Stuffing the Story: Ignoring Media As A Coping Tactic

news-icon.jpgLast night I was with my three preteen godkids, whose mom worked for Radio Disney for awhile; so of course, the topic turned to the Miley Cyrus media chatter, recent radio interviews by child development pros as well as girl media mavens and parents discussing ‘what to do.’ Gina made an interesting statement:

“Don’t you think if the media avoided covering it, we wouldn’t have to explain it at all? I mean, how many kids really see Vanity Fair?”

Hmn…While I concur that the sensationalism and microscopic analysis indeed makes me want to yell, ‘shaddddup everyone, and let’s move on!’ the juxtaposition of the raw simplicity of her comment bumping up against my knowledge of her as a human being and Radio Disney rep really landed on me sideways with a “NeverNeverLand” level of incredulous awe.

It struck me a bit like the advertisers who say, “well just turn off the TV if you don’t like so and so” without taking into account the surround-sound of ambient media messaging. (displays, outdoor, tee-shirt slogans, peer to peer, and all types of messaging that seeps into kids without being plugged in to ANY electronic media whatsoever)

After all, we’ve interviewed K-5 kids with “no TVs in their homes” who could tell us all about Hannah Montana with more depth than an industry ‘character bible’ of a pilot TV show in development…

miley-mickey.jpg The cacophony of media noise and sheer volume of our pop culture’s inordinate obsession with same guarantees that you can literally ‘know the story,’ plotlines, characters, and current event happenings without ever even engaging with the media itself…

That said, I’ve learned I really don’t have much stomach to dwell on issues where I repeat myself ad nauseum…

I’ve harped about the perils of body-snatching kids into mini-adulthood hop-scotching over the innocent safe-zones of play and normal maturation time and time again with anecdotal hands-on film research…long before I had fact sheet data on “Sexualizing Childhood.’

Much like the heat of the New York Times spotlight annoyed me during my Target Corporation controversy (diluting my normalization of objectification conversation into a ‘snowangel vs. spreadeagle’ trivia poll) this whole Miley mess makes me want to wash my hands of the blame game and turn the cameras on our culture itself with a shout out, “C’mon, people, did you NOT see this coming?” This was exactly my POINT by normalizing the Target ‘crotch shot as urban wallpaper’ to begin with…sigh.

Therefore, rather than get frustrated, go silent and ‘stuff the story’ when parents and kids are looking for feedback, I’ll defer to media mavens that can look at the bigger picture with pragmatics, tips, and ‘how-tos’ like our own Shaping Youth Correspondent Dr. Robyn Silverman.

Here’s HER answer to Gina’s question about why we DO need to talk about this stuff rather than ignore it altogether, along with her solutions-based coverage (8-talking tips)…

Do Parents Really Matter? (Mopping Up the LAST of the Miley Mess)
by Dr. Robyn Silverman, Shaping Youth Correspondent/Body Image expert

“In today’s world, where we’ve seen the over-exposure of the Hiltons, the Spears, the Lohans…we have to hope that someone has the guts and know-how to right the Good Ship Miley before it too becomes something we try to avoid our tweens emulating.” —Grammie (commenter on Dr. Robyn’s 4/28 Miley article)

drrobyn-younger.jpgWhat’s are the biggest mistakes parents can make regarding these types of incidents?

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is shoving the problem under the rug and hoping not to talk about it. Many would like the story to simply fade away and blow over so that they don’t have to deal with the embarrassment of having to discuss it. There is no doubt that such discussions are difficult— as one parent commented the other day:

“I sort of resent having to explain these more adult issues before I would like to.” —MaryRobb64

Unfortunately, we live in a world of overexposure. It’s the price of living in a free world. You get A LOT OF THINGS— even the information you don’t want—for free! If you have a TV, the internet, a cell phone, or ears on your head, your child is going to hear about it. It then becomes your decision as a parent to either talk about the issue and help to make good sense of it with your daughter or son or pretend it didn’t happen and let the media or your child’s friends educate your children about the issue. Which one do you think is more reliable?

As Powerful Parents, be present and allow the conversation to ensue.

The other really big mistake parents can make is talking too much and not listening enough. I mentioned yesterday on the blog and on the Dr. Drew radio show that it’s vital to know when to talk and when to be quiet. Ask questions instead of always preaching answers. Be a coach, rather than a sage.

When we ask questions, we find out what our tween or teen is thinking and feeling–and the answers might surprise you. What does she think of Miley Cyrus’ decision to pose topless? What would your daughter have done in the same situation? How does she think Miley should handle it? And has your child ever been in a situation where she felt pressured even thought she knew it was mistake to go through with it? You might be surprised by what your children have to say if you just give them a chance to express themselves.

How do the tweens/teens react when the perception of their role model is compromised?

Tweens and teens can internalize the information in different ways:

(1) Become a copycat: Do as their role model has done. Even if Miley, in this case, is basically saying “do as I say not as I do,” many number one fans of Miley will follow her lead. You’ll hear children saying; “Mom, what’s the big deal? Miley is so cool/hot that whatever she does is awesome! ”

(2) Ban their idol: This is drastic. The tween who does this really feels betrayed. In this case, the role model becomes and “anti-role model” (a symbol of what NOT to do) and the tween really turns on the switch by saying “I never liked her anyway.” Or “I liked her when I was younger” or I liked her before she became like the rest of those Hollywood types–those pictures were gross…”

(3) Refuse to believe it: You might wonder how someone can do that when the pictures are right there–but it’s quite simple–they can just say she was forced, tricked, or pressured–or say that it’s been blown out of proportion and everyone’s just wrong. Children are resilient and they will do whatever they can to make it so they can believe what they want and go about their business.

How can parents express their views about these role models without alienating their kids who idolize them?

Here’s the deal; when things such as the Miley Cyrus situation happen, parents get angry–and when they get angry, they say things that while a true representation of how they’re feeling, might not be appropriate.

Parents must communicate with their children about this situation without condemning their child’s role model.

When a parent condemns the role model in question and the tween is still very attached to that role model, a few things can happen; (1) the child can feel attacked and misunderstood and you run the risk of alienating that child; (2) the next time the child makes a mistake, they will be less likely to want to talk to you about it since they see how you react; (3) you can push your child further towards emulating the role model since she wants so badly to defend her–and your not allowing her to do so in a safe and appropriate way.

You may want to be critical, but in doing so, you may alienate your child. That’s not what you’re aiming to do!

We have to remember that in the case of Miley Cyrus, parents shouldn’t put her down, but rather, talk about her behavior and why you thought it was inappropriate. Along those same lines, you can have a frank conversation of media, sensationalism, what’s real, and what’s hyped up— rather than attacking the character of a 15 year old girl.

How can parents lay the foundation for positive values and choices in their families?

You lay the foundation for positive values by spending the time and talking about what’s important to your family today. Talk about values when nothing is going on in the media and talk about values when it seems everything is going on in the media. Children should know what their parents value just as parents should know what their children value.

Talk about how people do or do not show respect, responsibility, tolerance, or gratitude–these are powerful words that carry a lot of weight. Perhaps your spouse helped someone at work and showed a lot of teamwork. Perhaps something happened in the news where a child showed incredible sportsmanship. Perhaps your child actually did the dishes without being asked. Values are in action around you–and we must highlight the positive while they’re happening.

In addition, I encourage parents to ask your families; What kind of family do we want to be? Children love to give their input. Don’t be afraid to have a family meeting and get everyone’s opinions. Or get in the car and do what we call “driving the point home” which is when your teen and you are in the car talking about important subjects while side by side in the car–sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk about touchy subjects when the environment is not so serious.

Is it art?

As we long have known, art is subjective. If this photo was an oil painting from the year 1790, we’d certainly all consider it art. It might even be up in the Louvre.

Fifteen year olds back then were often married— and not considered kids anymore. There was certainly no talk of tweens and teens back then. However, today, we have impressionable faces looking up to stars like Miley for inspiration and motivation. Miley, a symbol of youth and fun, is not a sex symbol— so seeing her in this way is jarring. It just doesn’t fit.

Her fans think of her as their best friend, girl next door, and big sister they never had. The girl next door doesn’t do these things. But what added to the shock of the photo was its juxtaposition with the photo of her and her Dad. It made people feel uncomfortable and shifty. The girl is covered in a sheet in one shot and lying around on her Dad’s lap in another. If she were 2 years old, it would have been cute; at fifteen, it seems a bit creepy to many.

So is it art? If it were someone else at a different time or of Miley in about 10 years, people would have appreciated it a lot more. It would have been considered a beautiful shot.

But today, with the baggage that comes along with every click of the camera, and with little 8-13 year olds watching with baited breath unready to process it all, it crossed an inappropriate line. People see the skin of a budding starlet, and they see sex unleashed— even if that was not the intention— even if it shouldn’t be that way— even if we yearn for a time when it could have been considered art.

Today, in the shadow of the Disney empire and the reflection of miles of tween smiles for Miley, it was a mistake.

But can parents actually make a difference? Competing with media and peers…

You may be surprised, but the answer is yes. In fact, regardless of what’s going on out in the world, you are still the most prominent role model in your child’s life.

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed tweens and teens, ages 10-17 years old, about their role models. Researchers found that while 73% of respondents named sports figures, 56% named TV or movie stars, and 32% claimed that rock and rap stars had the honor, an astonishing 92 percent of kids named their parents.
  • An article entitled “Parents or pop culture?: Children’s heroes and role models” in Childhood Education echoed similar findings. Children most frequently named their parents (34%), then entertainers (20%), then friends (20%), professional athletes (14%), and acquaintances (8%).. Most respondents chose a person that they knew rather than one they didn’t, when asked about who they looked to as a role model. When asked why they chose someone they knew rather than one who was famous, one 10-year-old made quite an apropos statement, “I didn’t put down people I don’t know because when nobody’s paying attention, they do something bad.
  • A study of more than 1,100 12-18 year olds participated in a survey on behalf of the American Bible Society. Again, the survey concluded that 67.7% believed parents were the most important role models in today’s society.
  • For a teen, having a role model, particularly one known to the individual, is associated with higher self-esteem and higher grades. For Caucasian teens without custodial fathers, having a role model was associated with decreased substance use. (Archives Pediatric Adolesc. Med. 2002;156:55-61.)

Of course, it’s important to remember that we all make mistakes. This week, it’s Miley Cyrus. Next week, it might be you.

The important thing here is how one deals with their mistakes. Do they admit wrong doing and move on? Do they crawl under a rock? Do they point the finger at someone else?

Anyway you slice it, there’s a lesson there. And with every lesson, there’s a great conversation to be had with your child.

Dr. Robyn Silverman (full bio here) is an ongoing Shaping Youth contributor and leading Child and Adolescent Development Specialist with a focus on character education and body/self esteem development during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.

Visual Credit: istockphoto and last week’s Miley/Disney AP photo via BBC)


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