Many Unitarian Universalist parents are concerned about the perceived scariness of many fairy tales and wisdom stories as well as about the violence and suffering present in many TV or video programs aimed for children. How could we not be? While we are a justice-seeking people, we also value peaceful living, compassion, and generosity, values that often seem in conflict with programming and popular stories for children.
It turns out, however, that children actually crave scary stories. This is why the recent fervor over all things Harry Potter continues and why the tales of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events may seem so gruesome to adults yet hold so much fascination for children. This is also why some timeless tales of conflict like The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast endure to be told generation after generation.
Children don’t want to hear, watch, or read stories that claim evil does not exist because they are acutely aware—even from very young ages—that it does. Instead, they want stories that tell them that “evil” is ultimately weaker than “good” or can somehow be overcome by people acting for good. Understanding that goodness can prevail offers a sense of reassurance and can ultimately guide a child’s actions when he or she is faced with their own inner conflict over doing what is right as opposed to what may be beneficial.
Once they are past the preschool years and are generally able to read for themselves, this fascination with good vs. evil continues and even expands as they become more adept at separating reality from fantasy. Why? Perhaps because they are able to recognize (either consciously or unconsciously) that we are all engaged in our own battles against good and evil, even if our dragons, wizards, and vampires are only metaphorical.
As for violence in movies, TV programs, and children’s stories, there are some psychologists who believe that in moderation, it can actually be cathartic. Children have a strong need to act out or role-play situations, particularly if there are strong emotions involved. So while it may not be quite time to break out the Terminator or Transformers movies on DVD, some mild violence can have a positive impact on children, allowing them to experience the normal emotions that we are usually taught to deny—like fear, greed, power hunger, and rage.
Parents who were determined to ban play guns from the home (myself included) often find that their children are so determined to engage in weapons play that they will fashion guns out of LEGO blocks, wrapping paper tubes, sticks, and, in the case of my son, even pipe cleaners distributed as part of an intergenerational worship service.
Therefore, an important key to determine whether something is acceptable or not might not necessarily be the presence of violence, but instead how the situation is resolved. For instance, the popular computer game Grand Theft Auto may glorify violence and send the message that it is okay to abuse women and murder others mercilessly, but other games, such as Resident Evil, actually promote fighting off evil forces to save other human beings from danger.
Likewise, books or videos about pirates and soldiers don’t have to be summarily discarded because of who is featured in the book. Instead, seeing how the conflict is resolved and recognizing the messages that are communicated (along with how those messages fit with your own family’s values) can be the guide for what is permissible and what is not. This middle ground also allows children who need to express some of their aggression or role play their own personal battles of good vs. evil to do so, yet satisfies our needs as parents for them to learn positive interactions with others.