Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Shrek Factor

“Mr. Mazenko, has your son seen …” That question, followed by the title of the latest offering from Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, has opened up endless discussion in my classes about choices parents make in raising their children.

My students, as well as colleagues and other parents, are often shocked to know that my four-year-old son has never seen any of the movies they mention. It gets worse when people learn my son has never seen any movies. Inevitably, my answer comes, creating groans as countless hands shoot in the air to offer a comment. “No,” I say, “my son hasn’t seen Shrek. He’s only four years old.”

Though it may seem snide, I tend to qualify my answer by giving my son’s age, implying to my audience that it’s obvious why he hasn’t seen it. He’s too young. However, knowing my belief is not the norm, I’m certain this will extend the conversation, rather than bring it to a conclusion. I’m under no illusion that my audience will hear my son’s age and think, “Oh, of course he hasn’t seen it. Shrek isn’t appropriate for young children.” Instead, I know they believe that the movie is entirely acceptable for him.

They often know, or at least anticipate my objections, but they have an answer. The movie, they believe, offers the best of both worlds. It’s a movie that has qualities both young children and adults will enjoy. “But he won’t even get the adult humor,” they tell me. “It goes right over kids’ heads.” Here is where we part ways in the discussion. They believe this blend of adult material into children’s films doesn’t matter. I fundamentally disagree.

I think the essence of the argument comes down to a common belief that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. If my son doesn’t understand the sexual innuendoes uttered by the donkey in Shrek or the genie in Alladin, then it shouldn’t matter that he hears them. As a parent, however, I don’t want to make decisions that way. For me, it’s not about whether or not it will hurt my children. It’s about whether it will help them. Parenting decisions should be made on what is best for the child. Will he suffer psychological scarring if he sees the movie? Maybe not. Probably not. But neither will he suffer if he doesn’t see it. His life will not be lessened for lack of a movie. “But it’s so funny,” they say. “You’re depriving your son of one the great joys in life. Movies like Shrek and Aladdin and The Lion King are part of childhood.” That perspective saddens me.

Childhood is not about any one movie or story or toy or food or activity. Childhood is not about commodities at all. I truly believe my son will benefit more and will deprive more pleasure from digging for worms and chasing butterflies and riding his bike. I will see more joy on his face when he is tickling and being tickled by his younger sister than I will when he is staring at a movie or TV screen and giggling every once in a while.

In books such as The Disappearance of Childhood and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, social critic Neil Postman explains that childhood is really an invention of the contemporary world. Prior to that time, children were predominantly dressed the same, viewed the same, and treated the same as adults. It wasn’t until people like Rousseau in his seminal work Emille that society began to look at the different cognitive and emotional development of children. Children should have different thoughts than adults. They should use different language, they should wear different clothes, and, in terms of Shrek, they should have different forms of entertainment.

According to Postman, the fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood is access to information. Adults quite simply know things that children don’t. There are adult words and adult conversations. There are adult situations and adult activities. If you think about it, in all coming-of-age literature, the loss of innocence comes when the children become aware of the adult world. The original loss of innocence came when man ate from the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve discovered shame. They were no longer innocent because they had gained more information.

If information is different for adults and children, then it’s not a stretch for entertainment to be different as well. I can watch a half-hour of Clifford with my son and not be bored simply because there is no adult humor. Media corporations, however, have figured out that they can double their revenues by creating animated films that will draw audiences both young and old. Thus, based on the idea of access to information, if we develop entertainment, such as Shrek, which is marketed to kids and adults, we have effectively eliminated childhood.

Interestingly, contemporary television, notably sitcoms, adds to this societal dilemma by blurring the lines between children’s and adult’s roles. Watching shows such as According to Jim and Two and a Half Men, I am struck by the fact that the adult and child characters are predominantly the same. They use the same language. There is no discernable difference between the words and patterns they use, nor the topics they discuss. Contemporary fashion is important, too, as both the adults and children wear the same styles of clothing. At times, the kids are portrayed as more mature than their parents. Obviously, it is the irony and sarcasm of these situations that makes them humorous. I will concede that that is precisely the writers’ point. But a line is blurred if this becomes entertainment for all ages. When a five-year-old tells me that American Idol is her favorite show, I cringe, knowing the harshness of Simon’s language is inappropriate for her once-innocent ears.

People say you can’t shelter your children from the harsh realities of the world forever, and I most certainly agree. As an educator who teaches countless examples of coming-of-age literature, I couldn’t agree more. Teaching high school, it is my job to be with children as they grow into adults. I can’t protect my son forever, but I can certainly shelter him at the age of four. That is a far cry from shielding him from the teachings of Darwin when he is in high school. Though many critics of my choices make that comparison.

“No,” I tell them. “My son hasn’t seen Shrek.” This always shocks and disappoints them. Imagine what they’ll think when they learn he doesn’t eat candy.



1 comment:

Mrs. C said...

Whoops... I was with you until you started talking of shielding your son from the teachings of Darwin in high school. I don't object to the idea of evolution being taught briefly, but I can tell you it's also a religious viewpoint. As a child, I was taught in public school that the Aborigines were a real Stone-Age people and were less evolved than ourselves. So evolution teaching gets me pretty nervous, but it isn't because I think my children will catch heathenism like a cold. It's more the idea that when you leave God out of the equation, some people are more evolved or worth more to society than others. That's not the totality of the idea of eugenics, but I think we can agree that eugenics at its base incorporates that idea and that it is not good for a society. (Then again, neither is the idea that teaching evolution ought to be illegal and squelching other ideas. I just don't like it done with my tax money.)

Years ago, G told all the kids in his kindergarten class that Santa is not real. When the other children said Santa is real because their parents said so, he calmly informed them that all their parents were liars. The teacher wanted *me* to tell the kid to stop, but um, I informed her that it sounded like the other kids' parents were lying to them and that is the real source of the problem!! You know? And the kid is autistic, so getting little social cues is just probably not going to happen. Try directing the conversation elsewhere and hopefully that will help... Good luck...

But I don't understand how these little kids can dress like streetwalkers and recite "lyrics" but then think Santa's real. What are these parents smoking?? And bless you, you probably see lots of kids raised by such schitzophrenic parenting.