children. He argues that fantasy violence is essential for the proper emotional development of children. He tells stories of children who grow up in families where all access to violent stories are removed, and yet the child still cuts their toast into the shape of a gun and plays with it. He consults child psychologists who argue that playing Cowboys and Indians or pretending to be Darth Vader are healthy ways for children to cope with this world and to learn how to live peacefully in it.

And what about all the studies showing media violence makes people violent? Jones examines these studies and demonstrates persuasively that they do not show quite what they claim to show and sometimes actually demonstrate the opposite.

Jones is careful to distinguish between fantasy violence (the focus of his book) and realistic portrayals of violence that are not appropriate or helpful to children. Many would counter that children are not capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. For a handful of kids, that is true. But Jones argues, and numerous psychologists back him up, that our children are very capable of making that distinction and often do a better job of it than adults.

Whether you buy his argument or not, we regularly hear so much about how bad fantasy violence is for children that it is important once in a while to look at the topic from another perspective. Jones' book provides that. His book is full of case studies of parents who forbid their children from playing with toy guns or watching superhero cartoons, only to discover that they were depriving them of the very things they needed to learn how to deal effectively with a violent world.

If Jones is right (and you can be the judge of that), maybe there is a reason after all, why we should tell our children the stories of David and Goliath and the flood.


At 9:36 PM, Anonymous j rock said...

I have been in a real fight and it did not go as smoothly as Hollywood suggests. I do own a collection of guns and I don't even like killing animals - even for food - I just like to target shoot. I like to say that I would shoot the intruder who meant my family harm but I think I am a passivist at heart or a coward - I cannot seem to tell the two traits apart.

I have a friend who is a comic book collector and his wife is fond of pointing out that he learned morality from reading comic books. I've never really understood it but I guess there are worse people to learn morality from.

The violence that is portrayed in the media, the comic books, and even the Scriptures all have a way of helping the one who is reading or viewing the stories to make a decision. Do I want to be like Lex Luther or Superman? Do I want to be like David or Galiath? Do I want to be an abusive husband and father or do I want to be like Ward Cleaver? All of the portayals of violence force me to decide who I want to mimic in my life - without the violence I am afraid that I would not have decided until I made the same mistakes as those villans in the stories.

Good post and I will look into that book.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Suzie said...

Being the mother of two boys, I have faced many derogatory comments because my husband and our oldest like to wrestle and rough house. My son is all into figthing; however, he has not attacked anyone or started fights in school, and I doubt he will. As a teacher, I have always found that the violently aggressive kids are mainly suffering from some sort of parental neglect. It's anger that fuels the agressions. Great post.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Jim said...

You know, I've said for awhile now, that if we can have Bible studies based on Andy Griffith, then Batman would have a much greater wealth of information to draw from.

I mean, there's not even a Good vs. Evil theme in Andy Griffith.

At 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have long believed that if the Bible were put on film, and the script was faithful to the original text, the rating the film would get would be an NC-17!!

At 1:59 AM, Blogger Naomi said...

I think I wrote a paper on this for some crazy professor once...

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Nice hat! I checked out your profile page and I have to admit that I was not surprised by your listing "cleanliness" as an interest, but I have to admit you are the first person I've known to ever claim "grammar" as one of their interests. It's unfortunate the grammar in that paper you wrote was so bad:)


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