Monday, May 4, 2009

Media Is Not Creative

I have always had a tenuous relationship with electronic media. I enjoy it quite a bit, sometimes gluttonously so, but was definitely wary of how my children related to it. Aleks loved television quite a bit from a young age, which was not what I wanted, but I was hardly motivated to do anything to distract him.

I liked to be in the house, often on the computer, engaging in online message boards and blogging: the best way, as a young mother, to find information that was in keeping with my core values, to think about parenting and political conundrums or issues of psychological, social, or spiritual significance, or to simply find a sense of community. It's sad really, but then travel with a baby or toddler (and for some time while exhausted from a second pregnancy) is exhausting and often difficult. Better to just stay home.

Not to mention the fact that when Aleks was but ten days old, we moved from near my family to 2000 miles away. When he was 2, we moved to within four hours of family, but the distance was of little difference. Women were not intended to be alone at home with their children without support. The nuclear family does not work and community takes time and considerable effort to build from scratch. It's no wonder that we, as a culture, rely so heavily on electronic media as a babysitter. Our culture has been created around it, and now depends on it to function as it does. If televisions disappeared, the economy would collapse.

After Bastian's birth, we did disappear our television. Luckily, by then, we had computers, so the effect was minimal. Instead of watching PBS all day, Aleks learned to operate the DVD drive and how to point and click. But at least it had some modicum of interaction involved. One had to find the media and use it with intention. There was no more simple passively receiving information and entertainment. Which is not to entirely demonize television. When we visit my parents, we love the TV, but we don't need it at home and it's hard for us to not rely on it heavier than I would like.

I go back and forth on the matter. My children use the computer to watch movies, play video games, and look things up (including, but not limited to leopard geckos, Tom and Jerry cartoons, Bakugan toys, Lego sets, the Thriller video, aye-ayes, hypnotism instructions, and timelines of prehistory). Most of Aleks' reading skills come from Googling things.

But then they get sucked into some cartoon for 48 hours straight, watching the same episodes on Cartoon Network's website over and over again, while I'm in some late-winter funk, paying bills and doing laundry, and I get a little sick of it all. I begin to feel like it's all they ever do and they'll never learn to read or do anything truly fantastic like all those homeschooling prodigies that build working robots and play Mozart before their 7th birthdays.

And the advertising! Oh the advertising! The McDonald's Happy Meal commercials and Aleks' desire for ridiculous toys he would never ever desire to own were it not for constant marketing. It's the machine working its way into my living room! And it sucks! All the character merchandise out there, its cheap plastic manufacture filling up all those coal-burning factories in China, creating new first-world economies to further the environmental degradation of a globalized world culminating in a worldwide post-industrial wasteland! It all runs counter to my values in so many ways...

Then I think of all of history, the re-use of characters and archetypes throughout time - through mythology and religion and campfire stories. I think of my brief addiction to Harry Potter fanfic a few years back, and I remember that the people creating these stories are not necessarily simply seeking to sell something, that there are creative people behind some of our favorite shows, who just want to draw for a living, to have a fun job where they can still support themselves. The artists behind these creatures aren't bad people. They're just trying to make a go of it like everyone else. And as an artist, I can appreciate that.

And then my son borrows from these artists and does things I wouldn't have thought of. Like building this robot after watching an episode of Curious George.

And creating these cutouts of Zak Saturday and Zak Monday after fixating for the last several days on The Secret Saturdays, a show on Cartoon Network. Not only that, but Aleks dictated two lengthy letters to Santa about wanting a real version of the Zaks' tools - the Fang and the Claw - for he and his brother, along with costumes. Today he spiked his hair like Zak and wanted me to dye it as well as paint his skin brown to look like Zak (which resulted in a lengthy kitchen discussion about racial politics in America from Plymouth Rock to the present).

Aleks also drew the associated high tech, magic, and mythical gadgets the Saturdays use in their travel as cryptozoologists, trying to protect the world from knowing about cryptids. He's carrying them all around in his Lego box: To decipher all this, I made a guide based on Aleks' explanations:
  1. Alonium Death Warmth Venom
  2. Fang Booster
  3. Smoke Mirror
  4. Snow Crystal
  5. Claw Booster
  6. Kamari Kandem Demon
  7. Alkali Horn
  8. Person Controller
  9. Cortex Destructor
  10. Power Glove
  11. Kur Stone
  12. Fang
  13. Claw
  14. Electrocute Collar
  15. Methuselah Tree Sap Flower
  16. Shocking Glove
  17. Kamari Kandem Medallion
  18. Map to Tomb's Kur
  19. Atmosphere Jellyfish Controller Video Game
  20. Salt Crystal
  21. Dragon Arm
  22. Dragon Arm

Then I wonder, what is the difference, really, between Aleks taking the ideas in these shows and making something of his own out of the things around him and his learning to draw dragons from a book about drawing dragons that we checked out from the library? Aren't both instances where someone else's art is being borrowed to create something new? And don't both instances result in my child exploring new methods of creativity?


katethgreat said...

I really appreciated reading your comments about media. I know as a grad student I often feel beyond guilty sitting Liv in front of the t.v for a couple hours so I can crank out a paper.
I at times feel a little vindicated when she asks to look up something on the computer, but I would rather be at the library reading or walking outside.. I know she is her happiest outside playing! Sometimes I feel like I just wish I could kill my t.v and focus my energy elsewhere..
Thanks for sharing and reaching out to the community!

Mel said...

This is such a loaded topic - especially among unschoolers (looks furtively over shoulder) - I find myself wavering back and forth as well. I would LOVE to toss our television out the window - truly, I would. I think I'd get along quite happily without it. BUT.....and all the reasons you mention resonate for our family as well....we still have them under our roof. And really, the watching comes in waves...

The advertising, however, can go. Then again, we have had some really great conversations about marketing and truth in advertising....for being only 6, Savannah is a remarkably savvy consumer....

*sigh* Its a tangly web....

Julie said...

I've been having similar thoughts around our house lately as well. Even started a post on the same subject, but haven't finished it.

My boys do both t.v. and computer, as well as other stuff. I see them learning lots from both, or happening upon an interest purely due to one or the other (right now Damek is loving the computer game Wizard 101, and wants to read the Harry Potter series of books after we're done with the Magic Treehouse series).

I was also thinking of the same exact thing concerning books vs. electronic media. Children make-believe things out of books that other people wrote, why is it different because it came from t.v.?

Chrissy Johnson said...

This is a breath of fresh air!

Our house is the same, no tv (sold it in the move) but there is a computer and ample dvd's...


Have you turned the boys on to this: (go to the kids' art zone)...

It's the national gallery of art's kids area...and Xander most often requests to play on it...

We're twenty-first century parents...we do the best with the loads of stuff we're offered. I wouldn't worry...(even though I worry about the same thing...) I try to keep the tv watching to things on hulu or dvd's...not as much adverts - - and I can't stand to listen to it all.

Lynnie said...

Oops, was going to leave a lengthy comment agreeing with you but wouldn't you know my five year old saw me on the computer and crawled into my lap wanting to play online! I'm not even kidding.

anna kiss said...

Kate - It's hard when you're the only person who's supposed to be responsible for this no-TV thing. That means it's all on the primary caregiver to actively avoid it and engage the child when they're not engaged by peers or siblings or themselves. That's a lot to ask of one little person. You're also probably responsible for home, food, childcare, homeschooling, and who knows what else plus you've got other relationships to worry about: spouses, friends, mothers, sisters, etc. And you're own emotions to balance and needs to fill and work to do. You can't possibly do it all.

Mel - we got rid of the TV when Aleks was 3 and Bastian was under 6 months and we got rid of it because it broke. So it was easy enough to do. We had to get a laptop around that time, which has been a lifesaver. I know that as homeschoolers, we'll eventually need (now there's a loaded term) four computers. FOUR computers! Why? Because I know how we are! I know that I'll need my own laptop for doing my writing as they get older and I can get away from them more and Jon works more. And I know that it will be worth it. And that scares me a little. We find there's plenty of advertisement online and in other places and the discussions are endless (and largely ignored by my children, sigh).

Julie - when the novel was first invented, there was this public outcry that young people would get sucked into these fantasy worlds and no longer dedicate themselves to the necessary pursuits of their position. Not only that, but they'd become dreadfully sinful (read: lusty) and violent! We now say the same thing about video games and movies. It's curious, isn't it?

Chrissy - Thanks for that site! My little artist will hopefully enjoy it. He's mostly enamored with his own work and really cares not for the history of art or the art hanging all over our walls!

Lynnie - Isn't that just always the way?