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Mothers' and Others' Stories

A Mother's Story || Others' Stories || Letters

By Daphne White
Executive Director

"Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!" I was watching my son play with a friend's hand-held video game -- a game both boys had earnestly assured me was not violent. The outburst occurred because my six-year-old was not as adept as his friend in manipulating the game: He was not killing fast enough. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, virtual killing has become an acceptable form of child's play. Children are encouraged to "kill" bad guys on a regular basis at a variety of settings.

As a mother, I have been concerned about this issue ever since my son was a toddler. It seemed that everywhere we went, David was being enticed to watch or participate in some act of make-believe violence: He was confronted by violent arcade games at pizza parlors; war movies being aired at video rental stores; violent previews preceding the screening of children's matinees; Nintendo and Sega games at friends' houses.

As a concerned parent, I began to wonder:

  • Do children's "pretend lives" have anything to do with real-world aggression?
  • Do the programs they watch on television really affect their behavior?
  • Do children know the difference between fantasy and reality?

I set about finding the answers to these questions, and the results so alarmed me that I decided to abandon my previous work as a journalist and devote my life to this issue.

The first thing I learned is this: While aggression is a part of human nature, violence is a learned behavior. Children learn violent behavior and values by imitation, like they learn everything else. But violence can also be unlearned -- especially by young children -- given proper support and role models.

The second thing I learned is that children under the age of eight can not separate fact from fiction: That is why they believe in the Tooth Fairy, and worry about monsters under their beds. This is also the reason that children may not understand why it is acceptable for television characters to continually hit, kick and shoot each other -- but it is not acceptable for children to behave in this way on the playground.

In a 1995 report called Violence and Youth, the American Psychological Association has concluded that: "Children's exposure to violence in the mass media, particularly at young ages, can have harmful lifelong consequences. Aggressive habits learned early in life are the foundation for later behavior. Three major national studies -- the Surgeon General's Commission report (1972), the National Institute of Mental Health Ten Year Follow-up (1982), and the report of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Media in Society (1992) -- reviewed hundreds of studies to arrive at the irrefutable conclusion that viewing violence increases violence."

As a mother, I found these to be frightening conclusions. What are we as parents teaching our young children when we allow them to watch violent programming and play with violent toys and games? What kinds of messages are we sending to our youngest, most vulnerable children?

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a military historian and author of On Killing, argues that this type of "entertainment" is actually conditioning children to become killers.

"If we had a clear-cut objective of raising a generation of assassins and killers who are unrestrained by either authority or the nature of the victim, it is difficult to imagine how we could do a better job," he writes. "The inflicting of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment and vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it."

While watching television or movie violence is harmful to children, it is passive learning. But when children play with violent interactive games, they are participating in the murder and destruction -- and they receive points for their violent actions.

What are the lessons that children learn from such "entertainment"? That violence and destruction are fun. That shooting doesn't kill ... or even hurt. That ruthless competition is a winning strategy. That there are no consequences for shooting people or blowing up buildings. Researchers have demonstrated that young children become more aggressive after playing violent video games, or watching violent television programs.

The Lion & Lamb Project is one effort to help parents to understand these issues -- and take action. One of the ways we do this is through our Parent Action Kit, which includes the research mentioned above as well as other useful information. We have also produced a how-to guide for schools and other organizations that want to sponsor events such as Violent Toy Trade-Ins and Peaceable Play Days.

A Violent Toy Trade-In is an event where children are asked to contribute one of their violent toys in order to demonstrate their desire for a less violent world. The children's toys are then transformed into a Peace Sculpture or Peace Pole, which can be displayed on the grounds of a school, house of worship or community park, to demonstrate graphically how children's toy chests have been transformed into war chests.

We also help sponsor events called Peaceable Play Days, where families are re-introduced to fun, free activities that do not involve either violence or television. These activities require the adults in the community to share their hobbies and favorite childhood pastimes with today's youngsters, to show that it is possible to have lots of fun without playing games based on violence. This is a wonderful inter-generational activity that grandparents and seniors can participate in. Some activities could include: making and flying kites; learning origami; playing jacks or marbles; putting together puzzles; learning new board games; making art and music from found objects; and more. This day can also serve as the occasion for the planting and dedication of a Peace Garden.

If you are interested in our work, I invite you to contact The Lion & Lamb Project. We will be glad to work with you or your organization to bring these activities to your community.

Find out what you can do to stop the marketing of violence to children. You can make a difference!

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