“Don’t say anything.”
My husband placed his hand on my arm as the trio sat down right in front of us in the movie theater at our local mall: a couple and a little girl, about 6, who seemed focused on her popcorn. But the R-rated movie we were watching soon grabbed her full attention.
I bit my tongue, but my insides squirmed as she flinched at scenes that were tough even for adults to watch: a whacked-out teenage girl in a filthy motel room, selling her body for drugs. A man digging his own grave, at gunpoint, before being shot in the head.
When the girl finally fell asleep, I thought of my own son, who still calls out to me in the night when he’s awakened by bad dreams.
What hideous dreams will that little girl be having? And after this night, what could possibly be “too much” for her? Why trouble yourself with holding the line on innocence at all, when your 6-year-old has just been shown how to freebase cocaine?
And these days, it starts much younger than 6. In fact, the sex-and-violence train starts steaming down the track as early as 3 or 4. When my son, Matthew, was in preschool, a 4-year-old boy in his class liked to sing Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (“I like big butts and I can not lie…”), declaring it his “favorite MTV video.” In kindergarten, several of Matthew’s classmates talked of playing blood-and-guts video games. And in a recent report, ACNielsen listed “Desperate Housewives” as the most-watched television show for 9- to 12-year-olds.
When exposure to sexually explicit material starts so young, what does it take to entertain a teenager? Singer Naomi Judd found out the hard way. A few years ago, Judd was accused of assaulting a male stripper at a Brentwood, Tennessee restaurant, the local paper, The Tennessean, reported. She was upset at seeing the man straddling a teenage girl, police said. Judd reportedly said she placed her hand on the man’s shoulder to tell him to stop, and he lost his balance and fell.
Silly Naomi. Turns out the stripper had been hired by the girl’s parents as a present for her 18th birthday.
While experts certainly fret about youngsters’ exposure to sex, the disturbing increase in school shootings has focused their attention on violence. The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with three other prestigious medical groups, has declared that “viewing violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviors, particularly in children” and can cause “emotional desensitization toward violence in real life.”
Less than a week after seeing that R-rated movie, I witnessed this desensitization myself. A murder had taken place in the parking lot of that same upscale mall. A young man allegedly stabbed a 66-year-old woman during a robbery, at lunchtime, in front of several stunned shoppers. The T.V. news showed the woman’s sunglasses and one high-heeled shoe lying on the ground, surrounded by blood and yellow police tape.
A few days later, I spoke to a teenager who works at the mall.
“You must be pretty upset by that woman’s murder,” I said.
“Well, I know this will sound bad,” she replied. “But it’s not like I knew her personally or anything.”
How have our children become so numb to violence that the blood of a fellow human being, staining the asphalt just steps from where she works, can leave so little impression on a 16-year-old girl?
True, most kids don’t wind up in jail. Don’t shoot their classmates. Don’t become pregnant at 12 because of something they saw at the local megaplex back when they still believed in the tooth fairy. But when parents allow a preschooler to memorize lines such as “Watchin’ these bimbos walkin’ like ho’s,” there’s something wrong. When parents care more about catching a popular new movie than about protecting their first-grader from graphic violence, we’ve lost our way. When a 16-year-old is so jaded that the new shipment of Prada handbags gets her heart pumping more than the news of a woman’s stabbing ever could, we’ve reached an all-time low.
Maybe I should have risked embarrassment and stood up for that little girl in the theater before she had to watch a man get shot in the head at point-blank range. Maybe every parent in that room should have said something or done something. But we didn’t.
After all, it’s not like we knew her personally or anything.