June 27, 2004

Don't Sue Me, Or Do--I'm Posting It Anyway

My bro-in-law forwarded this article from today's Boston Globe. He said it reminded him of me, and even the writing did. He's a good egg. It is indeed well written, way well, better than I could do justice to, and it is also the stuff my brain turns round and round all the time. Go Dr. Ely.


The subtler injuries kids bear

By Elissa Ely, Globe Columnist | June 27, 2004

MY LITTLE GIRL was in mourning for someone she loved. It was not a consequence of fire or war. The beloved in question was still alive. But logistics and distance had caused a natural separation, which time then extended. Calls were not answered, dates left unarranged. The love affair had become one-sided, and there was no explaining to her that intimate bonds can dissolve into yearning on one side and disinterest on the other, that this happens more often than not, and that, through nature and time, better bonds will form. After much unhappiness, she wrote a poem in pencil, then copied it in glowing yellow highlighter onto a piece of paper covered with hearts:

Life is good But not so good

Without a friend

Like you.

She mailed it off. There was no response. Over the next weeks, references to the beloved tapered off. After they finally stopped, I understood that her heart had quietly broken, along lines of cleavage I could not repair. That night we were watching a video of her choosing with two adults who have no children. We had convinced our friends to forgo more age-appropriate options by promising them charm, wit, and jaw-dropping technical effects. The video is considered a recent children's classic, a marvel of computerized animation. Most important, my little girl wanted to see it again.

She sat in my lap and looked expectantly at the adults across the living room. She is very fond of them and wanted them to love her movie. She was setting them up on a blind date for romance. "Isn't it great?" she said, the instant the title appeared.

They wanted to like the movie, too. They were prepared to chuckle at childish things and appreciate young humor. They lounged on the floor, pillows piled around, looking relaxed. It was a break from the profound films they usually take in.

But we had forgotten -- because we are so used to it -- that the movie was filled with incidental violence. The plot itself is benign, and the main characters emerge untouched, but there are dozens of unfortunate special effects: steel cutting skin, heads banging, and once, a little bird blowing up when a tone-deaf heroine sings to it. Our friends raised their eyebrows at first, then winced, then grew stiff and dropped all pretense of enjoyment.

My little girl could not understand. The violence did not interest her: Not one blow drew a chuckle. She put up with it, and watched for the sake of adventure.

Our friends did not want to hurt her feelings. After the video ended, they spoke in neutral phrases until she had gone, puzzled, to bed. Then they erupted. It was a critique full of inarguable thoughts about the hazards of children absorbing violence and the media honing it so attractively. They were appalled at the exploitation and enraged at a world where millions of dollars fine-tune hurtful visual effects so children will laugh harder.

My husband, always invigorated by the prospect of disagreement, answered with spirit. He said a parent's job was not to prevent media exposure but to help children learn discrimination. He pointed out that the mother doe's death in "Bambi" was far more devastating than a movie in which peripheral characters no one knew or cared about disappeared quickly off the screen. He said there was much worse out there in children's programming. He dropped Bugs Bunny into the argument to make a point about historical continuity -- someone was always being banged by Bugs's frying pan or wearing gunpowder from his musket, and our generation survived. He looked over to me for reinforcement.

My own thoughts were drifting elsewhere, to my little girl's recently broken heart, and her yearning, unanswered poem. I was thinking that there are gross violences, casual and pervasive, and so extensive that they become background voltage in the lives of kids. They are wrong, and of course children's movies would be safer for children without them.

But I was also thinking about the subtler kinds of injuries children absorb -- not intended, not life-threatening, not technically violent, not even anybody's fault, but still life-changing. I know it is a luxury to worry about a broken heart in a world where broken lives are standard trauma. I know how lucky we are that this is the worst the little girl has faced. And yet, it didn't feel that way. She had stepped away from Eden, and there was no protecting her.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company