What Makes Good Kids Bad?

November 12, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

Children would not resort to violence and the world would be a better place if not for:

* Bloody video games.

* TV shows like the ''Power Rangers.''

* ''Super Soaker'' water guns, like the kind some kids fill with bleach to squirt into people's eyes.

* Rock and rap music.

* Expensive sneakers.

* All that sugar and fat on the school lunch menu.

Don't see any options you like? Don't worry, the list of insidious influences that transform peaceful children into angry ones will be sure to grow come the next brutal juvenile crime. Last month, officials in Norway considered banning the children's show, the ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' in the wake of a murder of a little girl by other youths. Weeks later, a Canadian network did yank the show for similar concerns about TV violence. An oft-quoted California research paper determined that children were seven times as violent after watching this TV hit, compared to a group of kids who hadn't watched. Still another new study, this one by the National League of Cities, said that violence is the top concern in U.S. education, in city, suburb and small town alike.

From all the public discourse, you can conclude that a.) children are born rotten, or b.) the outside world makes them so. The one conclusion you would not draw from any of the debate is that parents play any role of substance in determining whether children resort to violence.

The way a parent or parents raise a child, the encouragement and attention that child receives, whether that child is corrected if he hits another child, whether he sees dad bash mom or vice versa, whether the child's most attentive guardian at home is the TV set -- those are the root causes of aggression in children.

A tranquil child who longs for a fancy sneaker doesn't knife a schoolmate to get it. A humane child doesn't view a TV show and then try to beat someone silly. A well adjusted child doesn't stone an old man's car -- until the youth himself is shot to death in retaliation, as happened in a tragedy that unfolded in East Baltimore not long ago.

All this laying of blame outside the home for a child's extreme behavior is so much smoke. The blame game is popular because it's easier to condemn the money-grubbing entertainment industry than to point the finger at the family. It is also tougher for academics to study the influences that spur or sanction aggression behind closed doors in the home.

It's a lot easier for a professor at a place like Cal State-Fullerton to dispatch a few grad students to a nearby school, have them show a class ''Power Rangers,'' and then count ''karate kicks'' during schoolyard recess to ''measure'' the effects of ''TV violence.'' Children imitating karate in the '90s is no more unusual than kids in the '50s playing cowboys and Indians after watching westerns. Unless they're trying to hurt one another, it can be another form of imaginative play.

That is not to endorse the old saw, ''kids will be kids'' -- possibly the four most dangerous words regarding children and violence. Too often we use that philosophy to explain away the fact that little Johnny just bloodied little Timmy. It is a particularly pervasive sentiment among the parents of boys. Says Leon Rosenberg, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, of what society tells its sons: ''You'd better not cry and if you do have any bruises, the other guy had better have bigger ones.''

Dr. Rosenberg, who has studied video violence, concludes it does have an effect. I don't dispute that. TV and addictive video games are corrosive, almost as much so for the amount of time children spend engrossed by these impersonal machines as for the content. But Peggy Charren, who founded a watchdog group, Action for Children's Television, says a bigger problem than Power Rangers is the fact that 70 percent of the TV kids get to watch is programming meant for adults.

I agree that television's offerings for children are overwhelmingly inane, that modern musical lyrics are often vile and that the cinema glorifies gunplay. But these affronts don't make good kids bad.

The truest comment on this subject came from child psychologists, Drs. Gerald Kestenbaum and Lissa Weinstein, in a study a decade ago. Angst over video influences, they said, ''is largely a parental issue'' with parents overreacting due to their own ''unresolved parental conflicts.'' So add another item to the list of influences failing today's kids:

Parents.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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