I've long been concerned about how crass - how loud, how violent, how hyped-up - is so much of what children are exposed to these days. With so many of the popular movies, TV, and video games, it's like the kids are constantly being hit over the head, constantly screamed at.
But it's a recent realization that's led me to take a more hard-line approach to what my nine-year-old son, Nathaniel, will see.
Nat persuaded me to tape - from our satellite - a couple of "great" movies he'd heard about. After "Mars Attacks" proved disappointing to my parental eye - the passable social satire was soon completely buried under the usual bombardment of the violent, the vicious, and the gross - we turned hopefully to the 1996 version of "Romeo and Juliet." Nat had heard it was a "neat" movie, and I was glad for him to have a chance to hear Shakespeare's language.
I soon discovered I could forget the idea of "hearing" the poetry. Even if you listen to the voices - undistracted by the switching of the camera angles every second or two, the violent gestures, and the hyper movements - the shouting of the lines fairly obliterates the great bard's gift to us.
That's when the realization struck me that if they're hitting us over the head and screaming at us it's because the moviemakers realize that those brought up on a steady diet of such hyped-up messages have been inured to feeling any gentler touch and been deafened to any more delicate sound.
An analogy comes to my mind. I once embarked upon a diet that eliminated all sweetened foods. After only a week, it was amazing how sweet a mere apple tasted. With some things, the more you get of them, the more you'll need to get the same effect. That's a hallmark of addiction.
And that's how it is with today's media: They keep ratcheting up the levels - the violence, the sex, the decibels - because their audience, after years of having its attention grabbed by these addictive stimuli, has lost the ability to experience subtler levels.
And so our children, growing up in today's media environment of ever-escalating crudity and viciousness and sensationalism, are in jeopardy of being desensitized by the Pied Pipers of the popular media to the deeper meanings and enduring beauties of life.
So how is a parent to help?
In general, rather than commanding and prohibiting, I like to give my counsel and allow the child to observe from his own experience what are the effects of different courses of action.
But on some courses, there's no readily available way of experiencing the alternatives. How are you to know how sweet an apple can taste until you stop putting sugar on your cereal and eating ice cream for dessert? The initial experience upon breaking an addictive pattern is generally discomfort. How is a child to know the benefits that lie beyond that discomfort?
So we've decided that, for our child to learn this vital lesson, we'll have to impose our will more than we usually do. Some experiences he'll not have unless we arrange for them.
We've decided, therefore, to cut way back on our nine-year-old's consumption of this crass contemporary culture. No prohibition, just very small doses.
WE don't want Nathaniel to grow up to be a person who finds nothing of interest in a rose because it doesn't change colors or jump up and down or crash through a window.
In an African fable, an elephant, standing in a pond, is about to eat a succulent heart of palm when he accidentally drops it into the water. In his panic to retrieve the delicacy, the elephant muddies the water with his stomping.
A nearby bird calls out to the elephant, "Just listen." When the elephant finally hears the bird and listens, his first response is an impatient protest: "I don't hear anything." But in the few moments that he's standing still, the mud he'd kicked up settles, leaving the water clear. It is only then that, without any difficulty, he can find his tasty piece of palm.
I want my boy to be able to be still enough for his waters to become clear.
* Andrew Bard Schmookler is writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. More of his ideas can be found at his website at www.worldwide- interads.com/schmookler