Sympathetic, Empathetic, or Simply Pathetic?

by Deb Lewis

My kid once said an interesting thing. We were talking about some study that found children who watch even one hour of television a day are desensitized to violence in the real world. I'm not sure now how it came up, but we're used to defending our unschooling choices to a lot of people a lot of the time, so it was probably after a conversation with one of the usual naysayers.

Dylan asked what experts meant by "desensitized," and I said that some people thought kids might come to not be very much bothered by the pain and suffering of others. Then my son asked a profound question: "How could you bear to live if you could not control how much you let yourself be bothered by the pain and suffering of others?"

When Dylan was six, we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our house. We were drawing with sidewalk chalk, and I unknowingly kneeled on a ladybug larva and crushed the tiny creature. Ladybug larva are especially cute. They'll walk right onto your hand, they're friendly, and they're pretty colors.

We had handled dozens of them, and every time Dylan saw one it seemed like a friend. I didn't know I'd crushed the little thing until Dylan showed me. That baby ladybug was dead—mashed by someone who wasn't paying any attention. He was so sad. He worried how its mother would feel. He cried and cried, and he didn't want to draw on the sidewalk anymore.

For a long time Dylan couldn't look at our sidewalk art and think of anything but that murdered bug. I felt badly for the bug and for Dylan, but I wished he could just get over it. I wanted him to just accept that bugs get squished and get on with things. I'm glad I didn't say that to him, though. I'm glad I gave him time to grieve for the bug without belittling his feelings. I'm glad I didn't say anything to make him feel silly for caring about his small friend.

I worried that his sensitive self would be hurt too much in this world where most people squish bugs deliberately. But I didn't tell him he should get used to it.

I wonder how much desensitizing of children occurs when parents try to help their kids cope with sadness and loss by telling them "these things happen and we can't let it crush us." When a parent worries that a child will become desensitized by media violence, they're not thinking in broad terms. Really, no one wants their child wailing in pain in a restaurant because the guy in the next booth ordered veal. Parents don't want their children traumatized in the meat department at the grocery store or in hysterics in the car if a bee meets the windshield.

Instead parents are thinking specifically about certain kinds of sensitivity for humans when they worry how media violence will affect children. Yet there are few parents who'd want to deal, day after day, with a child crying over the UNICEF commercials or begging a mom to adopt orphan children from some poverty-stricken place.

There are few parents who'd want their little child spending hours caring for the elderly at the nursing home or moving a homeless man into the spare room. What would a parent say, "Honey, we can't save everyone"?

We don't want our children injured by the horrors of this world, and we should be honest about that. The reality is we can't do much to help, and we don't want our children feeling responsible for the whole world. We don't want to live the kind of life we'd have to live if we weren't able to control how much we let ourselves be bothered by the pain and suffering of others.

My son enjoys television and movies and at times has watched more than the recommended daily allowance for children. He has especially enjoyed adult themed situation comedies and horror films. While he wouldn't select a film just for the graphic violence, he does not avoid them if they are graphic. I would say he is desensitized to horror movie violence in that he is not traumatized by watching fake violence in a made up scenario where no one is actually hurt or killed.

Maybe it's just me, but I think that's a good thing. With real world problems ever on the human horizon, fantasy worst case scenarios let us safely ponder our own limits and abilities.

So my son enjoys movie violence, yet he is a person of great emotional sensitivity. He rescues earth worms from the road and sidewalk after a rain. He carries flies and spiders outside so the cats won't catch and eat them. He's gentle and compassionate with our old dog and helps her when she falls down. He has rescued injured birds and mourned over animals killed on the road. He takes committed care of his beloved cat. He gives money to homeless or stranded people when he meets them.

He also does not flinch when Herbert West removes Dr. Hill's head with a shovel in ReAnimator, but he would care very much if a genuine villain were removing the heads of honest to goodness real people in our community.

No one will ever give me money to study the connection between insensitive parenting and the desensitization of children, but I'd bet my best parking token it's real. If depictions of violence on TV are a stronger influence on our kids than we are, then we're not parenting well. Our patient attention and good example will nurture sensitivity and stability in our children no matter what's on TV.

I'll never be the one to study how much desensitization is necessary for a healthy state of mind, but I think the answer will depend on the times—the wars, the unemployment rate, the poverty level, the neighborhood. In other words, the level of sensitivity any of us can afford to have and still maintain a healthy emotional state will depend on our circumstances in the moment. Self-preservation first: that is how the human brain is ordered, and this is what allows us to go on living in a world where there is so much suffering and pain.

Worries over media's effects on children and society itself will never go away. Children will always learn from the world around them, and many will always assume they learn bad stuff easily but good stuff only under compulsion.

Blaming outside forces when our children do not meet our vision of the perfect citizen is not a new idea. Long ago Plato warned that poets and artists would corrupt the minds of young people, and he proposed restrictions on them if they would not agree only to portray that which was good and beautiful, writing:

It is not only to the poets therefore that we must issue orders requiring them to represent good character in their poems or not to write at all; we must issue similar orders to all artists and prevent them from portraying bad character, ill discipline, meanness, or ugliness in painting, sculpture, architecture, or any work of art, and if they are unable to comply they must be forbidden to practice their art. We shall thus prevent our guardians being brought up among representations of what is evil, and so day by day and little by little, by feeding as it were in an unhealthy pasture, insensibly doing themselves grave psychological damage. Our artists and craftsmen must be capable of perceiving the real nature of what is beautiful, and then our young men, living as it were in a good climate, will benefit because all the works of art they see and hear influence them for good, like the breezes from some healthy country with what is rational and right.
I wouldn't have liked Plato's Republic much. If I were ever caught off guard by a noggin cracking meteor shower or invaders from Mars, I'd much rather be with someone who'd at least read about adversity, fantasized about cracked heads or alien takeovers, and possibly had an idea of how better to navigate a less than good and beautiful situation.


Deb Lewis lives a happy unschooling life in Montana with her husband David and son Dylan. She's a part time floral designer, potter, poet, gardener, trampoline bouncer and bird watcher and a full time unashamed idealist.
More Deb Lewis TV (according to Unschoolers) Violence (or little boys' ideas about that)