You Are What You Read (and Watch)

The Dukes of Hazzard
The only show I wasn't allowed to watch as a child. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was on the phone with my mom a couple of weeks ago. The kids were downstairs watching Wild Kratts, a PBS cartoon show we have on DVD because we can’t even get in PBS stations with our antenna out here in the sticks. (Okay, we’re not out in the sticks, but that’s exactly what makes it so frustrating. But I digress.)

Suddenly, I heard a cry from downstairs, and hear my daughter crying and stumbling up the steps.

“Mommy! Oh, Mommy! This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! This is the worst thing in my life!” she clung to me, crying and sobbing, as I tried to see if there was any blood on her.

As it turns out, both children were fine, there was no blood and no broken bones. The worst thing that had ever happened to my daughter was that a cartoon whale had been separated from her cartoon calf.

My daughter can watch documentaries. We can read sad books together, like Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, Bambi:  A Life in the Woods, and she cries, but she’s not hysterical. There’s something about the way some movies are put together that’s just too much for her. We took her to a 3D film about bugs at the planetarium one time. Within about ten minutes, we had to take her 3D glasses away from her because she was crouched in her seat yelling, “Oh, no! What’s that? Does that eat people? It’s getting close! Does it EAT PEOPLE?!”

My mother, whose opinion I got right away since she was on the phone with me during the Wild Kratts episode, thinks my daughter is too sensitive and that I should work to try and desensitize her. But then, this is the woman who let me watch The Amityville Horror on TV when I was four. The only thing my parents ever censored was The Dukes of Hazzard TV show. Everyone assumes it’s because of Daisy’s short-shorts, but no. It was because the show was “stupid.” While I can’t argue with that assessment, I do find my parents’ criteria for appropriate television viewing to be a little off.

Besides, I disagree with my mom’s conclusion that my daughter’s too sensitive. I think she is what she is. I like that she feels things so strongly, and I don’t want to dampen that. I’d like to help her learn to cope with it a little better, but I don’t think a horror film immersion is the best way to accomplish this.

What I wonder, when I watch my daughter’s intense reactions, is what’s happening in my own body and mind when I watch dramatic or suspenseful films. I don’t (usually) freak out outwardly, but that doesn’t mean I’m not having intense emotional and physical reactions that I’ve just learned to ignore.

There’s an idea that the books we read and the movies we watch become a part of who we are in the same way that the food we eat becomes the very substance of our bodies. I have friends who avoid violent images in books and films for this very reason. I used to think it was kind of goody-two-shoes to avoid R-rated films, but now I’m not so sure.

I’ve always loved horror films, but when I became pregnant with my daughter, I found I couldn’t handle them anymore. Even films outside the horror genre that were especially violent were too much for me. Things dealing with children are especially tough on me. I broke down in choking sobs and had to stop the DVD at the scene in City of God where a drug dealer is trying to force one child to shoot another. So, I avoid movies about the slums of Rio de Janeiro and about child prostitutes in India.

In a way I feel wrong for avoiding these films. As a middle class white woman in a suburban neighborhood, I feel like it’s my responsibility to experience these bad things at least through movies and books so that I can have some kind of understanding of the world. I mean, City of God was a brilliant film and there was so much more to it than just those violent images. I had no idea what the drug war in Brazil looked like, never even gave a thought to it before I saw the film. If I avoided it for the violence, I’d be avoiding everything else, too.

On the other hand, a film or a book is a creative work, and even nonfiction is just one person’s perspective on a given situation. Am I really gaining a valuable insight about myself or the world when I traumatize myself with disturbing images? How am I being changed when I take in those images? And is it worth it?

5 Replies to “You Are What You Read (and Watch)”

  1. Being sensitive is the way she is wired, and she shouldn’t be ashamed of that and neither should you. It is a blessing, and it will have a lot to do with the path she walks in life. No, she doesn’t need to see vicious violence or brutal horror movies, or stupid tv shows, but natural death and suffering that occurs every day on our planet is part of the human condition…just like love and birth. Protecting her from the inevitable truths of her existance will hobble her ability to function among peers. If you protect her from these…and I am not saying that you do, you would have done her a disservice in an effort to “protect” her from her fears. If your daughter is not somewhat fearless without you, what have you done for her? Your ultimate responsibility is to prepare her to live and thrive without you right? When does a parent begins to do this? At 16 when she is expected to be driving? At 12 when she leaves to go on a field trip to D.C. with her middle school class? At 8 when she goes to girl scout camp? Or at 6 when she has her first sleepover with her friends? Most mothers, sadly, overprotect their kids in an effort to give them a greater role in their kids lives than parenting should permit. It says more about that particular moms need to be validated than the child’s actual need for parental protection. It doesn’t sound like you are that kind of mom.


    1. Thank you for your comment.

      There definitely is a balance between preparing our children for the challenges of adulthood and providing them with age-appropriate protection from real dangers. But I agree, violence-as-entertainment isn’t the same as reality. I worry that too much exposure to that sort of thing—regardless of our age—just triggers a fearful response to the world and a lack of trust in fellow people. I suppose our role as parents is to identify opportunities to help our children learn strength and confidence while they have us as backup so that they feel strong and confident enough to manage challenges on their own when the time comes. When and where these challenges will arise, we can’t often predict, but if our kids are ready, they’ll be ready to meet those challenges.


  2. My cousin was obsessed with the Dukes, so we had to watch that all the time, from about age three. That and Batman, the old TV show with Adam West. And Chips. I can’t forget about Chips…. No idea why my cousin dictated our TV habits so much… They lived upstairs from us for 5 years, so we were pretty close.

    I’ve been contemplating media and television and movies, and why they affect kids in different ways. My son has a VERY active imagination (he kind of spends a lot of time in his own little world), and I think that may be part of why he just can’t handle a lot of active, dramatic images like on movies. It’s hard to explain. He knows they aren’t real. But they seem real. The emotions they make him feel are real, and I think that scares him. He’s also going through the “nine year change” that Rudolph Steiner talked about, and I think that some kids just have some fear when they realize that they are individuals, and that the world is HUGE. I’m not sure if there is a connection between that and the TV thing, but I’m going to look into it.

    I personally think you should feel blessed that your daughter is so sensitive. Kids lose that innocence so early, it means that your girl is very empathetic and can relate to others and their trials and tribulations. She will grow out of it eventually (or learn to deal with it in constructive ways), and I think if she is nurtured through it, she’s going to be just fine. I know that sometimes when my son sees something he feels badly about, we talk about how we might help the situation in some way, maybe not in that particular case, but in the larger picture. That helps and it helps to kind of empower him.


  3. I made the mistake of watching Grave of the Fireflies when I was pregnant with Stefan. I didn’t turn it off, but I probably should have. It’s an animated movie about two orphaned children in Japan during WWII. It’s beautifully done but is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

    I also find that I can’t even watch ads for horror movies anymore. It seems more terrifying that it used to be but maybe it’s me.


    1. I definitely find horror movies more scary now. I wonder if it’s just that, as a mom, I feel like I have more to lose than I did before kids? Or perhaps it’s just that I’m so aware of the horrors that could befall my children in the real world, I’m already primed to be terrified, so it takes less. The new horror films are also a lot more gorey than they used to be, which is something I don’t like so much. Whatever it is, I’ve lost my interest.


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