Dear Mr. Dad: Like most families, thanks to ongoing shelter-in-place orders and schools having been shut down, our family (which includes me, my husband, and two children, ages 3 and 4, who really love animals) has spent a lot more time than usual in front of the TV. We’ve seen a lot of great movies and videos together. But for some reason no one can explain, my husband has taken to showing our children programs that feature lions, cheetahs, sharks, hawks, and even spiders hunting down and killing other animals. The other day they watched a long, gruesome video of a killing scene involving some kind of gazelle, two tigers and a crocodile. I think that our children are too young for such cruel nature shows but my husband disagrees. I think we should be finding examples of animals helping each other to teach them about empathy, but their father thinks they need to learn about how the world really is. What do you think?
A: I understand and agree with your concern about whether real-life animal violence is appropriate for your young children. You’re not alone. A lot of parents have trouble coming up with consistent boundaries for subjects like sex, violence, crime, drugs, and so on.
We’d all probably agree, though, that what’s OK for adult viewing may be entirely unsuitable for children. Adults can separate reality from fantasy, “real” from “fake,” but young children can’t. So while your husband may find chase and kill scenes thrilling, your children may experience them as terrifying — even if they don’t give overt signals like crying, nightmares or bedwetting. Even fictional depictions of animals being killed (think "The Lion King") could leave a lasting and disturbing impression on a young mind.
I’m sure your husband treasures the time he spends with your children. But I think there are plenty of much better — and more appropriate — activities than watching animals tear each other to pieces — even if that’s what they do in real life. Children love and need their precious Daddy time, but even children as young as yours might want to “please Dad” by cuddling in his lap even if they’re a bit frightened by the subject matter. Although it’s better for a child to watch violent imagery with a parent, rather than alone, I still question whether that material is appropriate at all for a 5- and 3-year-old.
Most researchers agree that children watch too much TV. So at the very least, you could insist that your husband cut back screen time and increase other activities. A far better way to teach your kids about animals would be to go to a petting zoo (hopefully they’ll be re-opening soon), where they can actually feed, touch and see gentle animals up close. Then, perhaps, replace some of the real-life animal adventures with more age-appropriate fare, such as "Charlotte’s Web," "Bambi" and "Finding Nemo" (although all of those stories involve death).
The best parental rule of thumb regarding sensitive topics is this: Expose kids when it’s right for them — not when it’s right for us. And when in doubt, choose moderation. The most important thing you and your husband can do for your children, though, is to talk together (adults only), understand and respect each other’s differing feelings. Then, agree on what’s appropriate for your child and — above all — present a unified front.
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