Monday, August 24, 2009

Believe it or not, when it comes to kids, every little message counts

Remember in the summer of 1990 when Judas Priest was sued because their lyrics allegedly inspired a misguided young man to commit suicide? I remember it well — my 18-year-old self would watch news clips of the proceedings and mutter “That’s BS” under my breath. Surely listening to a music lyric or band couldn’t influence someone like that, I thought, as I presumably put on my Cure t-shirt and dropped Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration” into the tape deck.

I still think that was bunk. The poor kid who killed himself clearly had issues; he would have found some other outlet or some other excuse for them had it not been for Rob Halford and the boys.

But then I had a kid. And now I see that there’s absolutely no denying that kids are astonishingly influenced by what they see and hear from the entertainment industry.

My three-and-a-half-year-old son loves television, to the point where we have to ration it — only a couple hours a day, and only certain programs. “Dora The Explorer,” yes, “SpongeBob,” a big NO. Why? Because we quickly learned that even at such a young age, he would immediately start emulating the behavior of the characters he likes on TV.

Even programs that we thought were somewhat harmless — such as PBS’ “Word Girl,” which is written more for an audience of 6-7 year olds — would have an effect. From “Word Girl,” he learned that karate-chopping robots is OK, but it got to a point where he was a little too fired up about it. He’d start seeing robots everywhere, and randomly would start karate-chopping things at weird moments, like at the dinner table.

And when that happens, you have to start thinking about everything. Is the football game I’m watching sending the wrong message? Do I really want to let the TV linger on a James Bond smash-em-up when I think my son is just playing with his toys? And God forbid I pass by an MMA fight as I’m channel flipping; that’s more of a mixed message than Britney Spears’ “Oops, I did it again” video.

I’ve had a crash course over the past couple of years — both on a personal and professional level, actually — on communicating with kids. And what I’ve taken away from it is that you have to pay attention to every little detail. You have to think about what thought might pop into their head next, and what not only to avoid, but embrace.

The whole thing can be migraine-inducing, but it can also shed a lot of light on how communication and messaging bounces around in the human mind. And whether I like to admit it a lot, every little thing has some sort of effect. Even Judas Priest.