Before you have kids, you know one day you’ll have to force them to do things they don’t want to do — homework, bedtime, using soap. But I never thought that dynamic would apply to age-appropriate cartoons.
Last year around Halloween, Hank declared that he wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle “from the store.” As you may recall, I’m emotionally over-invested in Halloween, and we’d been discussing elaborate, homemade C3PO costume for months. So after rending my garments, I made a Target run.
This is Hank in his Donatello costume. He’s six here, and I’d never seen him play fight before, you can hear me coaching him to twirl his staff in the video. At the time, he was afraid of lots of age-appropriate movies and TV, so I was a little relieved by his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles obsession.
But a few weeks before, we’d been watching the show together when I heard a familiar refrain. “Let’s turn it off,” he said. The scene wasn’t violent, or even high-conflict, so I asked why. “It’s too scary,” he said. Beh?
IT’S TOO SCARY
In the episode, one of the characters loses her top-secret “shell phone” (see what they did there?), and it puts her turtle friends in danger. The idea of accidentally doing something that has unpredictable consequences scared the crap out of Hank. I was sympathetic, but my patience was also worn.
After months of requests to leave theaters, turn off Disney movies, switch to another cartoon every time suspense was introduced, my impulse was to say, “This is not a thing. You can’t be afraid of everything that might accidentally happen at all times.”
And while being dismissive of a kid’s feelings is undoubtedly top-notch parenting, at what point do you ask a kid to face fears? For the time being I bit my tongue, switched to a more familiar TMNT cartoon, and did a little research.
WHAT DOES AGE-APPROPRIATE MEAN?
It turns out most TV shows aren’t designed with age guidelines in mind. But here’s some good age info that can help guide media choices:
• Kids age 3-6 are just becoming aware that they can be hurt, that parents can’t protect them from everything, and that parents don’t know everything. Like whether monsters exist and whether a cherry tree is growing in their stomach because they swallowed that seed.
• Not until age 7-8 can kids reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy.
• New fears developing suddenly are often a sign of intellectual growth. So if your kid is worried that the bathtub drain will swallow them, that means they’re smart.
• Conflict and suspense are tough for kids to intellectualize, it feels primal to them. And to be fair, in most entertainment media, that’s the intended effect.
Here’s how I changed my responses to Hank’s media fears after I did a little reading.
HOW TO DEAL WHEN A KID FEELS AFRAID
I stopped worrying about whether Hank “should” be afraid, and now I don’t dismiss feelings by saying things like, “This isn’t scary, honey.” Apparently, that teaches kids to hide fear or mask it, which is cruddy on many levels, but mostly because I need him to tell me if something scary happens when I’m not around.
I feel a little dumb admitting this, but I used to inadvertantly add to Hank’s fears by trying to guess what was wrong. “Are you afraid ligtening will strike our house?” Well, now he is. So now I ask, “Why are you afraid?” And then, “Why is that scary?” until I understand.
This rarely worked with Hank, but it made me feel better. I asked what I could do besides turning the show off. Hold him? Get a stuffed animal? Fast forward through suspense? If it worked one time in ten, it was worth it.
Now I know more about what I’m getting into before I pay to see a movie in the theater or turn on a show for more than one kid to enjoy. If I don’t know the plot in advance, I know I’m of asking for it.
Kids don’t care about being surprised. I explain what’s going to happen and what happens afterward, to help give him a sense of control. “It’s about to look like she died, but her sister will kiss her and she’ll wake up.”
If Hank is still afraid and I’m able to turn a show off, I just do. And if I can’t because other children are enjoying it, we leave to draw, or play, or read.
GIVE IT TIME
With a little time and the right entertainment choices, Hank has mostly outgrown his “too scary” phase. It wasn’t a dramatic shift, just part of growing up — for both of us, my friends.
His newfound bravery has calmed the visions I had of him panicking at high school sleepovers when someone suggested watching Star Wars. We’re gonna hold off on that trash compactor scene though.
Do you know a kid who seems stressed out by TV or movies? Let us know if you have any tips for calming them, or whether they just eventually grew out of it, in comments.