Media Exposure - Students, Parents, and Trust

A new parent, whose child is in a Sudbury School (but not Sudbury Valley) wrote the following message on the discuss-sudbury-model message list. We thought the responses would be interesting for a lot of people.

Post #1, from a parent at another Sudbury school

My son just finished his third week (including one visitor week) at a new Sudbury school. He is five years old and was unhappy in his structured Pre-K program last year and very resistant to adult authority. I was dreading the start of kindergarten for him, because I could tell that no matter how wonderful the teacher was, he would hate it because someone was telling him what he should do.

He has been happier the last three weeks than I can remember him being in a long while. He loves school (and so do we), and wishes he could go there every day (and some days I wish I could send him every day!). That being said, it is not without a lot of struggles for us as parents. There are huge issues we have dealt with emotionally to "let go" and give our son the kind of freedom he has at school. For one thing, I have huge issues around kids and media exposure, and my single biggest fear that I shared with a staff member when we were considering enrolling was that my son would spend a large amount of his time playing video games, and that the content of the video games would be violent. By the end of his visitor week, my fear was totally being lived out. My son spends much of his time (at least according to him) playing Halo. I totally freaked out when I found out that not only could media with violent content (rated M) come into the school, but also that my son would have free access to that media. We came mighty close to not enrolling. I am all for my son having all the freedom in the world to play outside, play deeply and creatively without adult obstruction, and to pursue his own unique creative interests. But I really do worry about the long-term impact of playing violent video games and exposure to violent media on a mind as young as his. I'm also concerned about the emotional and physical health impacts of kids spending so much time in front of the screen and not outside, and this is something we have long struggled with--95% of the time when he has free choice at home he will stay indoors.

From the research I've done, many Sudbury schools do not have a policy of limiting violent media content, and on many levels, that makes sense to me according to Sudbury philosophy. If we are going to trust our children to make their decisions and follow their interests, why wouldn't we trust them in this area as well?

What I'm having to realize is that this is MY issue. My son really is just fine. He has already shown us time and time again that he knows when something is too much for him. He will not watch certain scenes in the Harry Potter movies because we have already read the books, and he knows he does not want to see how those scenes would be portrayed. He will walk out of the room when such a scene comes on, or ask us to fast forward. When I as a parent try to control everything (for his own good, of course), I end up undermining his confidence and ability to regulate himself.

I have crazy feelings about this, almost daily. I find myself inwardly very angry when my sweet, happy little boy comes home and tells me he played Halo again. Inside I'm screaming: "Why in the hell am I paying tuition for you to play a video game for 3 days a week that I would never allow into my own home?" I also find myself, if I'm totally honest, really angry with him--on some level I feel like he is squandering his freedom on something I find to be so worthless. But, these are MY issues, not his. I readily admit that there have been days I've tried to make it his issue, going even as far as telling him that if he spends this whole year playing video games, it will be hard for me to send him back in the fall--and yes, I know this was crappy and horrible of me, but was authentic to how I felt at the time. My son's reaction was "well, maybe I should bring it up at School Meeting, because I want to keep on going there, and I'd rather have no video games then not be able to go." Boy did I feel like crap.

So, I truly value the freedom my son is experiencing, and am also totally challenged and freaked out by it on a daily basis. I go back and forth between being elated about his opportunity to feeling like I have totally abdicated all of my parental responsibilities and am sending him to his doom. If he were using his freedom to, say, go outside, build a fort, run around, build legos, we'd be totally elated. And, our own control issues and fears around "screen time" probably (very likely, definitely) are one of the factors that lead to him using his time to play Halo. It sucks. And it is wonderful. What a great crucible for growth this is and will be for us, if we can stand the angst.

I'd appreciate any support and feedback other parents, alum and students can give me. Please be gentle on me, this isn't easy stuff.

Post #2, from an interested party

I really admire your honesty and willingness to put your journey out there. Have you had a chance to meet any other parents at the school your son attends? I'm sure they have gone through similar struggles (parents of older boys who've been at the school awhile would probably be especially helpful to talk to). And I know some Sudbury schools have parents' coffees periodically to give parents a chance to meet informally outside of Assembly meetings and discuss issues. Given the opportunity, you might also talk to some older students themselves about their experiences with games.

Also, Sudbury schools aren't a vacuum as far as behavior--if for some reason a kid does act in a violent way, there are mechanisms for the community to address that. I read somewhere (I think it was in Mark McCaig's book ["Like Water"] about Fairhaven School) about a student who was brought before JC for losing his temper; the JC felt it was connected to his gaming and banned him from the computer room for a month and he did a lot of maturing as a result of that process. . . . I'm not an authority or anything--I've only visited once at the semi-local Sudbury school and spent some time talking with students and staff, and of course read a lot of the literature. . . .

Post #3, from a Sudbury Valley parent

My son also started going to Sudbury Valley School when he was five. He is now thirteen. I had many of the same concerns as you, and yes it's not easy to give up that control (or feeling of control). In our experience his immersion in violent video games did not poison him as I had feared it might. He was always clear that they were games and had (and has) great fun playing them, usually collectively with friends.

Personality traits he now has that we see as fostered by his attendance at SVS:

Open ability to give and receive affection from his friends.
Confidence in his own point of view.
Uncanny understanding of social dynamics.
Knowledge of his own worth relative to others regardless of age or status.
Natural freedom to feel and show compassion.
Willingness to do the hard work required to learn what he doesn't know about what interests him.

Post #4, from another Sudbury Valley parent

I find this fascinating--thanks for sharing your experience. I feel differently about violent video games, perhaps because my daughter's dad, stepdad, and I grew up playing video games (less graphic but just as violent back then). But I had similar concerns about candy and junk food, which are readily available from either "concession", or from other kids, but which Elaine had not experienced before SudVal--nutrition is very important to me, and cake, candy, and junk just didn't exist in Elaine's world. I never considered not enrolling her over this issue, but it still bothered me. I ultimately realized that all the wonderful, positive things about SudVal outweighed this one sticking point. And thankfully, my girl has used her freedom wisely--whatever initial junk food binging she might have done when first exposed (I really don't know because she didn't tell me), she eats pretty healthily now.

On video games, she did go through a phase where she played video games all the time, but she got bored with it eventually. Now she's knitting and reading and climbing trees and whatever, and still plays the occasional video game. (She's even backed off from the highly addicting World of Warcraft.) I think it's important for them to figure this out for themselves: whatever value they find in video games, doing it all the time gets a bit boring and repetitive. They're never going to figure out that it gets boring and repetitive if we take it away from them before they have the chance to figure that out.

And in defense of video games, I think there is a lot of value there. Kids learn about plot, character, story arc, conflict, resolution, protagonists, antagonists, archetypal myths, good and evil, problem solving, goal achievement, strategy, teamwork and social skills, hand eye coordination, computers, and much more. It's also an opportunity to talk about the difference between fantasy and reality, which I think most kids get but it can't hurt to discuss. I realize that they might be able to get all these things from nonviolent or less violent video games, but I just wanted to point out that even the violent games have these positive attributes.

And I don't mind the violence, personally, though I understand the arguments against it. I don't want to hijack your thread about freedom and letting go with a discussion about whether violence in video games is harmful, but for the record, I'm OK with it.

It sounds like you're already figuring out your own answers--I love that your son preemptively walks out on the Harry Potter scenes that he anticipates will be disturbing to him. I wonder why he can tolerate the violence in a video game over the HP scene? Is the HP scene more violent? (I'd guess not.) Does the HP scene seem more real to him, where the video game is so obviously fantasy? Is it that he's in control of the video game, but not in control of the fate of the film? And why do you accept the violence in HP, but not in a video game? (Not meant to be a criticism--I'm honestly curious.) Though it's kind of off-topic, I find these questions fascinating.

Post # 5, from Scott Gray, SVS staff member

Although I am going to offer a response to your post, and your questions, I would encourage you to seek meaningful answers from the person who conducted your enrollment interview at the school your son attends. My answers are broad and general, but I do not know you, your son, the school, or the specific issues.

I am a Sudbury Valley School alumnus. Having been a child myself (most people on this list were actually children for some part of their lives!), and having seen lots of children grow up, I have a couple of comments.

My mom and dad were classically liberal parents, in every way except for one. They never cared to exert control over my habits with the radio, the TV, comic books, video games or other so-called violent media. I don't think that it ever crossed their minds, except perhaps when they saw their liberal friends and colleagues banning toy guns or hiding the TV in the top of their bedroom closets (which my parents always found to be laughably naive of their friends).

There are lots of criticisms that could easily be leveled against me (this is not an invitation to do so!), but the notion that I am a violent person or that I am emotionally stunted vis-a-vis violence is not one of them.

When I was a kid, and now, I never really could understand the notion that playing a video game shoot-em-up, or playing cops and robbers, is analogous to actual violence. When I was a kid playing Monopoly, I never heard adults speak in hushed tones about their fears that I would grow up to be a real estate tycoon or a banker.

Playing at violence is not the same as violence. Playing at anything is about figuring out that thing, figuring out what the social mores are towards it, and figuring out one's own attitude towards it.

If, when your child is playing at being a fireman, you actively think that s/he might run into a burning building because of play-born delusions, then yes, you should worry. If, when your child is playing at being a dog, you are actively worried that s/he might run up to and bite the mailman, then yes, you should worry. In either case, your fear amounts to, "my child does not actually play--my child, instead, suffers from psychotic delusions." And, indeed, for such a child, I would keep them well away from violent media. For such a child, I would be forced to seek extensive medical help!

However, normal children play at all kinds of things that they have no interest in actually doing. It's part of getting a grip on the phenomenon, and understanding it.

The most important lesson one gets from play is an answer to the question "who has control and power over my life?" If the child grows up knowing that his/her play is entirely his (as long as s/he doesn't intrude on anyone else during her/his play--such as by being too loud or by actually biting the mailman or actually hitting someone) then s/he will grow up knowing how to handle power emotionally and mentally.

If the child grows up not feeling control over her/his own play--because the adults around keep trying to guide his/her own internal mental processes--then I would worry that s/he would try to exert her/his power in real ways (e.g., with real violence or stealing). And, yes, if the "control" issues end up coming to a head in games that revolve around cooking, I would worry about my child developing an unhealthy/unrealistic attitude towards the kitchen, and if the control issues come to a head in games of violence, I would worry about my child developing an unhealthy/unrealistic attitude towards violence.

I would strongly recommend a lovely book by Gerard Jones (a comic book author and defender of "violent" media), titled Killing Monsters (2002).

What are you paying tuition for? For your child to hold his own life in his own hands. For him to be servant to nobody, but equal to and respected by everybody. For him to be part of a broad community of respectful people, to share his interests with, and to discuss anything with. The fact that I can use my freedom to go fishing, does not mean that my freedom is worth exactly as much as a day of fishing! For less than $1000 a month, you are letting your son be fully human, and letting him engage in the acts of discovery and play that make us human. That's a bargain at a thousand times the price.

Post #6, from a third Sudbury Valley parent

I'm new to the model too, though my daughter is much older than your son. She's sixteen.

I find this school challenges my parenting skills in very different ways. I no longer have to bug her about her homework being done, or how well she did it. That is a beautiful thing! And it's given way to discussions about much more interesting things--kid-kid interactions, JC issues, responsibility, choices she makes, choices other kids make. In some ways this is much harder than homework. There's no single right answer! Often listening is more important than anything I say.

I would suggest you make a time in your daily routine for discussion with your son--before bed or on the way home, whatever. For us, it's commute time. Help him evaluate the choices he made that day. Listen to what he enjoys and encourage it, suggest other things he could check out. Anything you're worried about (the videos), explore it with him--why does he like it? what else could he try that has similar characteristics that you would be more comfortable with? Let him know which choices make you happy, which ones you worry about. That's part of what he will incorporate into his decisions. He's very young for so much responsibility--he's going to make some poor choices, but that's all part of the process of growing.

Post #7, from Karen Hyams, former staff member of a Sudbury school

This is a very exciting time of growth for you and your family, and this is just the first of many challenges you are going to go through with your son's school. And whatever peace you make with this issue will be disturbed again some day, maybe more than once, unless you are some Super Sudbury Parent, in which case you can come offer advice to the rest of us when we freak out.

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for my son to get bored of the games if I were you. Maybe he will eventually "realize" that they aren't that interesting, as some kids do. But he might want to play them for a long time, or his interest will wax and wane over the years. In truth, these games can be interesting, especially when they become really social. My son's year at school is shaping up to be his best so far. He's got a really nice, tight group of friends and their center is the XBox. He's doing other things, too, but that's really important to him. And I feel that it is unfair of me to try to parse his gaming to extract some reassuring list of accomplishments. He does not play to further a long-range plan, he does it purely for the joy of it.

But for the reassurance, he is 14, and delightful. He's been a Sudbury kid since he was 7 and has been a gamer the whole time. He's not remotely violent or antisocial or awkward or unhealthy. He knows how to read, etc. He has a lot of friends outside the school and gets along with lots of different types of people. He's turned out OK so far.

At my kid's school, man, they swear like sailors, even some of the five-year-olds. Let us know how you do with that!

Post #8, from Tane Akamatsu, former staff member of a Sudbury School

I totally resonate with the Sudbury Valley parent's analysis of video gaming, but also with your alarm at how your son is spending his time. I, too, went through the same "OMG, why am I paying thousands of dollars a year for you to play video games when you can do this at home for free (and where I can control which games you play)?"

My son started at a Sudbury model school (The Beach School) when he was 11 and stayed until it sadly closed its doors when he was 15. During that time, he was probably the most avid gamer, although he had plenty of company, mostly boys. And yes, Halo was BIG TIME. He repeatedly assured me that he knew the difference between fantasy and reality, and NEVER did I see problems at home caused by his playing of this game. Any problems around gaming at school were mostly about mess--eating, leaving food wrappers, not tidying up at the end of the day, that sort of thing. This could happen around any activity, not just gaming.

Moreover, I'm rather proud of the fact that he, along with a couple of the older boys, convinced the School Meeting to release money to buy an XBox! They researched prices, packages, brought it up at SM, worked on the media policy (games, movies, computer content), and were at every meeting that "gaming" came up. When one of the younger students tried to get Halo3 banned, he was in there like a dirty shirt, arguing why it shouldn't be banned. The motion was defeated and Halo3 reigned (Rats!). But so did Guitar Hero (which started him on to playing guitar; he'll be in a recital playing his own composition with his super-guitar-teacher soon) and Super Smash Brothers (if that's not violent, I don't know what is). And I was very pleasantly surprised at how social gaming is. He learned about teamwork and holding up one's commitments. He gets quite annoyed when he feels he's the only one pulling his weight, not just around gaming, but around any activity. Therefore, he always makes sure that he's pulling his weight. Not a bad thing to learn. The SM eventually came up with a media policy that I thought was brilliant, this after many many versions and discussions. So I love your son's response: "well, maybe I should bring it up at school meeting, because I want to keep on going there, and I'd rather have no video games then not be able to go." This shows that he GETS Sudbury. He'll be fine.

Post #9, from the parent who began the thread

Thank you for all of the thoughtful, compelling, and compassionate replies. You are giving me great stuff to think about.

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