One child therapist related his own rewarding uses of Pokemon action figures with young patients. Another said that his concern was for children who didn’t have the chance to talk through what they’d experienced in the media and that “what you’ve demonstrated here is how beneficial any media experience can be in the context of constructive adult attention.” An especially enthusiastic psychoanalyst said, “We’re so afraid of aggression in this society that we haven’t been able to talk intelligently about it. You’re doing for aggression what Papa Freud did for sexuality!” You’ve made on little boy very happy.” said a psychiatrist who’d come with her husband, another doctor. “We haven’t let our son watch shows like Pokemon, but I think we will now.”
What I’ve learned in the Art and Story Workshops has consistently reinforced my belief that the vast array of fantasies and stories that we tend to dismiss with such labels as “media violence” are used well by children. I’ve seen young people turn every form of imaginary aggression into sources of emotional nourishment and developmental support. But I’m startled sometimes, too. I bring in my own biases about what’s beneficial and what’s not. And sometimes a boy like Phillip will smash them.
One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they’ll be in later life. Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well — one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.
In focusing so intently on the literal, we overlook the emotional meaning of stories and images. The most peaceful, empathetic, conscientious children are often excited by the most aggressive entertainment. Young people who reject violence, guns, and bigotry in every form can sift through the literal contents of a movie, game, or song and still embrace the emotional power at its heart. Children need to feel strong. They need to feel powerful in the face of a scary, uncontrollable world. Superheroes, video-game warriors, rappers, and movie gunmen are symbols of strength. By pretending to be them, young people are being strong.
When something troubles them (children) they have to play with it until it feels safer.
We want them to mirror our adult restraint, seriousness, compassion, and pacifism. But they can’t-and-shouldn’t-mimic adult reactions. Play, fantasy, and emotional imagination are essential tools of the work of childhood and adolescence.
A lot of us stumble over that as parents, blaming what our children see for making them want things, forgetting that it’s our children themselves who are doing the wanting. Each child’s fantacies and emotional needs are very much his own, even if he shares them with millions of other kids. When we burden those needs with our own anxieties, we can confuse and frighten children about their own feelings. Adult anxieties about the effects of entertainment are sometimes the real causes of the very effects that we fear most.