Princesses are Actresses; Talking Cars are Real…

Princesses are Actresses; Talking Cars are Real…

Nov 13

Have you ever asked a child under the age of say, six, if something is real or pretend, and then listened to their answers; have you ever asked them, “Why?” or “How do you know?”  You’ll get some really interesting answers.  I once had a conversation about reality with a group of five year olds regarding princesses.  We were discussing weather princesses were real, or only existed in movies and TV, as this had become somewhat of an ongoing argument between several children.  I didn’t give the children an answer to their question, as I just wanted to see what they thought, and what conclusions they might come to on their own.  Over the period of a week or so of discussing this in the classroom daily, they decided on some rules of thumb: Princesses can be real, but they aren’t always, for example: princesses in movies like Cinderella and Snow White are not real (so far so good, right?).  Princess Grace, on the other hand, is real, but she’s dead now (their words, not mine).  Princesses at Disneyland are actresses in costumes, but they live in the castle at Disneyland together, although they take their costumes off when they aren’t pretending to be princesses.  On the subject of Disneyland and Disney characters, they made note of the “fact” that the cars from the movie Cars 2 are real.


The notion of real and pretend isn’t fully developed in children until they are around eight years old, and they often mix things up before that age, and in some cases, even after.  While this might not be a surprising fact itself, it does have some interesting implications in today’s society.  Children are exposed to media of all kinds (movie, TV, radio, music, internet etc) long before they can really understand what of that is real and what is prentend.  As recently as 50 years ago, I don’t think this would have been too much of a problem; TVs didn’t have thousands of channels, children didn’t have iPads and iPhones and other modern electronics that are now in many households across the country, and movies weren’t the most common way to entertain a child during the day – they could simply run outside and play with their neighbors.  Now, because adults have become so busy with their own lives, and so fearful of the “others” in our world, we don’t let children play outside nearly as often, and they spend far more time in front of a screen of one kind or another than in generations past.

Obviously, the fact that children are over-exposed to media is something that we hear about over and over again – ironically, it’s the media that is always talking about how children are developing body image issues, losing their creativity, and so on and so forth, but I hear nothing about the potential impact of children not understanding that much of what they see, hear, and read, isn’t real, or can’t really happen.  I don’t have the answer here.  I have to think that this has some impact on a child’s development, especially given the growing amount of time children spend consuming various types of media, but I don’t know exactly what impact that might be.  I would imagine that as children see and hear more and more on their various screens, the world becomes a more and more difficult place to navigate.  It makes the world seem bigger, more confusing, and scarier than before – there are more monsters, robots, space travel, storm troopers (it seems like every five year old boy on the planet is obsessed with Star Wars these days!) guns, weapons, death and violence, and at the same time there is magic, fairies, talking animals, and toys that come to life when we’re asleep – and children think all of these things really happen (granted some of them can happen, but children don’t know the difference)!  While some of theses abstract ideas and concepts have been around for hundreds of years through fairy tales and other stories, the amount children are exposed to them has changed drastically (according to the University of Michigan, 2-5 year olds spend as much as 32 hours a week in front of a screen) and the way in which they are exposed has changed as well.  Where, in generations past, children had to use their imaginations to picture the stories that they heard from their parents, in books, or on the radio, now stories are a passive means of entertainment, where children can stare mindlessly at a screen, absorbing these ideas as an extension of real life, without any sort of learning or development happening at the same time.

I’m not one of those people who advocates for children to never watch TV or movies, or use modern electronics, but I am someone who finds it very important that media consumption be limited for young children, to give them opportunities to learn to think for themselves and develop their creativity.  More importantly, I think we need to all find the time to talk to our children about what they see.  When I have children, if they are watching Star Wars, first of all I want to watch it with them!  I’m going to ask what they think about the characters, the weapons, the space travel, the abstract concepts, “The Force” etc, and find out what they think.  I’m going to help them understand that Luke Skywalker isn’t a real person; that he’s an actor playing a part, the same way my child might play a role in a game.  I’m going to help them understand that no Wookies are going to show up around the corner, and that there has never (to our knowledge) been an intergalactic war against an evil Emperor and his minion who has a mask that keeps him alive.  At the same time, I would hope that I could help my child understand that violence does happen, and that we need to all do our best to avoid it, and help prevent it when we can.  I love film, and I love TV, and I think there is some great work out there, but I want my children to learn while they watch.  I don’t want passive, mind-numbing entertainment to take up 32 hours of their week when their minds are developing faster than at any other time in their lives.  I want to talk about it with them, and to explore the ideas and concepts they come across with them.

Yes, eventually we all learn the difference between real and pretend regardless of the media we see and how much we talk about it as young children, but think about how great it would be if we talked about complex ideas like this with children more often.  They might grow to think more critically of the world, to express their ideas more clearly, and to be more independent and creative in their thinking, and isn’t that what we all want of the generations of the future?

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