Visual Media: Yes, Yes, But is it Living?

By Alison Hendricks

My children are addicts.

All right, so they’re not really addicts, but they certainly act like addicts where television and video are concerned. I constantly feel like the bad guy because evidently they are too young to have developed the self-control necessary for turning the TV off. Maybe some habit formation is in order! However, I often wonder if I am not responsible for their behavior because I so severely limit their screen time…sort of a forbidden fruit effect. At our home, movie night comes on Friday night and they are allowed to watch a bit of television with their dad on the weekends, an hour or two total for the week.
According to kidshealth.org:
*two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of 2 hours a day
*kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and videos or DVDs
*kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
The first 2 years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. TV and other electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, which encourages learning and healthy physical and social development.
As kids get older, too much screen time can interfere with activities such as being physically active, reading, doing homework, playing with friends, and spending time with family.

While these are valid reasons for limiting screen time, my children’s physical and social health are not the real reasons why we limit the boob tube. Their spiritual and intellectual health are, in my thinking, the more important developmental aspects and are worthy of protection. There is so little of value in the way of children’s programming and movies, yet there is so much in this genre! How do we wade through it all and find truly living media?

Obviously Charlotte Mason couldn’t have said much on the subject of children’s television, but she had plenty to say about literature.

The subject of ‘Children’s Literature’ has been well threshed out, and only one thing remains to be said,––children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose. Out of any list of ‘the hundred best books,’ I believe that seventy-five would be well within the range of children of eight or nine. They would delight in Rasselas, Eöthen would fascinate them as much as Robinson Crusoe, the Faëry Queen, with its allegory and knightly adventures and sense of free moving in woodland scenery, would exactly fall in with their humour. What they want is to be brought into touch with living thought of the best, and their intellectual life feeds upon it with little meddling on our part. Book III, School Education, pg. 122.

So, here is a thought…what if we approached television with the same attitude? What if we examined what our children watch with the thought in mind that twaddle television just might be junk food for the brain? Sure it’s fun and they like it because it doesn’t require much of them, but even the stuff that is labelled “children’s educational television” is probably dumbed down and unnecessary. If we approached our TV with this attitude, our remote control would rarely pause on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney Channel. Instead, we might set our DVR for programs on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, PBS, Food Network or the Documentary Channel (not the kid versions of these same channels!). My kids have no idea what other kids mean when they talk about Kick Buttowski, but they go out in the woods pretending to be Bear Grylls (Man Vs. Wild). ABC’s Wipeout is a no-go with me, but Chasing Mummies with Dr. Zahi Hawass is full of current events that relate to ancient history…fascinating! Alton Brown, of Good Eats fame, is a household name, but my young daughter thinks that girl with the two personalities is named “Hantana” and she doesn’t even know the theme song. This is not a bad thing and I can feel better about shows that equip my children with actual skills or at the least the desire to gain those great life skills.

Now, on to movies…

As l have tried to think of what movies I would consider “living”, I realized that nearly all the films I would place in this category are movies made from quality literature. Unfortunately, the movie is almost never as good as the book and I would be hard pressed to think of a movie that was better than it’s book. So, the guideline that we usually keep in our home is that you should read the book before you see the movie. Even after reading the book, however, parents should preview most movies before showing them to very young children. A battle scene in a book looks very different in a six year old’s imagination than what has come from the imagination of an adult director and is forced upon the child by way of a screen.

Again, let us deal with movies made from books in a particularly Mason way. Essentially, a book is just too long to be played out to it’s entirety on a screen, which is why so much of what we love ends up on the cutting room floor. We walk out of a theatre saying, “Oh, they didn’t show this character. The movie completely missed that part,” and we are usually disappointed. Instead, let us look at movies as what they are: a narration. An incomplete, summarized retelling of a great book: a narration is what we have seen played out before us. Let us teach our children to approach the movie in this way and prepare them to watch for what the director left out in the screen play. Just as children in a PUS school were allowed to listen to a narration and fill in the missing pieces, we can do the same with a movie. Even better if there have been two movies made of the same book, for it shows that the second film maker was not satisfied with the first film maker’s narration. A useful activity could involve making your own film before seeing the Hollywood version and comparing the two as a family.

One final note, there are two wonderful websites that are most helpful in movie and television selection. The first is pluggedin.com which is run by Focus on the Family and gives reviews from a decidedly Christian standpoint. The second is commonsensemedia.org which is a non-profit national organization run by parents and other individuals. Both sites expose the good and the bad elements of movies and TV programs. Both are very specific about issues with language, violence, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Common Sense Media also gives information regarding consumerism and role models. Other pluses for Common Sense: parents and children can write reviews and I like the way they give age appropriateness.

I have been challenged during the writing of this blog series to make use of the mixed blessing of technology in our home classroom. This appears to be a battle, but I am hopeful that we can lay a feast for our children and watch them grow into fully educated adults. Remember when Charlotte said, “the mathematician who knows little of the history of his own country or that of any other, is sparsely educated at the best.” Vol. 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pg.232? I would contend that the same holds true for any subject. To rephrase dear Charlotte, I say, “Technology is a necessary part of every man’s education; it must be taught by those who know, but shouldn’t engross the time and attention of the scholar in such a way as to shut out any of the other essential subjects to which he has a natural right.”

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Living Technology? Living Media? Does it exist?

Part I
by Alison Hendricks

When I find myself confronted with an education or curriculum question, I often find myself asking, What would Charlotte say? As my children grow and develop and care more about their peers and the outer world in general, the discussion of media and technology is forefront in their minds, especially my boys. You are unlikely to find the latest child-centered gadget or gizmo in our home. The television is seldom on while children are awake. Our children’s DVD selection is slim. I am happy this way…and I’m also a hypocrite. I have an iPhone full of apps, I am typing away on my Mac, I read Charlotte on a Kindle, my husband and I love watching the History Channel together and I use the internet to do nearly ALL of our non-grocery shopping. Why the discrepancy? I fear that if I let my children satisfy all of their technology cravings, they will grow up to be introverted, overweight and unable to develop a desire to do more than find the easiest way to instant gratification. Or worse, that they will become prey for the Enemy. The lightning-fast pace of technology development means that although pre-mommyhood I was a technology curriculum specialist for my local school district, I often feel woefully behind the times. Our current society revolves with technology and it is the defining item of our age. While it may not be entirely our zeitgeist, it makes up a great portion or has a great influence on our zeitgeist. (Leslie Laurio says that this word “zeitgeist comes from two words that translate spirit and time; zeitgeist means the general spirit or feeling of the current age we live in.”). So, where our children are concerned, it begs the question: What would Charlotte say?

We entirely agree that no one can escape the influence of this Zeitgeist, and that the Zeitgeist is, in fact, one of the most powerful of the occult educational influences, and one which parents and all who have the training of children will do well to reckon with in the adjustment of their work. Nature, family, social intercourse, this Zeitgeist, the Church and the State, thus Professor Rein, as interpreting Herbart, sums up the schoolmasters under whose influences every child grows up; a suggestive enumeration we should do well to consider. Vol. 3, pg. 94

And when speaking of her own theory of education she says:

Such a theory of education, which need not be careful to call itself a system of psychology, must be in harmony with the thought movements of the age; must regard education, not as a shut off compartment, but as being as much a part of life as birth or growth, marriage or work; and it must leave the pupil attached to the world at many points of contact. Preface to the Home Education Series

While I don’t necessarily live in harmony with our zeitgeist-influencer of technology, I do believe that we should at least have an awareness that regards current thought and reacts or conforms or reclaims as necessary. What would Ms. Mason think of modern technology? I think she would not expect us to hide our heads in the sand, or cut our young image-bearers off from the current thought of our age, but to learn it, use it and encourage the reclaiming of this arena for Christ! But will my technology and media illiterate children be able to accomplish this task? Of course not. Therefore, I have a responsibility to ensure that this domain becomes a part of our great feast of ideas. Here is the moment that I begin to cower, cringe and procrastinate.

There is just SO much bathwater with this baby that it is often easier to throw it all out than muck through finding the best of the best. Therefore, I sat down to write this blog series as a way to make myself accountable for including the best technology/media into my children’s feast. Hopefully, in the process, it will help some others wade through the torrential flood and find some real gems that lend themselves beautifully to a Mason-based curriculum.

I’m going to lay down a few ground rules for myself. First, screen time (defined as any time in front of any screen) is not good for children under the age of two, period. So, I will not be reviewing anything for that age group. Second, I have found little intrinsic value in video games. Call me biased, call me old-fashioned but I believe they are a poor (I’ll not say cheap because they’re not!) substitute for actual play, exploration and discovery. I believe Charlotte would have said, “Go outside and play!” The current Wii-type gaming systems may be a step in the right direction, but I still believe they can never replace actual fresh air and sunshine. Even the so-called learning games are so abstract in nature that the benefit that is gleaned from them is fleeting in these concrete young brains. So, I won’t be reviewing video games or gaming systems. However, I know that many will not agree with me on this and likely have lovely examples of exceptions to my blanket statements. Perhaps one of those folks can write an article on the subject. Third, I believe Scripture is very clear when it says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV) and, “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” Ephesians 2:2 (KJV). If we allow our children to let the prince of the power of the air take all their thoughts captive, we are setting them up for failure in the Christian life and opening them up to be prey of the Enemy. So, I will be careful where technology is concerned to err on the side of caution. I will pay close attention to the effects of it on my children’s spirits, characters and dispositions and be quick to end a “relationship” with a device in favor of real Relationship with their Lord, family and friends.
Coming soon: Part II- Book Media

Charlotte Mason in NW Arkansas

In June 2009, Cindy Vasquez, Mary Grace Alexander and Alison Hendricks attended the ChildLight USA conference at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. They spent a lot of time visiting with ladies and gentlemen who were dedicated to implementing Charlotte Mason’s philosophies and methods of education in schools and homeschools. From all the wisdom given at the conference, these ladies determined that the best way to stay true to Ms. Mason’s philosophies was to spend time reading her works and holding grand conversations about the readings. In July, they began reading one section per month of CM’s Home Education Volume. They then began holding meetings to discuss the section and having a time of practical application instruction.

That was four years ago! Now we embark on the second reading of Ms. Mason’s essential works! This blog is our attempt to record important events, provide discourse on Mason’s philosophies and how they relate to modern homeschooling, and to give living information on events and venues in the Northwest Arkansas area that lend themselves to this unique style of educating as an atmosphere, discipline and life.