Kids and the Media
A talk with Eugene Schwartz
a Waldorf School Teacher
As a Waldorf teacher, what is your view on the mainstream media's power to influence children?
The media has tremendous power to influence children. Young children lives much more strongly in their environment than they live "within" themselves. Their natural imitativeness leads them to act out and act upon whatever they see, or hear, and they have no capacity to discriminate between the "good" and the "bad" -- they accept it all, and they are formed by it all.
Indeed, "influence" is too weak a word -- young children are MOLDED by the media, the soft clay of their souls is powerfully formed by outside influences. Think of how many boys in the past decade have been living and playing in the virtual reality of computer games and video arcades, almost all of which require "virtual" competence in manipulating weapons. As our nation stands on the brink of war, those young men are well-trained to take up arms - they are accustomed to seeing bodies imploding and random, meaningless death all around them - they are "customized" for the task of conscience-free destruction, thanks, in part, to the media.
As an alternative, Waldorf schools stress the enlivening of the senses so that the child's seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. help him UNITE with the real world, rather than destroy its virtual shell. . . .
When you say that children are "molded" by the media, how does that molding happen? Is the phrase "you are what you eat" useful here?
Actually, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, said that we are NOT what we eat -- whether we eat peas or beef, potatoes or fish, we remain HUMAN. However, if the inner forces that keep us human, and allow our identity to prevail, are weak, and our food does begin to overcome us, then we become ill, and we are more like what we eat than we chould be.
In the case of young children and the media, they are NEVER strong enough to fully "digest" what they see and hear, and again and again the media content overcomes the child, and they become what the media makes them. This is why children can listen to a parent telling a fairy tale, and quietly "digest" it and live with it for days as it becomes part of their being. After watching a TV show, however, they are compelled to noisily and wildly "act it out," because it is digesting THEM, and they cannot digest it - they regurgitate the indigestible media content, and become anti-social or even destructive.
In the Waldorf setting we try to present content that, like the menu of a fine chef, is chosen to enhance and stimulate digestion, rather than overwhelm it -- that leaves the child free to mold herself.
What about other media outlets? Would you say that listening to the radio has a similar effect on children?
The more "multi" the media, the more deleterious the effect on the child. Yet separating one sensory experience from the host of others that accompany it isn't healthy either.
When I tell a story to a child, she watches my body language, my facial expressions, the tears that well up in my eyes due to laughter or sorrow. As she watches my lips move, she imitates that and will be able to enunciate more clearly when she has to speak those words herself. If it is my own child, then he may sit on my lap and be warmed and made secure as he hears the story. What a wealth of sensory and emotional experiences are living in that story-telling -- how different from the cold and disembodied "voice" that wafts from the radio or tape player!
Considering the media driven world in which we live, how do we shield our kids from the media while not separating them from the world that is?
Do we WANT children to live only (or merely) in "the world that is"? Children live in their own world -- the world of childhood, first identified by Jean-Jacques Rosseau in the 18th century -- and our efforts to pull them into OUR world may be invasive or destructive. Waldorf educators do not enter the world of the child with missionary zeal to pull children into the 21st century, but rather with a sensitive openness to the child's way of seeing and understanding the world. Media tends to homogenize all ways of viewing the world, to level the differences between all ages and to aim everything at (to use a Hollywood expression) "twelve-year-old boys of all ages."