Butt-head, Mom and Dad

Anna Quindlen

November 01, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

AUSTIN was 5 and Jessica was 2, and by the time Austin had finished with the lighter he took from atop their mother's dresser, Jessica was trapped inside a burning house.

And Beavis and Butt-head were in big, big trouble.

Since the morning early this month when Austin Messner set the fire that killed his little sister, his actions apparently inspired by cartoon characters, several things have happened.

The fire chief in the Ohio town where Austin lives has gone on a tear against Beavis and Butt-head, the two moronic MTV animated adolescents who say "Cool-heh-heh-heh" when anything bursts into flames.

MTV has agreed to air the show later at night, with fire references expunged.

And Jessica's death has become a powerful anecdotal exhibit in a renewed effort to make entertainment industry leaders clean up their act -- or, as Attorney General Janet Reno threatened during a Senate hearing, have government do it for them.

Senators wondered how that would work, whether it would amount to government censorship.

Experts wondered about the link between television violence and real-life violence. Manufacturers wondered how many people would spring for televisions with the V-chip, which could be used to screen out violent programs.

No one much wondered why a 5-year-old child was watching MTV.

Kids and violent TV, violent TV and violence, violence and kids.

The only people missing from this discussion are the parents.

Where are we? Gone. Abdicated.

If the industry has given up on standards in what it produces, many of us have done the same in what we permit.

It's as though we all said, well, there's a lot of poison in those cleansers under the sink so government better regulate it before the baby drinks some.

It's as though we talked about smoking and left the tobacco industry and the Feds to fight it out, ignoring the fact that individuals can give up cigarettes.

We read that children between the ages of 2 and 12 watch an average of 25 hours of TV a week. We read that by the time she reaches 18 the average American kid will have seen thousands of televised killings.

And we act as if those numbers are inevitable when in fact we help create them.

Parental control is not the only part of this issue, or even the most important part.

But it's the only part being ignored in the discussions of TV violence and kids.

I don't propose that parents act alone. It is clear that TV producers are going to have to police themselves or government officials are going to start doing it for them. They can't be let off the hook.

But neither can I.

I know my kids, not Jack Valenti or Janet Reno. Ages 10, 8 and almost 5, they are too young to watch MTV, if for no other reason than that I don't have the time to counteract all the piggy messages about women they'll get from music videos.

They are too young to watch the "Terminator" or the "Rambo" movies. They need more time for reading, drawing, fighting with one another and torturing me.

George Gerbner of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied the issue of television violence for years, said at a conference earlier this year, "The notion of parental control is an upper-middle-class conceit."

That makes individual action on television sound impossible, futile, even silly.

But the truth is that neither alternative -- government control, industry control -- can completely take the place of parental control.

Neither Big Daddy will make all the choices we should make for our individual kids, if we are willing to do the hard work of making choices for them.

I know that's difficult. I know from experience that it's tempting to use television as a baby sitter. I know supervision is harder with latchkey kids and adolescents.

But a 5-year-old who has the run of the programming? Come on.

Making the distinction between what they want to do and what is good for them that's a parent's job description.

And it extends to the remote control.

I'm all for wiping out the growth market in remarkably realistic fake blood. But sanity can begin at home. Congress will hold hearings; entertainment types will cry censorship.

In the meantime, there's the do-it-yourself approach.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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