Friday, January 27, 2012

Kids and Imagination: Reading vs. Television

Go ahead and say it.
I'm demonizing television.
There are nefarious trades to be made, trying to combine writing and motherhood. This is a story of the dark side. The sinister underbelly of the writing life. One mother’s desperate, shame-filled dependence on help from a poorly screened, under-qualified emergency babysitter.

You may know this shady childcare provider by the name of “television.”

It happened the summer before last, when Kid #1 was six. Kid #2 had fallen asleep after a morning-long tantrum. I was desperate to finish a writing assignment for a class. So when Kid #1 asked to watch TV, I caved. We’d had a rough morning, leaving him in that hard-to-please mood where everything was bound to be a battle. I could have suggested he read a book or play Legos. But I was desperate for some uninterrupted writing time, and I chose the low road: Netflix.

The streaming selection seemed abysmal until I stumbled upon  James and the Giant Peach. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! It’s animated! It’s about a peach! And a boy named James! Game on.

So I haven't read the book
or seen the movie.
Come on. It's a peach.
How is that not a safe bet?
Kid #1 slumped on the couch. I hunched over my laptop on the armchair. The movie played. I edited like mad. He was mesmerized, if the fact that he forgot to whine for snacks was any indication. I hyperfocused, he vegetated, and we found a homeostasis that seemed to work.

John doesn’t like me showing the kids anything he hasn’t pre-screened, and with good reason: I tune out boring stuff better than anyone I know. For me, kids’ television usually counts as boring stuff. (When I was pregnant with Kid #2, John suggested he play the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song in labor, as it takes only a hint of Thomas to render me comatose. In the end we went with the more natural soundtrack of screaming. So much for epidurals.)

James and the Giant Peach was like soft classical Muzak in the background, actually enhancing my concentration.

When Kid #1 shifted position for the first time in eighty minutes, I realized the credits were rolling. Then I took in the sight of tears streaming down his innocent but angry little cheeks.

“How could you make me watch that?” he demanded, trembling. “It was really scary!”

His body started shaking with huge sobs, which he punctuated with proclamations that he would have nightmares forever. I held him on my lap and planned my acceptance speech for the Worst Mother in History award.

I should have known. Director Henry Selick seems to have his finger on the pulse of my child's deepest fears. Earlier that year, a poster for Coraline had sparked months of Kid #1 talking about how much he didn’t want to watch that movie. He would choose random times to remind us that he wasn't ever watching Coraline—in the car, at dinner, ten minutes after I’d put him to bed. This was a good clue that I should stay away from things Selick directed, but I wasn’t thinking clearly that day.

Obviously, he should have watched Jimmy Neutron.

Or, okay, read a book. Or gone outside or something. Whatever. Let’s not dwell on what should have been.

The book that made
reading an addiction.
At the time of the Peach Debacle, Kid #1 was a newly independent reader. He’d dabbled in Magic Tree House books before getting hooked on The Secrets of Droon, by Tony Abbott. It's about the same reading level, but less formulaic and with a richer and more exciting fantasy world. He tore through them until the 13th one, then stopped partway through. Something about that book scared him. He didn’t get upset or have any nightmares. He just moved on to Dragonbreath.

I kept meaning to read the book myself to find out what scared him, but I never did. If I’m not attentive enough to watch a show while I’m in the room with my son or to notice him trembling with fear for an hour and a half, I’m probably not getting around to reading everything he reads.

Cut to a few months ago. At some point he’d gone back to Droon and finished the series, no longer scared. He’d also finished the whole Harry Potter series, and Dragonbreath, and Diary of Wimpy Kid, and Big Nate, and at least a hundred others I haven’t kept track of. He reads his favorites over and over and over again. When he found an old copy Charlie and the Chocloate Factory on our bookshelf, he fell in love with that, too.

The back of the book had pictures of other Dahl covers, one of which was James and the Giant Peach.

When Kid #1 saw this, he was not pleased with the reminder of his unspeakable trauma, or with the idea that Dahl could somehow be responsible for it. He told me again, just so I’d be sure not to forget, that James and the Giant Peach was VERY SCARY.

“You know, Buddy, I bet the book isn’t scary,” I said. “Wasn’t it really how the people looked that upset you? If you read the book you can imagine them however you want. You’d probably enjoy it.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe,” he said. “But it’s too late now.”

He’s a fatalistic eight-year-old.

This movie got great reviews,
and I doubt it's scary to most kids.
My kid ain't most kids
This can''t even scare a McCanless.

Every parent has heard ad nauseam that reading is good and screen time is bad. I’m in no position to lecture here. But this experience gave me a new appreciation of what books can offer, beyond the whole brain cells and IQ thing. (Because let's face it, that’s been done to death.)

Kids are great little regulators. From the time they’re born, that’s one of the main things their nervous systems have to do in addition to crying and eventually taking apart electronics. They learn to regulate their emotions, regulate their expression of those emotions, regulate their responses to stimuli like sounds and sights and smells and touches. They are little regulating machines, and their imaginations are the foremen of the whole operation. They can decide how to picture something, how much to absorb, just how violent a violent scene is and just how mean a mean aunt is. A book without aid of imagination is about as engaging as a pile of paper, and as easy to put down.

Contrast that with movies and TV shows, where the always-moving pictures capture and keep their attention. My kids can’t even tear their eyes away from the televised State of the Union Address. I’m confident a transcript would not hold the same appeal unless we turned it into paper airplanes.

On screen, every detail is dramatized in a way that kids can’t shut out, and sometimes—even when you least expect it—it’s too much.

So here's my advice: If, in a moment of weakness, you decide to buy peace and quiet with television, think twice before sacrificing a great book in the process.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Kid #2 has had a bit too much Kung Fu Dino Posse...


  1. And here I always thought it was some anglicized version of Momotaro, the peach boy, a Japanese tale about a little boy found inside a floating peach by an old woman when doing her washing in the river. That's a nice story, which wouldn't scare anyone (although I was careful when biting into a peach for many years).

  2. Awesome post. I never thought about how books let us control the "fear" factor so to speak. Books are just awesome.

    I saw that James and the Giant Peach movie, and it was freaky. What were they thinking when they made it? I hope your boy gives the book a chance at some point. :)

  3. I had a similar experience. When I was 11 or so, my family rented the movie The Power of One (very loosely based off of the book by . I don't remember anything about the movie except for one scene where a female character is killed by accident and kind of out of nowhere. The image of that moment still makes me shudder.

    As a result, I absolutely refused to read the book. No matter how many times my sister tried to convince me that it was her favorite book ever, and extremely dissimilar to the movie, I steadfastly refused... for about fifteen years. Finally, I read the book - and loved it. The female character who had died was not even in the book. (It's by Bryce Courtney, and is about a boy growing up in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s. It's about tolerance and acceptance, about wisdom and boxing and botany.)

    Anyway, Roald Dahl is a fantastic author... but the James and the Giant Peach movie was terrible and nothing like the book. So give your kid, let's say, fifteen years? Maybe he'll read it then.

  4. We've all done it. My current problem is with computer games. My 7 year old son doesn't like watching TV, but he loves physics games on the computer. Imagine my horror when I realized he'd been playing a teenage role playing game for several days and I hadn't even noticed--in spite of being in the same room most of the time. Luckily it turned out to be a pretty tame game, but that was the sheer luck of the draw, not any spectacular parenting skills on my part.

  5. It gets even harder to control when you get an older age spread. My youngest sees stuff the older ones never, ever would have at that age just because of what the older ones are doing. Well, and because their mom isn't paying attention.


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