Plays Well With Others Ⅰ- Woodmam

Why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.

A couple years ago, an expert on preschool children’s aggression, Dr. Jamie Ostrov, teamed up with Dr. Douglas Gentile, a leading expert on the effects of media exposure. The two men spent two years monitoring the kids at two Minnesota preschools, cross-referencing the children’s behavior against parent reports of what television shows and DVDs the kids watched. Ranging from 2.5 to 5 years old, these were well-off children, from well-off families.

Ostrov and Gentile fully expected that kids who watched violent shows like Power Rangers and Star Wars would be more physically aggressive during playtime at school. They also expected kids who watched educational television, like Arthur and Clifford the Big Red Dog, would be not just less aggressive, but the kids would be more prosocial—sharing, helpful, and inclusive, etc. These weren’t original hypotheses, but the study’s importance was its long-term methodology: Ostrov and Gentile would be able to track the precise incremental increase in aggression over the course of the preschool years.

Ostrov had previously found that videocameras were too intrusive and couldn’t capture the sound from far away, so his researchers hovered near children with clipboards in hand. The children quickly grew bored with the note taking and ignored the researchers.

The observers had been trained to distinguish between physical aggression, relational aggression, and verbal aggression. Physical aggression included grabbing toys from other children’s hands, pushing, pulling, and hitting of any sort. Relational aggression, at the preschool age, involved saying things like, “You can’t play with us,” or just ignoring a child who wanted to play, and withdrawing friendship or telling lies about another child—all of which attack a relationship at its core. Verbal aggression included calling someone a mean name and saying things like “Shut up!” or “You’re stupid”—it often accompanied physical aggression.

Ostrov cross-referenced what his observers recorded with teacher ratings of the children’s behavior, the parents’ own ratings, and their reports on how much television the children were watching. Over the course of the study, the children watched an average of eleven hours of media per week, according to the parents—a normal mix of television shows and DVDs.

At first glance, the scholars’ hypotheses were confirmed—but something unexpected was also revealed in the data. The more educational media the children watched, the more relationally aggressive they were. They were increasingly bossy, controlling, and manipulative. This wasn’t a small effect. It was stronger than the connection between violent media and physical aggression.

Curious why this could be, Ostrov’s team sat down and watched several programs on PBS, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. Ostrov saw that, in some shows, relational aggression is modeled at a fairly high rate. Ostrov theorized that many educational shows spend most of the half-hour establishing a conflict between characters and only a few minutes resolving that conflict.

“Preschoolers have a difficult time being able to connect information at the end of the show to what happened earlier,” Ostrov wrote in his paper. “It is likely that young children do not attend to the overall ‘lesson’ in the manner an older child or adult can, but instead learn from each of the behaviors shown.”

The results took the entire team by surprise. Ostrov doesn’t yet have children, but his colleagues who did immediately started changing their kids’ viewing patterns.

Ostrov decided to replicate the study at four diverse preschools in Buffalo, New York. (Ostrov is now a professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.) “Given the fact that [the result] was so novel and so surprising, we really wanted to find out that the findings would generalize—that we weren’t just finding something with this one set of kids,” said Ostrov.

After the first year in Buffalo, Ostrov ran the numbers. The children in Buffalo watched a ratio of about two parts educational media to one part violent media, on average. More exposure to violent media did increase the rate of physical aggression shown at school—however, it did so only modestly. In fact, watching educational television also increased the rate of physical aggression, almost as much as watching violent TV. And just like in the Minnesota study, educational television had a dramatic effect on relational aggression. The more the kids watched, the crueler they’d be to their classmates. This correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression.

Essentially, Ostrov had just found that Arthur is more dangerous for children than Power Rangers.

Data from a team at Ithaca College confirms Ostrov’s assessment: there is a stunning amount of relational and verbal aggression in kids’ television.

Under the supervision of professor Dr. Cynthia Scheibe, Ithaca undergrads patiently studied 470 half-hour television programs commonly watched by children, recording every time a character insulted someone, called someone a mean name, or put someone down.

Scheibe’s analysis subsequently revealed that 96% of all children’s programming includes verbal insults and put-downs, averaging 7.7 put-downs per half-hour episode. Programs specifically considered “prosocial” weren’t much better—66.7% of them still contained insults. Had the insult lines been said in real life, they would have been breathtaking in their cruelty. (“How do you sleep at night knowing you’re a complete failure?” from SpongeBob SquarePants.) We can imagine educational television might use an initial insult to then teach a lesson about how insults are hurtful, but that never was the case, Schiebe found. Of the 2,628 put-downs the team identified, in only 50 instances was the insulter reprimanded or corrected—and not once in an educational show. Fully 84% of the time, there was either only laughter or no response at all.

The work of Ostrov and Schiebe are but two, of many recent studies, that question old assumptions about the causes and nature of children’s aggression.

The wild kingdom of childhood can be mystifying at times. Modern involved parenting should seem to result in a sea of well-mannered, nonaggressive kids. As soon as an infant shows some indication of cognitive understanding, his parents start teaching him about sharing, kindness, and compassion. In theory, fighting and taunting and cruelty should all have gone the way of kids playing with plastic bags and licking lead paint, mere memories of an unenlightened time. Yet we read reports that bullying is rampant, and every parent hears stories about the agonies of the schoolyard. Lord of the Flies rings as true today as when William Golding first penned it.

Why is modern parenting failing in its mission to create a more civilized progeny? Earlier in this book, we discussed how the praised child becomes willing to cheat, and how children’s experiments with lying can go unchecked, and how racial bias can resurface even in progressively-minded integrated schools. Now we turn the spotlight on children’s aggressiveness—a catchall term used by the social scientists that includes everything from pushing in the sandbox to physical intimidation in middle school to social outcasting in high school.

The easy explanation has always been to blame aggression on a bad home environment. There’s an odd comfort in this paradigm—as long as your home is a “good” home, aggression won’t be a problem. Yet aggression is simply too prevalent for this explanation to suffice. It would imply a unique twist on the Lake Wobegon Effect—that almost every parent is below average.

Aggressive behavior has traditionally been considered an indicator of psychological maladaptation. It was seen as inherently aberrant, deviant, and (in children) a warning sign of future problems. Commonly cited causes of aggression were conflict in the home, corporal punishment, violent television, and peer rejection at school. While no scholar is about to take those assertions back, the leading edge of research suggests it’s not as simple as we thought, and many of our “solutions” are actually backfiring.
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