Ispent Thanksgiving dinner dodging the blows of a ten-year-old. His mother, Gertrude, is a family friend who always attends our annual holiday get-togethers. Unfortunately, she also always brings her disobedient and annoying son, Junior. Junior likes to hit me over the head with the unabridged Webster's Dictionary that he carries everywhere he goes.
"Oh, he picks up these little habits from watching all those modern cartoons. You know, they are so violent these days," Gertrude explains in a self-assured voice.
Gertrude says that every holiday. Then she says that she has "absolutely got to get him to do more educational things with his time." But the fact remains that she repeatedly blames television for everything her son does that is worthy of scolding.
She is hardly uncommon. Many parents look for any possible scapegoat for their children's behavior--ignoring their own culpability. And in the search to lay blame, television is an easy target.
Television has a difficult job. It is the largest form of entertainment in this country. It makes people laugh. It makes people cry. Television, particularly public television, can also teach us. But people expect too much from people.
A television set should not be a baby-sitter, nor should it be a parent. It shouldn't replace the institution of a family. Nowadays, though, working parents tend to give television responsibilities it shouldn't have. More and more, they rely on television to take their places at home.
Leaving a child alone with a television set is not a good move. It leaves the impressionable mind of a child with the responsibility of analyzing what it sees. Just ask Darcy Burk.
Burk is the mother of Austin Messner, the five-year-old who set his sister on fire after he watched an episode of "Beavis and Butthead." In the episode Messner watched, the two MTV deadbeats depicted fire as cool. The show can be blamed at some level, but the problem really is that Burk should have exerted some control over what her son watched on television. "Beavis and Butthead" is hardly a show for five-year-olds; the show's main audience is teenagers.
Burk needed to sit with her son and explain that what Beavis and Butthead were doing was not right. She needed to explain to him the difference between television and reality. Burk didn't do this and the consequence was tragic.
But even cartoons that are aimed at children require a little parental monitoring. Most popular cartoons aren't like the Smurfs. They are more violent and action packed. Incidences of violence that result from children mimicking cartoons, are not the fault of the television and the characters that appear on the screen, but rather of deeper moral and ethical issues involving family values and family education.
Most children who watch violent cartoons are probably able to distinguish that what is being done is sometimes wrong. They are able to say that they wouldn't kill people just because their favorite cartoon character killed someone. Sometimes this isn't even a matter of conscious thought. Most children regard cartoons as a form of entertainment. They laugh. They don't take copious notes and contemplate how to recreate what they saw on television that afternoon.
These children have a strong framework of morals and a clear perception of what is right and what is wrong. And while children who commit "carbon copy" crimes aren't necessarily immoral, they aren't easily able to see the distinction between television and reality.
Maybe television and cartoon writers and producers are expecting too much from the public. Maybe they assume too much when they show "violent" scenes in expecting that children have already been taught that they shouldn't emulate the violence they see on the screen. Perhaps they place too much responsibility on parents by expecting them to instill proper morals and values into their children.
But the people behind these cartoons aren't expecting anything unreasonable. Parents can educate their children about the shows they watch. John Murray, a professor at Kansas State University, said in a New York Times article last year that "sitting down with your kids [to watch television] is a good idea...it should be a combination of actively watching television with kids and censorship."
Leaving a television with the sole responsibility of educating a child is ridiculous. If parents watch television with their children, they can point out what is a bad action and what is a good action. Eventually children will begin to learn how to make this distinction on their own.
Parents should lay the foundation upon which children can base judgments of right and wrong. Then television wouldn't be such a convenient scapegoat. Television will have less of the influence that parents like to say it does. And it can return to being a medium of entertainment as well as a form of education.