Do kids spend too much time using screens?
That’s the wrong question. The right question is, What are they seeing on these screens, and how are we talking to them about what they see — and whether it reflects reality?
Since superheroes are popular among kids starting a very young age, let’s start there.
We need to say “Strange, why are there so few women superheroes, and why do they all seem to be wearing bras and underpants, or bathing suits? Do you think they get cold?” We need to say this so our daughters, and our sons, will not assume that “normal” means men saving the day instead of women, or that women (unlike men) enjoy running around half naked. Can’t we have a female superhero in a t-shirt, yoga pants and sneakers? That’s what I’d want to wear if I were saving the day.
We need, too, to point out to them the real superheroes of the world. We need to model how we can all help each other; when we do this, we are saving the day.
My greatest pride as a parent is related to my deepest shame: For a while, when my daughter was three, we got into a rhythm of making sandwiches or muffins for hungry people every weekend, and taking them to the local food pantry (these were the specific types of food donations they requested). It was just a normal part of life, to the extent that sometimes when she was playing, my daughter would say to a stuffed animal or figurine, “Ok, time to make food for hungry people!”
We didn’t try to overwhelm or depress her with the news that so many people in the world were starving, we just stated simply that there were some people who didn’t have enough food to eat, and we wanted to help them. When she came with us to drop food off at the food pantry, she saw other “helpers,” as we called them — a term borrowed from Mister Rogers, who advised that in sad times, we should always look for the helpers — and this became part of her understanding of what was normal in the world. Helping.
Then we moved to a new city and I started a new job and amid the chaos, we lost the ritual. Now we do it sometimes, but I want to get back to doing it always. We aren’t religious, but this is our religion: Helping. Where other people go to church on Sunday, I want us to go to the local food pantry.
My aunt Judy was the one who gave me the idea that even a three-year-old can help make sandwiches. I was telling her that I wanted to find a way that we as a family could be of service, to model that for Alison, and she said, “Well, a lot of times, food pantries want sandwiches — she could help you make those.” My aunt is the kind of person who, if she passes some kids with a lemonade stand set up, will turn the car around and go back so she can support them. She will gather up leftover food at a social gathering and take it to a nearby homeless shelter. Talk about superheroes.
Why do our children all think the greatest superpower has to do with beating “the bad guys”? Because these are the stories we feed them.
Let’s change the menu.
Let’s teach them, too, that they are not just consumers of stories, but also makers of them — the authors of their own lives, and of the story of the world.