Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Do Parents in Movies Never Discipline Their Children?

I recently watched the movie Friends with Kids (don't blame me, I was on a plane).  It's a romantic comedy based on the premise that two best friends decide to have a child together, since they believe that having a child kills romance, so why have one with the one you love?  Instead you can get all the mess of child rearing out of the way with a friend, and find your soul-mate without worrying about your ticking biological clock.  Of course, that's not how things actually work out.  But while the main couple of the movie has a great child who never acts like a spoiled brat, most of their Married with Children friends have brat packs of unruly, filthy nightmare kids.  After I thought about it later, I realized that nightmare children inhabit many TV shows and movies--and I'm not talking about The Bad Seed or Orphan.

I'm talking about spoiled, dirty brats that look like every daycare's worst nightmare.  But, having worked at a daycare, I can tell you that kids like that are few and far between. I had students as young as eighteen months in our twos class--and the class had about six to eight children on a regular basis. I had about nine to ten children in my threes class.  Yet, even with so many children at such young ages, I managed to keep my room clean and well-ordered and for the most part the children behaved quite well.  I'm not going to say there were never moments of chaos, but those were few and short.  In fact, even two year olds were often capable of helping me put away musical instruments, like drums.  At lunch time and snack, children regularly threw away their own trash, and put away books and toys as soon as a teacher started singing the clean-up song.  So why then, is TV and movies filled with children who behave abominably, and parents who are incapable of disciplining them?

In another example, on one of the first episodes of Big Love, the third wife, Margene, is depicted as completely overwhelmed by her childcare responsibilities--one of the boys she's watching actually pulls down his pants and deliberately pees on her kitchen floor.  In my time as a teacher, I have had a child pee on the floor only once, and that was clearly an accident by a kid who had only recently been potty trained.  Most of the boys I knew would have been endlessly embarrassed to act that way--they would have thought it was babyish.  I understand that all children are different and some might be more difficult than others, but I think that TV and movies often seriously exaggerate how awful kids are.  The question is, why? And what effect is this having on popular culture?

 I think the why might be complicated.  Everyone knows it's hard to be a parent, but what makes parenting hard for most people is difficult to depict on TV.  For example, children are very expensive; many people struggle to earn enough money for school trips, clothes, dentist appointments, braces, and all the other enormous expenses that come from raising children.  However, by some weird Hollywood trope, movies and TV shows rarely show people struggling financially.  In TV land, the middle class can easily afford children--and truly poor people are pretty much only shown in cop dramas when they're being arrested.  I think Hollywood is frightened of showing too much inequality on TV--maybe they think it will make people resentful of the ridiculously high salaries some Hollywood types earn.

It's also hard to capture realistically the emotional difficulties of dealing with children.  When your show always needs a conclusive ending, it's hard to have a long arc of emotional development.  But in reality, the emotional drama of parenting is often in the long haul--feeling overwhelmed by kids' constant need for attention, subtle cracks in a relationship that slowly fester into intense conflicts.

Hollywood is also limited by the need the create fairly simple characters.  The goofy dad, the snarky daughter, the bratty son, and the angel in the house mother who holds things together. In reality, the child who's hilariously funny one moment can drive you nuts the next, and dissolve into tears after that. Children are especially changeable, but that kind of complexity isn't usually shown on TV.

Because of all these things, when Hollywood wants to depict the difficulties of parenting, instead of showing a complex challenge, it's simplified into "these kids are monsters! Look at them do horrible things!" And parents, instead of disciplining their children in any way, as normal responsible parents do, just roll their eyes at their repulsive off-spring and talk about how hard it is to be a parent.

But what are the effects of all this anti-child propaganda that Hollywood makes? For one thing, I think it actively discourages people from wanting children.  It's hard to watch a movie like "Friends with Kids" without concluding that children are misery-makers who ruin your life and relationships (sorry, the ending did not make up for the previous hour and a half of the movie).  For another thing, it gives people extremely low expectations for their children's behavior.

Children tend to live up or down to their parents' expectations.  In other words, if you think it's normal/acceptable that your four-year-old screams and kicks his mother in the face when she tries to put his shoes on, guess what?  He'll continue to behave that way, because you haven't created an expectation that he behaves decently.  But anyone can tell you that it is not normal or acceptable behavior, and it should stop immediately.  I saw this all the time at the preschool where I worked. As I mentioned before, most children are well-behaved, so it's immediately obvious which kids are being spoiled at home.

Movies almost never show parents actually disciplining children.  There's no attempt to re-direct a child's destructive behavior, no stern warnings, no time-out.  To go back to my earlier examples, in "Friends with Kids" Maya Rudolph's character, Leslie, is clearly stressed out and frustrated with her children not behaving as they should.  But she never actually talks to the children about their behavior--instead, she simply bickers with her husband over who should be responsible for cleaning up the kids' mess.  Why not talk to her children how they should behave when guests are over?  Why not put them in time-out, or use another positive discipline technique?  The film makes it look as though fighting with your spouse is the only thing you can do when children misbehave.

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