Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kids and Fantasy Violence

Yesterday afternoon I watched an episode of Mythbusters with my daughters. The episode tested the truth of the saying 'to slap some sense' into a person. They established their baseline by putting Grant through an obstacle course testing both cognitive abilities and reflexes and, later on, by putting Tory and Kari through a shooting range used for police training. After getting their baseline, they then impaired their performance by spending thirty minutes in a freezing room (Grant) or by combining sleep deprivation, fasting, and a thirty minute chill (Tory and Kari) and then repeating the test. Finally, they repeated the impaired test except that they slapped the person once across the face with a bungee-powered slapping machine beforehand. In all three cases the slap significantly compensated for the impairment, although they still fell short of their baseline. Apparently the slap initiated the fight-or-flight instinct that caused the improvement.

We got to see this over and over again in slow-motion

Later that evening, my older daughter and I watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In that particular episode, Anakin Skywalker's apprentice, Ahsoka, found herself and three other Jedi trainees being hunted by trandoshans (an intelligent reptilian species). The episode contained the typical amount of violence seen in the series: several characters were shot, the Jedi slammed trandoshans into boulders and bulkheads with the Force, characters kicked and punched each other, and two characters fell to their deaths (with one of them actually becoming impaled on a stalagmite).

Wookies and trandoshans have never gotten along

Later on I asked my daughter if she liked watching Mythbusters and if she thought it was funny when the mythbusters were being slapped by the machine. She thought about it for a moment and then said that the episode was okay but that she didn't like that Tory, Kari, and Grant were being hurt and that she had felt bad for them. When I asked if she liked the episode of The Clone Wars she got very excited and talked endlessly about how much she enjoyed it when the Jedi and the wookies were beating up the trandoshans. In fact, I believe that nearly all the trandoshans were dead by the end of the episode.

My daughter's reaction to the two different shows reminds me of a very interesting book I read several years ago called Killing Monsters. The book's subtitle declares that "children need fantasy, super heroes, and make-believe violence". The author, Gerard Jones, argues that children can generally distinguish between real violence and fantasy violence and that fantasy violence helps them to cope with the frightening things around them while also serving as an outlet for aggressive emotions. Jones goes even farther and suggests that children who are not allowed to relieve these emotions through make-believe violence may later seek out more realistic forms of it; e.g., extremely violent films and music, animal cruelty, or even by the infliction of it on their peers or family.

Several times I've seen parents or teachers get whipped into a panic because some preschool-aged boy pointed his finger at another child and said "bang, I shot you". Several cases of a "zero-tolerance policy" run amok have made nationwide news, with kids getting suspended from school for normal childhood behavior such as having a "simulated weapon" (this can include "finger guns" and inch long G.I. Joe action figure guns). It's as if these adults have completely forgotten that generations of children have pretended to shoot, stab, or bludgeon each other (some of the earliest identifiable toys were wooden swords used by Roman children) without becoming murderous psychopaths. One of Jones' strongest arguments is that the common presence of realistic toy guns among the baby-boomer generation didn't result in an epidemic of actual violence. And I think I can guarantee that the very adults responsible for many of these ridiculous zero-tolerance policies laughed years before when, as children watching Saturday morning cartoons, they saw Elmer Fudd blast Daffy Duck's beak off with a shotgun.

Although the mythbusters took the slaps in good humor, they obviously didn't enjoy them and my daughter didn't like watching real people get hurt. At the same time, she enjoyed the fantasy violence of Star Wars and later pretended that Son of Atomic Spud and I were Sith Lords and that she was slashing us up with a lightsaber. I wish that more adults were as mature about make-believe violence and as capable of distinguishing it from real violence as most children are.

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting...I think you're very intuitive on that one!!!



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