Educating Your Child’s Heart

By: Dr. Ted Baehr; ©2001
Are you concerned about the influence of media violence on your children? Do you know what to do about it? Dr. Baehr explains there are tools available for you to use in teaching your child to deal with the messages they hear and read.



Most families are concerned about the influence of media violence on their children, but many families don’t know what to do about the problem. The good news is that there are effective ways to teach your children to be media-wise.

As director of the TV Center at City University of New York, I helped develop some of the first media literacy courses in the late 1970s. Since then, years of research have pro­duced a very clear understanding of how to teach media literacy.

There are four pillars of media wisdom.

The first is understanding the influence of the media, which may be titled, “breaking the bonds of denial.” As Dale Kunkel, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out, after thousands of intensive studies in this area, only one significant researcher still denies the influence of the media, and that researcher last did real research in this area in the mid-1980s. In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, CBS president Leslie Moonves put it quite bluntly, “Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this is an idiot” (Associated Press, 05/19/99). Thus, the American Psychological Association’s report on media violence concludes, “There is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of violence demonstrate increased acceptance of aggressive atti­tudes and increased aggressive behavior.”

Of course, media is not the whole problem, but only one part of the equation that could be summed up with the sage biblical injunction found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” (NIV) This is the message of the Surgeon General’s Report released on youth violence. Bad company corrupts good character, whether that bad company is gangs, peer pressure, or violent mass media of entertainment.

Breaking the bonds of denial also means noting that there is a lot of good media out there, which we honor every March at the MOVIEGUIDE® Annual Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry in Los Angeles and which aired on PaxTV Easter Sunday, April 15. In fact, the number of movies with worthwhile redemptive content has doubled in the last four years.

The second step in media wisdom is understanding the susceptibility of children at each stage of cognitive development. Not only do children see the media differently at each stage of development, but also different children are susceptible to different stimuli. As the research of the National Institute of Mental Health showed many years ago, some children want to copy media violence, some are susceptible to other media influences, some be­come afraid, and many just become desensitized. Just like an alcoholic would be inordi­nately tempted by a beer commercial, so the propensity for susceptibility plays an important part in what kind of media will influence your child at each stage of development.

The third part of media wisdom is understanding the grammar of the media so that you can deconstruct and critique what you are watching by asking the right questions. Children spend the first 14 years of their lives learning grammar with respect to 16th Century technology – the written word. They need to be taught the grammar of the 21st Century technology. Thus, they need to know how aspects of different media work and influence them, and how to be able to ask the right questions such as, Who is the hero? the villain? And, the premise?

Finally, your children need to understand your values to be able to use those values to evaluate the answers they get from asking the right questions. If the hero wins by murder­ing and mutilating, your children need to apply your own values, which may or may not see the hero’s actions as heroic or commendable. Families have an easier time with number four, because they can apply their deeply held religious beliefs to evaluate the media. Even so, media literacy and values education are two of the fastest growing areas in the aca­demic community, because educators realize that something is amiss. Therefore, I speak all around the world at national education associations and present my deeply held beliefs as the yardstick that I use to evaluate the ascertainment questions that need to be asked.

Of course, there is much more to teaching media wisdom. Reading to your children five minutes a day is a most effective tool, according to University of Wisconsin research. Many parents may want to think about reading the Bible to their children. As Jesus Christ said, quoting Deut. 8:3 in the Hebrew Scriptures, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Having your children prepare their own rating system, and then letting them adhere to it is also helpful, as is having your children review the media they consume by writing up their answers to the right questions listed above. For more information on this particular item, get a copy of my book THE MEDIA-WISE FAMILY, which is available at or by calling toll free at 1-800-899-6684.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, if we educate a man’s mind but not his heart, we have an educated barbarian. Media wisdom involves educating the heart so that it will make the right decisions.

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