It seemed innocent enough. My husband and I thought we’d take our two year-old son to one of the nearby parks in our neighborhood in Rome, Italy for some fresh air and some TV-free, iPad-free, sans-electronic-glowing-screen-of-any-kind family fun. What could be more wholesome than watching a traditional Italian puppet show, run by Carlo Piantadosi’s family in the little red booth theater for over forty years atop scenic Gianicolo Hill?
Now don’t get me wrong. The show is absolutely charming. Charming, but also mind-numbingly violent. The star of the show is Neapolitan hand-puppet Pulcinella (known to English-speakers as Punch, of Punch and Judy fame). The show is in Italian, but you don’t need to speak the language to understand that every ten seconds or so, Pulcinella and the other characters are beating the crap out of each other with bats and other assorted objects. The babies and toddlers in the audience found this delightfully amusing (as did their puppet-show viewing predecessors hundreds of years ago), particularly the part where Pulcinella takes the fresh corpse of the puppet he most recently clobbered and turns it into a weapon to beat up another character who then also dies. My apologies if I’ve ruined the plot.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies not watch any television until they are at least two years of age. For older children, they suggest “no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs, which should be supervised by parents or other responsible adults in the home.”
We miraculously were able to keep our son Lukas away from television for his first 18 months of life and look warily towards our 8-week-old son Nico, wondering if we’ll be even half that successful. We’re not bad parents. Lukas watches hand-picked educational videos (Sesame Street, Mother Goose Club, etc) on an iPad and plays interactive age-appropriate games for about an hour or so a day. He gets more screen time on rainy days, weekends, when he’s sick, or when we’ve just plain run out of ideas. I realize that this is not horrible, and yet I always feel like somewhere out there are better parents doing better, more lofty things with their children such as finger painting, churning butter, or recreating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with hand-colored macaroni noodles to the soundtrack of Rossini’s operas.
Imagine then, how smug I feel whenever I hear about children’s entertainment from the not-so-innocent days of long ago before glowing screens were invented. Steven Pinker, author of the book I’m currently reading, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined” argues that human beings are actually becoming less violent over time. In one section on children’s entertainment, he cites how nursery rhymes and Grimms Brothers’ type fairy tales were tabulated for violence in a recent study. Apparently, there were 52.2 incidents of violence on average for fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but only 4.8 incidents per modern television cartoon. Pinker also notes that popular forms of family entertainment in medieval Europe were to attend public hangings, view “witch” burnings, and to participate in pummeling caged accused criminals with stones, rotten food, and even excrement.
Does this mean that parents everywhere should just throw up their hands then and let their children watch as much television as they want because the nature of entertainment has evolved for the better? Well, no. Of course not. There’s still plenty of nastiness out there in TV-Land and on the internet that should be hidden from young eyes. That said, can we parents at least cut ourselves a little slack and stop beating ourselves up whenever we’ve run out of rainy day indoor activities and turn on the television in a moment of desperation?
The 1989 Ken Follet bestseller, “The Pillars of the Earth” about life in 12th century England begins with the line, “The small boys came early to the hanging.” I may not be the perfect 21st century parent, but at least the worst thing my small boys will see today is Elmo singing the alphabet song with Grover. Or if I turn my back, perhaps “The Jersey Shore.”
Kristen Palana is a Professor of Digital Media at The American University of Rome. Visit her online at kpalana.com.