Violent television aimed at kids is controversial for good reason. It seems logical to limit kids’ exposure. After all, kids who watch violent TV may mimic the behavior and become violent themselves.
A study profiled in “NurtureShock” confirmed this hypothesis, but also revealed something surprising. Kids who watched educational TV shows (which parents often think of as “good” TV) did not absorb those shows’ lessons on “good” behavior such as sharing and helping. Instead, they were often manipulative and bossy—and almost as violent as the kids who watched more violent TV.
Why the surprising finding? Dr. Cynthia Schiebe of Ithaca College analyzed 470 children’s TV shows. Here’s what she found:
… 96 percent of all children’s programming includes verbal insults and put-downs, averaging 7.7 put-downs per half-hour episode. Programs specifically considered “prosocial” weren’t much better—66.7% of them still contained insults. … Of the 2,628 put-downs the team identified, in only 50 instances was the insulter reprimanded or corrected—and not once in an educational show.
Perhaps this is just one of the reasons that modern parents, who are ostensibly so concerned about teaching their children nonviolent, well-mannered behavior, are producing kids who still punch and taunt each other on the playground.
Another reason could be that our attempts to shield children from parental strife are backfiring. One researcher set up staged arguments for children to witness and found that if the child saw the resolution of the argument, instead of simply the argument itself, the chance of an aggressive reaction to the fighting plummeted drastically. In other words, “parents who pause mid-argument to take it upstairs—to spare the children—might be making the situation far worse.”
Where does spanking fit in all this? Research has shown a relationship between spanking and aggressive behavior in children: The more they’re spanked, the more aggressive they will be. It seems simple, but as “NurtureShock” reveals, there’s more to the picture. Those studies looked at mostly white families. When the same researcher studied black families, where spanking is more of a cultural norm, the spanked children actually became less aggressive:
In a culture where spanking is accepted practice, it becomes “the normal thing that goes on … when a kid does something he shouldn’t.” … Conversely, in the white community … physical discipline was a mostly unspoken taboo. It was saved only for the worst offenses. The parent was usually very angry at the child and had lost his or her temper. The implicit message was: “What you have done is so deviant that you deserve a special punishment.”
The book also tackles bullying. Research is finally catching up to what movies and books have told us for a long time—that it’s not just “bad” kids who bully. While parents and teachers may attempt to ban kids from hitting, taunting, or forming cliques, it is exactly this behavior that is social currency for schoolchildren. The most sophisticated kids wield “kindness and cruelty … [as] equally effective tools of power.” And they have more opportunities than ever to engage in social ranking, as parents orchestrate play dates and peer activities in place of free play and family time. As the authors say, “The more time peers spend together, the stronger this compulsion is to rank high, resulting in the hostility of one-upmanship.”
Most parents figure the best way to stem kids’ aggression is to be as involved as possible in teaching lessons and setting a good example at an early age. However, a study of dads’ parenting styles ultimately showed that the most “progressive” dads—those who had just as big a stake in child-rearing as the moms—had kids who were aggressive almost as much as the kids of disengaged dads. The researcher’s theory:
… the Progressive Dad may know how not to discipline a child (i.e. hit the kid, scream), but he doesn’t know what to do instead. Indeed, the whole idea that he would actually need to discipline a child … may throw him for a loop. Moreover, he finds punishing the kid acutely embarrassing. Therefore, one day it’d be no dessert; the next day the silent treatment … He’s always trying something new, and caving at the wrong time.
So one takeaway could certainly be that consistency in discipline is key. Another is that even as kids grow, they still need time with adults just as much as their peers. Finally, when they’re exposed to conflict, whether through their parents or TV, it’s important that they see the resolution or consequences.
Do you find anything surprising about the research on aggression in kids? How did your parents discipline you or your siblings for aggression?