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Noe Author Says Violent Entertainment Is Good for Kids
By Heidi Anderson
A few years ago, in a preschool sandbox near Noe Valley, a little girl picked up two Lion King action figures. She made one figure attack the other repeatedly, muttering "Murder Mufasa!"
After observing this kind of play, the director of the preschool fired off a letter to parents, warning that violence was creeping into their children's lives. She begged them to keep their kids away from television and movies, which she saw as the likely cause of violent behavior.
A parent at the school wrote a letter back saying he'd enjoyed plenty of cartoons, slapstick comedy, and action movies as a kid, and he didn't see the harm in letting kids watch some TV or movies.
When that letter was published in the preschool newsletter, it unleashed a flood of negative responses.
Author Gerard Jones, a Noe Street resident whose son happened to be attending the school, didn't join the debate, but he was struck by its intensity.
"Parents wrote so many letters -- most of them anonymous -- attacking this guy personally for having dangerous and bad ideas. Almost all of them said children should be restricted from violent media entirely."
Convinced that this was shaky advice, Jones set out to investigate the topic in depth. "I wanted to prove my gut feeling that violent entertainment usually inspires kids to more rambunctious play, but actually makes them less aggressive in real life."
The result is his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy Games, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence, released this month by Basic Books. Jones will discuss and sign copies of his work at a publication party at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Friday, April 12, at 7 p.m.
Jones, 44, acknowledges he has ties to the culture that produces make-believe violence. He has penned dozens of comic book titles, including Spiderman, X-Men, and Superman , and authored two books on comics and TV sitcoms, Comic Book Heroes and Honey, I'm Home!
But his interest in the subject goes deeper than career advancement. He says he remembers all too well how violent entertainment and play figured in his life as a kid.
Jones was raised by his two parents, both high school English teachers, in the South Bay. He says his mother, who had also spent several years working for the civil rights movement, believed that any kind of violence was wrong.
"When I was about 9, I was playing with a toy gun. I came upon my mom in the house and playfully clicked the gun at her. She turned away from me, in horror and disgust. Later she told me it had reminded her of all the violence going on in the world."
That was fine, says the adult Jones, "but she couldn't see it as child's play, and she didn't acknowledge where I was coming from as a 9-year old boy. I wish she'd played along for a moment, because it was just that -- play."
Jones believes that "if you as an adult treat your child's fantasy as real, your kid will never learn the difference between the two. Ideally, should you be 'shot at' by a kid who's playing with you, you should grab your chest and fall down."
Or, at the very least, you should smile. He says an important reason for playing along with fantasies, even if only a little, is that it shows children their fantasies are acceptable.
"They look to us to help make the distinction between reality and fantasy. If we act as if their play is real, we may blur the lines for them."
Steeling Oneself for Danger
A great deal of Jones' book focuses on violent video games -- those that involve graphic depictions of shootings, blood, and gore.
Jones describes one game, called Half-Life, in which the player is a lone scientist hiding a research project from both a corrupt government and evil aliens. "It's you against two huge forces. There's shooting and lots of blood squirting," Jones admits. "But what people may not know is that most of your time is spent walking around, steeling yourself for danger and hanging in suspense."
In the book, he interviews hardcore game players, all of whom told Jones they were unable to play the game well unless they remained in control of their emotions. "You can't win these games if you're just angry," Jones concludes.
When chided about using the book as an excuse to play video games himself, Jones laughs. "No, I've never been a video game player. I was as ignorant about violent games as anyone before I started this."
In fact, Killing Monsters took five years to complete. "I must have talked to a couple hundred parents, and at least a hundred kids," says Jones.
He also interviewed dozens of professionals in the field of child psychology, and analyzed numerous studies gauging kids' reactions to violence in the media.
Some of the stories Jones recounts came out of his own Art and Story Workshops, the classes he leads for children all over the Bay Area. In the workshops, kids create and tell their fantasies through the art of cartooning.
But many of his best sources were Noe Valley parents. "I don't know if it would have happened if I hadn't lived here," he says. "There's an openness here to alternative ideas, beyond those of the parents who wrote such angry letters about the Mufasa incident.
"Perhaps they were open-minded because most of the parents I talked to here in Noe Valley were also teachers and therapists, and they spend a lot of time listening to kids."
Jones travels quite often to other parts of the country to speak about his subject. He has served on conference panels on children and media at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also has been interviewed on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" and "Morning Edition."
He says he has found a very different attitude elsewhere. "Like in the Midwest, for instance, I sense a real urge to protect kids from media violence. It's almost a nervous fear that kids are going to be overly influenced."
He hopes his book reaches those parents. "There's a difference between protecting your kids and trying to script who they are." Jones argues that a parent's overreaction to normal aggressive play can cause kids to feel they're "wrong" and perhaps "weird," and may lead the child, paradoxically, to abnormal aggression in real life.
How Should Parents React?
But aren't there some kids who get whipped into a lather by violent games, movies, or TV? For parents who find that to be the case, Jones prescribes some time-honored techniques: ask the child to make choices about what entertainment he or she uses, and set reasonable limits for how much time is devoted to each.
"The problem may simply be overuse of entertainment," he says.
Jones also doesn't flinch when asked about the obvious problem of allowing your children to reenact violent scenes on the playground.
"The first time a kid imitates a Power Ranger and kicks a playmate, he or she gets a lesson in reality -- a sore foot and a crying friend."
Then there's the question that inevitably pops up in any discussion of teenage boys: What about Columbine and the other school shootings?
"White male shooters, feeling angry and impotent, have been around since forever," says Jones. "One psychologist I interviewed believes the shootings are a form of suicide, the kind where you take others with you.
"Only a few of the school shooters played violent shooter games or liked violence," he continues. "The most important commonality in these kids is that they all felt the world was ignoring them."
So isolation could be the real culprit. "That's the whole point of my book," Jones says. "I'm asking parents to be more involved with their kids."
Practicing What He Preaches
Jones is aware how his message might be received by other parents, people on the front lines of the struggle with violent influences and behaviors. He openly refers to the lessons he and his wife Jennie are learning as they raise their son Nick, a third-grader at Live Oak School.
"He helps me in some surprising ways to understand this," says Jones, remembering a time when Nick was about 5.
"Nick was a big Power Rangers fan." But when he became fascinated with the PBS show Teletubbies, Jones figured his son would discard the militant Rangers and move on to the Teletubbies' more nurturing style of expression.
"But he had a dream he called 'The Battle Show,'" Jones recalls. "In the dream, the Teletubbies turned into Power Rangers. He eventually made a game out of it and got his friends playing it."
"It was a distilling moment for me," Jones says. He saw how early in life children can deal with aggression in creative ways.
"I realized that violence should have a place in children's lives."
Gerard Jones discussed his book with National Public Radio host Terry Gross on the April 1 broadcast of "Fresh Air." (See freshair.npr.org to hear the interview.) For more information on Killing Monsters, visit Jones' web site at www.gerardjones.com.
Excerpts from Gerard Jones' Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy Games, Superheroes, and Make Believe Violence
(q2002, Basic Books)
Many of us worried about how we would help children deal with the terror of September 11, but when I went into the classrooms, I found that the children were far less shaken than their parents and teachers. Most of them talked about the horrific images they'd seen with a mixture of anger and excitement -- and a lot of them wanted to draw pictures, tell stories, or play games involving planes destroying buildings or soldiers fighting terrorists. This isn't a failure to react appropriately to tragedy: this is how children deal with it."
-- Gerard Jones
In junior high, Jimmy fell in love with first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake in which the player has to explore a fantasy environment and gun down the bizarre opponents who attack him. [His grandmother] Leila supported him in his enthusiasm. "Having been responsible for raising five younger siblings my whole childhood," she said, "I grew up with a lot of stress and anger. I still remember what a huge release it was to play war and shoot up not only my siblings but other kids in the neighborhood who had it so much easier than me. Jimmy doesn't have that, because nobody plays war in our neighborhood, and they probably wouldn't play with him anyway. But I could see him achieving the same release in his video games. He was always calmer and more confident after spending a while with his games."
-- Gerard Jones