By Caroline Knorr, Parenting Editor, Common Sense Media
As parents, we have a natural instinct to choose who we want our kids to be friends with -- and who we'd rather they not hang around. The same instinct kicks in for media role models. We like Doc McStuffins because she's smart and kind. SpongeBob? Maybe not so much.
In today's 24/7 media environment, in which kids may be spending more time with media than they are with their parents, choosing positive role models is more important than ever. By the time kids are in middle school, they start to look to their peers for a sense of what's socially acceptable or desirable. Parents may remain the primary influence in their kids' lives, but the competition starts to get fierce at this age. This separation is entirely age appropriate. But when the media comes into play, the values you want to pass down to your kids may be competing against, say, Homer Simpson's. Or, folks like Logan Paul, who's YouTube channel has millions of followers and is hugely influential (for all the wrong reasons).
In fact, the stars of social media are just as likely to be role models as traditional celebrities. These so-called influencers reach out to kids via TV, YouTube, video games, Twitter, and music -- all of which are broadcast or easily accessible 24 hours a day. And as we all know, not all the characters or people who gain popularity through these channels have stellar role-model credentials.
The good news is that there are plenty of positive role models you can point to that may influence your kids to make healthy choices, learn to respect others, achieve goals, and avoid anti-social behavior. Negative role models -- especially ones who don't suffer consequences for their actions -- can encourage anti-social behavior, stereotypes, and even cruelty. Help your kids choose positive media role models who embody the values you want to pass down.
Tips for parents of young kids
- Limit screen time. Kids grow and thrive best through personal interaction. Spending time with them, playing, and reading are great ways to build a foundation to impart your values.
- Find age-appropriate content. Kids ages 2-7 should be exposed to media featuring good role moles, racial and gender diversity, and no stereotypes. Check out some of the positive role models on YouTube.
- Encourage positive socialization. Look for role models who impart positive social lessons, like sharing and being a good friend.
- Respect differences. Encourage kids this age to accept and respect people who are different by exposing them to media that includes people of diverse backgrounds.
Tips for parents of elementary-aged kids
- Avoid stereotypes. Point out strong female characters or male characters who share their feelings. Try not to reinforce stereotypes in media selection (i.e. princess movies for girls and truck videos for boys), since that can reinforce societal imbalances. Take a look at our lists of Positive Role Model TV for Girls and Movies with Incredible Role Models for Boys.
- Reinforce your values. Point out words and behavior in popular TV shows, websites, and music that are both positive and negative examples of what you do and don't want your kids to model. What you say to your child is up to you, but have the discussion.
- Flag antisocial behavior. Children like to imitate and pretend to be their favorite characters. When characters say mean things or behave cruelly, discuss the consequences.
- Go with the good stuff. Kids will be inspired by great historical figures, athletes, or TV stars. Take advantage of that adoration by pointing out their good traits, as in, "George Washington was honest. Honesty is an important quality." Not: "Lying is bad. Children who lie get in trouble."
Tips for parents of older kids
- Embrace what they like. Rejecting your kids' love of popular culture can close off avenues of communication. Embrace their world, but establish clear boundaries about what you find acceptable and appropriate. Talk about celebrities that cross the line.
- Help teens balance their need for rebellion and self-expression with an appreciation of acceptable social action. Kids need to understand how to communicate and use media wisely and ethically. If they engage with media that includes antisocial behavior, make sure they understand the impact and potential consequences.
- Let older kids see things you don't agree with. But then discuss exactly what you don't like with them. Since we won't always be around, we need to make sure to instill critical-thinking skills in our kids.
- Don't shy away from pointing the finger. If your kids (or their schoolmates) are heavy media users and they demonstrate or are on the receiving end of any antisocial behavior or experience eating disorders, addictions, low school performance or depression, connect the dots -- and disconnect the source.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.
A friend remembers her mother trying to teach her and her sibling good manners at the breakfast table when they were young. “What’s the magic word?” their mother asked before sliding pancakes on their plates. The younger sister thought and then answered triumphantly, “Bippity-boppity-boo!”
Well, that was then and this is now. As challenging as it’s always been to teach children to be courteous, many parents think it’s much more difficult today.
In the current climate world, rudeness often reigns. Cyberbullying is all too common. Television reality shows depict backstabbing behaviors and bickering. Politicians—even some of those running for the highest office in our land—hurl insults. Kids observe road rage, toxic interactions on playing fields and in sports arenas—and even in their own homes. (OK—who hasn’t slammed a door or otherwise shown a regrettable lack of restraint or decorum in front of our children at least once?)
An overwhelming majority of Americans across all generations believe that lack of civility is a major societal problem today. And most of us think the problem is only going to worsen, because kids need to see civility modeled in order to learn it and that’s increasingly a tall order. Parents have to work harder than ever, it seems, to teach kids what they need to live peacefully with one another—things like self-awareness and self-control, empathy, an understanding of the importance of thinking not just about ourselves but also about the common good.
Where to begin? Here are a few suggestions.
- When your children witness or observe incivility, don’t miss the opportunity to talk with them about it. Explain why what was said was inappropriate. Encourage them to put themselves in the shoes of the recipient of the mean-spirited words or behavior. Teaching them how to look at the situation through the lens of the other person is one good way to teach empathy.
- Monitor your kids’ media consumption, and balance the incivility they may be seeing in news, TV shows, movies, and video games with good literature. The world is full of excellent books featuring characters who are worthy of emulating. Even fictional characters can model how to treat others with dignity. Don’t underestimate the power of literature to teach your children how to live life well!
- And try to avoid becoming desensitized to incivility. Speak up when you or your children experience or witness it. Sometimes a small incident can teach a big lesson. When some teenagers intentionally cut in front of younger children lined up for a ride at a local fair, an adult spoke to the kids, pointing out that their behavior was rude and asking them to move to the end of the line. The chagrined kids did so, to the murmurs of approval from onlookers. Another mom I know once asked two customers in a reception room to bear in mind that children were present, listening to their conversation, which was peppered with inappropriate language.
Let’s refuse to view mudslinging and name-calling as accepted (and expected) political rhetoric. Write letters to these politicians and public servants. Sign petitions. Use the power of your vote to communicate your disapproval. After all, our children are watching and listening.
Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....