Throwing the Book at Children's Television

American children are being robbed of innocence - by television, movies, schools, and even their parents. So say film critic/radio host Michael Medved and his wife, psychologist Diane Medved.

"You have to protect children, and love them, and care for them, and be there for them, and be a shield against the negativity of the world for them," says Mrs. Medved in an interview. "That's the message for parents."

Their new book, "Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence" (HarperCollins), is as much an indictment of media-saturated culture as it is a wake-up call for parents to teach children manners and mores and to guard them from the excesses of modernity.

The Medveds' ambitious attempt to take on the whole of American culture will raise objections from more liberal camps. Their equating teenage scarification fads with native American cultures or labeling those cultures "primitive" and "Neolithic" seems certain to encourage cries of cultural elitism. Nevertheless, their approach is provocative and engaging.

"I think that the main thing that inspired us to write the book was the experience of dealing with our own kids," says Mr. Medved in a separate interview. "Every parent at one time or another ... has a natural sense of protectiveness, and there are just so many elements and facets of contemporary life that seem to arouse that sense of protectiveness."

One of the most alarming, in their view, is TV. The Medveds note that TV is everywhere. Daytime TV, including very frank talk shows, runs when kids are most likely to be watching. Even the news describes crime and sex in explicit detail.

But the most aggressive enemy is quantity even more than poor quality. The average family with children has the TV on 60 hours a week. Children spend more time in front of the tube than they do in school - or at play. And TV, which tends to induce a semivegetative thought, fosters three enemies of childhood, say the Medveds: impatience, self-pity, and superficiality.

None of this information is new - the Medveds quote heavily from such well-known media analyzers as Neil Postman and Marie Winn.

But their approach is different, anecdotal, and personal. TV-saturated children have "an edge," they say, fostered even by shows such as "Sesame Street." They advocate a TV-free household with only a monitor and VCR for watching carefully selected videos.

"One of the biggest problems with TV is that it's designed to make your attention span shorter and shorter," says Mr. Medved. "That's not true if you're watching 'Schindler's List' on video." And if banning TV altogether is too hard, they suggest greatly restricting viewing hours.

The evils of TV are only part of the problem, the Medveds say. Many educational programs designed to protect children from abuse, for example, end up being abusive themselves, because they frighten kids and don't accomplish what they intend. Drug, death, and sex-education programs suffer from similar drawbacks, they say.

In an effort to protect children from sexual abuse, schools can make little children wary of even the innocent embrace of a parent. Parents who neglect or otherwise fail to protect children from too much too soon are not taking proper responsibility for their children, they claim.

Worse, when parents fail to teach empathy, responsibility, and self-discipline, society suffers, inheriting generations of selfish, sometimes violent individuals. It's the equivalent of "emotional and physical battering," the Medveds say. "The problem with many of the programs in our schools and in our homes, is that they start the child off with a fear and suspicion of life," says Mrs. Medved. "And when you're afraid that you're going to be victimized or harmed, then you don't venture. You don't risk. You don't have the confidence to use your imagination."

Mr. Medved says, "One of the things that we lament is the loss of any vision of innocence. It's entirely possible that in the past innocence was more of an ideal that an actuality. But at least it was an ideal."

"We [need] over-arching social and cultural change. But in the meantime, while we're waiting,... there are things that you can do in your own home."

Mrs. Medved says, "[The book] is a plea for what childhood can be and what children can be.... To me, the basic premise is that we have so much to be grateful for, why do we want to foist the harsh side of things on children?"

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