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10/27/97 Parents must guide children in watching ‘powerful’ medium

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Parents who want to keep their children from becoming immune to violence must take an active role in monitoring their television viewing habits, a leader in children’s television told Southern Baptist church leaders Oct. 23.
Hedda Sharapan, associate producer of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” television program on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), was a featured speaker at the National Children/Preschool Seminar at the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tenn. The meeting, which had as its theme, “Thru the Eyes of a Child,” drew more than 500 registrants and was sponsored by the board’s church growth group.
Sharapan quoted recent studies which found only 15 percent of parents guide their 3- to 8-year-olds in watching television, and children are watching from three to five hours a day. One California study, she said, found that 43 percent of kindergartners through 12-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms.
“This is not a window to the world; it is a story-telling machine,” Sharapan said. “And it happens to be telling the same story over and over. And it is no surprise to me that the stories they are telling are really grabbing children.”
In addition to monitoring programs their kids watch on TV, Sharapan urges parents to watch the shows with them and discuss the content and how it relates to their values and beliefs.
“Children tend to imitate what they’ve seen. … They take what they see and apply it to their everyday lives,” she said.
Sharapan shared a letter from a woman whose grandchild had become aggressive and unruly in school after watching a heavy dose of “Power Rangers” on television. When the child’s parents stopped letting him watch the program, his behavior at school improved.
Programs with violence and “good guys vs. bad guys scenarios” are attractive to children, she said, “because they know they don’t have much power themselves. They feel small. And they know that there’s a scary world out there. It also feeds right into their own inner dramas, their struggle with, ‘Will I be able to keep my own bad guy down?'”
Sharapan referred to another research study which found people who watch five or more hours of television a day “tend to be more fearful of the world around them. They underestimate the number of police and they overestimate the number of crimes taking place.”
Quoting another disturbing statistic, she said in 73 percent of violent acts on television, the perpetrators go unpunished. “And not only is there no punishment, there is usually no consequence (for their action).”
Sharapan gave several suggestions to children and preschool workers attending the meeting for encouraging healthy interaction with television:
1) Use your eyes. “Watch some of the television that the kids are watching so you can know what they’re talking about. Sometimes you can ‘redirect the play’ by discussing a program with children.”
For example, Sharapan said one clever teacher used her children’s fascination with “Michelangelo,” one of the “Ninja Turtles” characters, to interest them in the painting of the Renaissance artist by the same name. She even taped paper to the bottom of tables and had students lie on their backs and paint as if they were painting the Sistine Chapel.
2) Use your mouth. “My daughters used to laugh and tell me that I was no fun to watch television with because I was always making comments under my breath like, ‘I can’t believe she is so rude to her mother.’
“But watch the sitcoms with a pencil and paper in hand and jot down the number of jokes that are put-downs. You’ll be amazed. Your kids need to hear from you when things don’t relate to your values.”
Watching television news can be especially frightening to children, she said, adding Mister Rogers often advises children to “look for the helpers,” the police and concerned citizens who help out during troubled times.
3) Use your hand and write letters to the network or sponsors, Sharapan suggested. “A form letter tends to get discarded, but a letter with a story in it gets passed around.”
She also encouraged parents and teachers to consider getting involved with their local cable channels and producing children’s programming of their own.
4) Use your finger (to turn it off). “I work in television, but even Mister Rogers says that sometimes the best thing is to just turn off the television. Children need to be playing. They need to be doing. That’s how they experience and learn about their world.
“I’m going to put in a big plug for turning the TV off and reading your child a book before bedtime. That’s one of the best things you can do.”
While television has its negatives, Sharapan reminded seminar participants the medium can also play a positive role in child development. For example, Mister Rogers, now in its 31st year of production, receives 15 to 30 fan letters a day, many from parents whose children have been helped by a particular episode.
She said one mother of a 2 1/2-year-old whose disfigured hands had already required 12 surgeries was helped by a segment on getting an X-ray.
“The child had been terrified and would scream every time he would have to have an X-ray taken. But after watching Mr. Rogers have it done, he was able to walk up the next time and say, ‘I do it myself.'”
Sharing another example, Sharapan said seniors at a high school in New York City asked Mr. Rogers to write a letter for their yearbook because he had been such a positive role model in their lives as children.
Known for on-air comments to child viewers such as “I love you just the way you are” and “There’s only one person in the world like you,” Rogers is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has written several books on issues ranging from divorce to adoption.
“I’m overwhelmed by the effect of the power of this medium,” Sharapan said. “We have an incredible responsibility.”

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  • Chip Alford