Opinion: The Way Kids Are: Lighten up on violence

Who are these kids of the '90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? 'The Way Kids Are' is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by...
July 1, 1997

Who are these kids of the ’90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Mark Smyka by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail:

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Sean and Perry, four and six years old, respectively, have just finished watching one of their favorite television shows and now are role playing what they just saw. In this case, Sean is laughing and running after his brother with a kitchen knife saying, ‘I’m Michelangelo, and I’m going to annihilate you!’

There is something wrong with this picture.

Some would argue Sean and Perry are just acting out a modern-day version of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. And, to a point, I would agree. However, only to a point. Somehow, it seems that the stakes have been raised. The violence is increasing, and the weaponry continues to get more sophisticated.

Sean and Perry’s reactions are more typical than atypical of the children that I’ve encountered who watch kids television programs. When the set is turned off, it is only natural for them to imitate the actions they’ve just seen. Violence, therefore, begets violence. And, yet, when Sean and Perry watch programs that are more nurturing and display children interacting peaceably with each other, they play differently. They socialize rather than attack one another.

Children need to role-play as a means of establishing personal identity and confidence in their place in the universe-two traits researchers say are basically developed in children prior to the age of five years. Nonetheless, the number of violent, weapon-laden series directed towards young children seems to be increasing.

If it is true that our children are our greatest resources, then why aren’t we, the entertainment industry, doing our duty to uphold this precious commodity? And why aren’t we creating programs and other forms of entertainment that will help children to explore their imaginations and to believe that anything is possible? Somehow, we have bought into the notion that only violence will sell to young children. And it is not only limited to the medium of television.

Often over the last several years, I have been appalled by so-called children’s feature film releases. Even Disney, undisputably the leading producer of children’s features, has not distanced itself from gratuitous violence. I wholeheartedly disagree with whomever decided that Bambi’s mother should be killed, that Simba’s father should die a gruesome death, or that Hunchback’s messages are appropriate for our youth. These scenes are extremely frightening for a young child and can often be quite traumatizing-I’m still getting over the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty. And if this is happening in Disney products, what can we say about producers who are less established as family entertainers?

The world of CD-ROMs has also been plagued by this same misconception. The aggressive overtones and unwarranted violence amaze me. Why d’es a child need to learn to kill off an imaginary opponent to advance to the next level?

Even the popular Japanese virtual reality pet toy, Tamagotchi, is turning out to be traumatic for young children. In a recent article in The New York Times, it was reported that children were experiencing such alarming reactions to the virtual death of their Tamagotchi that the company is revising the toy for release with a pause button.

So many articles have been written about violence in our society. Maybe it’s time for us to act, by taking a serious look at what we can do to help curb this violence through the products and services we provide. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., darkness d’es not put out darkness, only light can do that.

The power of high-quality children’s entertainment is stronger than kryptonite. Over the past several months, I have received letters from both child and adult viewers of Tots TV and readers of Miss Spider books, who give praise for the creation of popular characters that inspire children’s imaginations rather than conspire with kids to increase aggressive behavior. I realized with these first letters, and many times since then, that young children are influenced by the world much differently than adults. It is essential that we-caregivers and members of Hollywood especially-take special care with the programs we expose our children to. In our hearts, we know that really great children’s programming should be nurturing and should encourage children to dream!

Kenn Viselman is the president of New York-based The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company.

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