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When I was young, my parents decided the best way to raise a family of girls was to protect them from the evil of the world. We were sheltered from all that we might find offensive. My father cussed when he was sorely motivated, but no one else had that privilege. The word “sex” was never spoken nor alluded to nor discussed. Girls had periods and had to be careful or they would get IN TROUBLE. (We knew this kind of trouble had to do with pregnancy, but we had no clue how.) My parents never argued in front of us. We were spanked as the occasion arose, which was unusual. (My mother told me later she was left to do the deed, because my father was too kind-hearted.)
For years I bragged about the rare environment in which I was raised. I excelled at school partially because I was expert at reading what was wanted of me and partially because I entertained myself with books. I was a superb people-pleaser–my parents being the people I wanted most to please. I felt like an African violet, nurtured and spoiled. The odd part was that I grew up with a peculiar self-image. I felt superior to most of my peers. I tried not to show it, of course. I had a notion that would be rude. But I secretly believed it. I also believed I was inferior to my more confident friends. I was afraid of the world, afraid there was no place in it for an odd specimen like me. I was certain untold evils were out there, waiting to pounce on me. I wouldn’t even answer the phone unless I knew who it was. The end point of being both superior and inferior was that I didn’t believe I fit in anywhere.
How does somebody come to be afraid of the world at large? Like many parents then and now, mine used the television as a primary means of entertainment. We watched every Disney movie. Shirley Temple was our role model. In 1979 the film BEING THERE with Peter Sellers was released. He played a character who knew the world only through television, the point being that what other people perceived as being profundity was actually naiveté. Many young people are not as far from Sellers’ character as we might hope. They speak Legos and Transformers and the Bachelor and all manner of super heroes, but they know next to nothing about real life. Young people worldwide can identify the tune or sing the McDonald’s jingle, but they can’t sing the national anthem. One study concluded that the jingle was the most recognizable bit of information on earth, more widely known than the Lord’s Prayer.
Any honest examination of “children’s” characters in the media must conclude that many are superficial. Most conflicts are solved with violence, and so-called nice characters are often the butt of jokes. One young man I spoke with sneered, “You don’t get it. I’m too good.” He had compared himself to the guys in TV sitcoms and found himself wanting. Why would he want to be good when good was so cheesy? On the other side, animated features are finally moving away from the view that a female character must have a male character to save her from whatever. The female lead still tends to end up romantically involved with a male character for the ending to be considered happy, however.
Some parents think that as long as their children are ignorant, they’ll be innocent. I overheard one high school senior bragging to his friends about his prowess with sex. His girlfriend wasn’t particularly attractive, so she was willing to do anything to have and keep a boyfriend. His friends asked him if he used protection, and he laughed. “I don’t have to,” he said with gleeful confidence. “We’re different blood types.” He soon quit school to support his new family. (I swear I didn’t make that story up.) Our young people may be sophisticated in their actions, but you’d be shocked to learn how ignorant they are in their comprehension. Add to that the fact that some young men don’t reach emotional maturity (the final development of the prefrontal cortex) until they’re twenty-five (girls commonly slightly sooner) and you have a good picture of how bad choices are made–choices that don’t consider the future at all. We can’t be shocked at the number of very young single parents or young people hooked on dangerous drugs. Regardless of age, we all copy what we perceive to be the appropriate way to behave in our society to attract respect and admiration.
We can’t hurry the maturation of the prefrontal cortex (the brain behind the forehead) yet. What we can do is work harder to fill the personal and public education of our young people with critical thinking skills–ways to make sound decisions. We need to involve them in the real world of politics, economics, ecology, technology, etc. They need real information and the means to tell what’s real and what is someone’s arbitrary opinion. We need to give them the leeway to make smaller decisions so that they have tools to make the big decisions later. We need to provide variety of experience–with guidance, so the young person has a framework through which to understand what’s going on around him and the self-confidence to know his own value judgment is important. For example, what’s the difference between love, lust, and being in love with love? We need to stop letting the media raise our children, because entertainment is designed to make money, not good citizens.