Raising Kind Children in a Honey Boo Boo World
At the end of the school year my daughter’s class did a project where they made a page for everyone in their class saying what they admired about that person the most. The pages were then compiled for each child into a book for them to take home. Some of the kids had books filled with things like, “You are so good at math!” or “You read really big books.” or “You have a nice smile.” Every single kid in my daughter’s class wrote about how nice and kind she was. Some even saying that they had never seen her be mean to anyone.
I loved this project. When I compared notes with her friend’s mothers they were all astonished that their children’s books had likewise focused in on the one characteristic of their child. One mother laughed that the majority of the children in the class had called her daughter helpful. “I fear that is polite code for bossy! Which would be accurate.”
While I am proud of all the things my children do and accomplish, hearing that they are kind and compassionate human beings, makes me the most proud.
Increasingly I look around at the world and wonder when making fun of people became acceptable. My kids sometimes laugh at things that make me cringe. And on more occasions than I would care to remember I have had to remind one of my children that saying something mean followed by, “Just kidding!” doesn’t in fact make it a joke.
Most reality shows I don’t allow on my television. My 11 yr old son is constantly pestering me to allow him to watch Jersey Shore. It is apparently all the talk of the elementary school yard. It saddens me that children are watching what they believe is reality and what they believe are examples of how adults interact with each other. When did it become okay to humiliate people for our own enjoyment, whether they consent to the humiliation or not. How did so many people become desensitized to the feelings of other people?
Before I climb too high up on my horse, my children have watched Dance Moms, Toddlers and Tiaras, Hoarders, and American Idol. While they differ in their content, we don’t see the Dance Moms or the Toddler and Tiara parents getting drunk and fighting, the underlying message of the shows is the same. Look at these people! They are crazy, uneducated, overweight, etc. You are better than them, therefore, you can poke fun and laugh at them. Now doesn’t that make you feel better about yourself?
It turns out, reality TV is a lot like eating junk food– a little bit, while not good for you, won’t kill you, but a steady diet of it is not without consequences.
A man named George Gerbner began studying the effects of heavy television viewing* way back in the dark ages of TV, the 1960s. He went on to develop a theory, called cultivation theory. In a nutshell, he believed that watching a lot of television affects the way we perceive the world, the more TV watching, the greater the impact. In other words, television cultivates people’s perception of reality. He asserts that television is the primary story teller of our generation, replacing parents, schools and churches.
Gerbner’s primary interest as a psychologist was violence on television and the way it distorted the perception of viewers about how violent the world actually was. How many of us as parents feel that kidnapping is a real, looming threat to our children? Statistically speaking it isn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the stranger-danger paranoia. Gerbner developed something he called The Mean World Index. It consists of three statements:
- Most people are just looking out for themselves.
- You can’t be too careful in dealing with people.
- Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.
Those who watched the most television were also the ones who said these statements were the most accurate.
Those three statements just about sum up the message of every reality TV show out there.
And those three statements are not things I want my children to believe. I don’t think that they are true. The vast majority of people in the world are good and kind. I believe that to be true.
It took Honey Boo Boo to spark a conversation about reality TV in my home, and how it isn’t reality. How hours and hours of footage is edited into a single episode to promote the agenda that TV producers feel would get the most people watching the show. This came as a surprise to my youngest children who truly believed we were watching the show in real time. “What do the people do while the commercials are on, Mom?”
We were watching one of the very first episodes of the show Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo when my 15-year-old son piped up that he really disliked this show. As a kid, who was unmercifully bullied for a full year in middle school, he is very empathetic to anyone he perceives as being picked on. I agreed with every one of his points. To me, the family is being set up to be made fun of. We were supposed to laugh at their ignorance, lack of manners, poor diet, and obesity.
However, what we saw when we looked beyond the in-your-face-presentation and the shock value (do we need to see anyone burp or fart on camera, ever?), was a more subtle storyline, that of a family that really seems to love and enjoy the heck out of each other. Their house is remarkably clean and orderly, especially when you consider how many people are living in the small space. And presumably to drive the point home about how poor they are, the camera panned out for the twentieth time and showed the house right up against the train tracks with a train whizzing by literally in their yard, my 7 yr old son complained, “They are so lucky! Why can’t we live next to train tracks!”
My 15-year-old son said he didn’t want to watch the show anymore. It made him feel uncomfortable to have any part of it. “They seem like good people, Mom.”
I don’t want my kids to become desensitized. I don’t want them to think it is okay to make fun of other people or feel superior to other people. I don’t want them to think that humor comes at the expensive of another human being. I don’t want them to think watching another person’s pain is entertainment. Some days I feel discouraged because there is always another show, another group of people being exploited on television, another envelope being pushed. I can only help my children to develop their critical thinking skills so they will recognize it on their own and to point out all the kindness I see in the world.
*It is important to note that Gerbner defined heavy tv viewing as four hours or more per day. The average American child watches 28-32 hours per week.
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