Rachel Prabhakar: Perpective from a Jewish-Hindu household

Here’s another story of a family where there are intentional alternatives to the popular culture.  The world is not “media-saturated” for these children.  In fact, Rachel Prabhakar , who lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two daughters, ages  10 and 7,  says she hasn’t had a conversation with a parent about television in a long time.  Of course, just because it isn’t being discussed, doesn’t mean there are no concerns.

What is your experience with children and faith communities?

I have worked with children teaching Hebrew school, and volunteering in my daughter’s preschool and elementary school classrooms.

What would you say have been the major influences in your thinking, either individual or traditions?

Well, I’m Jewish and my husband is Hindu. I would say that I have been influenced by both traditions.

So, I see you are very much in the middle of this question of influences on children in a personal way.

Yes, indeed.

What would you say is your greatest concern about the effect of commercialized culture, particularly through media, in the spiritual formation of children, in the sense of fully human rather than exclusively in the strictly religious sense?

I’m concerned about the pushing of materialistic values. I’m also concerned about the levels of violence and sexualization of children as portrayed in television and other media outlets.

What resources do your backgrounds bring to that in your family?

I would say that our Jewish community really hasn’t had much to say about the topic. We were involved in a small Jewish community in Brattleboro, VT; there it wasn’t really on the radar screen.  In Australia, it also wasn’t part of the discussion in the community, as far as I could see.  We aren’t part of a Hindu community – we now live in a small town in New Hampshire, where there aren’t many other Hindus. But in terms of resources, there are wonderful books, audiobooks and comics from India that we enjoy with our girls. They tend to have non-materialistic values, and don’t sexualize children at all. On the other hand, much of the mythology is violent.  Mythology, all over the world, tends to be violent. It is, of course, possible to Bowdlerize the content, but then you have something inauthentic. Children can feel that lack of authenticity

In India, there are a wonderful series of comics, the Amar Chitra Katha, that present mythology, epics, biographies of important historical figures, and legends from different communities in comic book form. The colors are a bit lurid, and the paper tends to fall apart, but the language is often quite rich and they are usually visually quite interesting.  Our girls loved them.  At first, I was worried about the level of violence. But then I found that the girls just weren’t focusing on that.  There are other aspects of the comics that aren’t part of everyday life – for example, sages standing on one leg praying for 1,000 years – and gods battling with demons just kind of slid in there too.  In their imaginative play, they never focused on violence.

Your point about the violence in mythology reflects the thinking of the storyteller Laura Simms, a Buddhist who will also be on this site, that children understand the violence and what we consider sexism in fairy tales and mythology very differently from our perception

That’s an interesting point. I’ll look forward to reading Laura Simms views.

They see themselves in the whole story and it isn’t the strong gratuitous violence of screen media.

Yes, and I think that a book form, or even a comic book form, leaves more to the imagination than a television program or movie.

Do you think it would help if your faith community broached this question?  Perhaps there could be some media literacy integrated into the Hebrew school curriculum?

Possibly.  Personally, we don’t have television at our house, and the girls don’t watch many movies.  We also don’t have Nintendo or other video games.  We have a few computer games, but the girls don’t seem all that interested in them.

Q: Are there questions about what happens when your girls go to other homes?  Do conversations happen around why you don’t have television? Any pressure from the children?

When the girls were younger, pre-school age, I was very worried that by raising them in such a different environment, we would be turning them into social freaks.  It was also challenging sometimes when they went to friends’ houses. Movies or television programs that other children viewed as background noise often scared them.  However, as they have gotten older, it has just become our normal life.  Neither girl has ever asked for television.  They have lots of friends, and it just doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.  Of course, I don’t know how things will change as they start to enter adolescence.  As to conversations with the children about why we don’t have television, yes, we’ve talked with the children about our views.  They seem happy with that.

When the girls were pre-school age, often parents would say things like, “Wow, that’s amazing that you don’t have TV! I wish we could do that, but there’s no way.” Parents seemed to feel a bit guilty about what they seemed to feel was using the TV as a babysitter, but at the same time felt they couldn’t cope any other way. From my point of view, I don’t feel that I’m in any way judging any other parent. I don’t find it difficult to not have TV, but that’s just who we are – my husband and I – and I understand that every family is different. As the girls have gotten older, and they and their peers are involved in more activities, such as sports and music, the whole issue has faded into the background. It just rarely comes up. I haven’t had a conversation with another parent about TV in ages.

What do you think would help communities see their role in the society at large as well as with their members, who might be in difficulty but unwilling to speak about this?  Though the best curative is the communication and intentionality you speak of, our children have to live in a world with others who have ingested violence, sexuality and commercial culture on a daily basis and that has shaped their view of life and relationships.

That’s a really interesting question you raise, about how faith communities can integrate teachings on this topic.  I do agree with you that for myself, and the maybe 2 other families I know who have opted out of TV, this is just our normal life and we don’t need to spend more time on it.  I certainly don’t see myself as an evangelist.  Rather, my focus with my children is more on teaching respect for different cultures and views, which for us is the somewhat odd position of teaching tolerance for the cultural mainstream.  But yes, certainly, we are all affected when children are fed a daily diet of violence, sexuality and commercial culture.  By leading the life we do lead, and naturally gravitating toward people who feel similarly, we create an option in society.

I agree that finding like-minded people is an important element.

Yes, faith communities certainly could play an important role in addressing these issues.

I agree. Witness for Childhood is an attempt to bring voices from the progressive religious communities into the conversation.

Links: A note of caution: these are meant for a society that understands the mythology.  American parents are advised to take a look first and see if they feel the material is appropriate  for their children.

The US distributor of the Amar Chitra Katha comics is:

http://www.desiknowledge.org/c/1pa_2mythology/Amar+Chitra+Katha+-+Mythology.html

Karadi Tales audiobooks (http://www.karaditales.com/ )

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Alternative Stories, Interview

Ozlem Parlak, Muslim parent

This interview is among those I’ve recorded that are categorized as “alternative stories,” meaning stories of families who have found ways to side-step popular culture, at least in their homes.  We need these stories to offset the narrative of the “media-saturated world” and remind us that we do have some leverage.

Ozlem Parlak, who is originally from Turkey, lives in a Boston suburb with her husband and 10 year old twin sons.

What tradition or traditions influence your life and your parenting?

I was brought up in a Muslim community but my parents didn’t practice Islam though

I decided to practice Islam when I went to a boarding high school at the age 14 when I met some senior students who were very much into reading about Islam and practicing it.  They and the books that they gave me influenced me a lot.  I have been along the same path since then.  My husband has the same religious background, almost, so we decided to be modern, open minded ,yet conservative parents and have been raising our kids as we’ve learned Islamic life style through books and the young Muslim Turkish community around us.

Do your children attend a public school or one within the Muslim community?

They are currently attending a public school.

Young people often also influence each other in positive ways, as in your case.

Sure.  I wouldn’t have known the value of my religion if it were not for those senior girls in my high school.

What would you say are the challenges and helps in bringing up your children the way you wish? I was so lucky in that my kids are so mature for their age, and i didn’t have to do anything special except for reasoning with them. I think one thing that differs most of parents in my community (Muslim-Turkish) from other parents here is that we become parents at a very young age compared to most Americans. This is very useful because I get to enjoy most things that they enjoy and I think we are energetic enough to keep up with them. There are some programs that are offered in my community but my kids do not enjoy them a lot and I don’t force them to go.   I believe home is the most important place to learn your values.  There are several published books that are about raising a Muslim child. We read them and listened  to conferences and recorded sermons before we got married and as we were raising our kids. I think our parents’ parenting has taught us a lot, too.

Other Muslims I’ve spoken with have said that they feel the intergenerational aspects of some of your customs are very helpful in fostering familial ties and respect that is helpful in developing children spiritually. Do you find that?

What I find most useful in our tradition is the importance of respect that you have for your parents and just believing them when they say that something is harmful.  But, of course, that was not enough.  We had to tell them all the harm that video games and things that are advertised on TV.  We had to be scientific and convince them that the things that are being bombarded on them through TV and other media is to make money off kids and will eventually be harmful.  In Islam, any form of wasting is condemned and we used that as well.

Yes, that is an important point about waste.  Not just waste of personal resources and time, attention, energy but that of the society and planet as well.

Some people do experience a kind of split that happens, where children engage in activities at others’ homes that they are not allowed themselves.  Has that appeared for you? if so, how have you handled it? How do you speak with other parents, especially those who do not share your faith about these things when your children visit their homes?

I make sure that the kids that they play with have also good home lives. Now that they are not teenagers yet I kind of think I have control over who they can see in after school hours. They usually play computer games (which I allow them to play on the weekends) or Playstation (which we don’t have at our house). I can’t say that I know what they do every minute. but I try to talk with them about their choices when we are not around. For example Muslims can’t eat so many things that are child snacks everywhere because they are not Halal. But we try to tell them that they have to be responsible for their eating choices both religions-wise and health-wise. They have been to so many birthday parties where they refused to eat anything because they didn’t know if they were Halal.  I always ask what they did, what games they played without giving away that I’m checking.  I think how dearly you hold your values yourself tells  alot to kids. They believe that you are not just trying to make them suffer.  Spending as much time as possible with your kids is crucial. For example I learned to roller skate after the age of 30 so that I could skate with them.  Those kinds of things that are permitted and not harmful will prevent them from trying the impermissible things.

Thanks…a great point to end on: kids need to risk and overcome things. If we don’t allow that, they’ll find a way to take those risks.

Resources:

http://www.soundvision.com/info/parenting/tvtips.asp

http://www.soundvision.com/info/parenting/tvtips.asp
http://www.fountainmagazine.com/article.php?ARTICLEID=193

http://www.fountainmagazine.com/article.php?ARTICLEID=193http://www.fountainmagazine.com/article.php?ARTICLEID=239

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Alternative Stories, Interview

Lance Strate, Executive Director of Institute of General Semantics

Lance Strate is Professor of Media and Communications Studies at Fordham University and a founder and past president of the Media Ecology Association. is a member of the Board of Trustees for Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey. He has written numerous books and articles and embodies a meld of  academic and practical search for meaning and understanding.

We explored the practical applications of some  of the principles of General Semantics for the continuity of faith and humanist narratives in the face of a powerful popular culture.

Relevant links:
Institute of General Semantics: www.generalsemantics.org
Media Ecology Association: www.media-ecology.org
Lance Strate’s links:

http://lancestrate.blogspot.com
http://faculty.fordham.edu/strate
http://blogs.myspace.com/lancestrate

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Interview

Alan Berger, Owner and Director, Peace Through Play Nursery School

Mary Rothschild, Excutive Director of Healthy Media Choices and facilitator of Witness for Childhood, speaks with Alan Berger, Owner and Director Peace Through Play Nursery School in Chestnut Ridge, New York and a member of the Ethical Culture Society

M.R.:  What philosophies have influenced you?

A.B. :Several philosophies and influences have impacted me throughout my life.  I’m an Early Childhood Educator, so I have influences through the Early Childhood field.  One is Maria Montessori, who originated the term “Peace Education.”  Many people don’t know that she is responsible for the saying “If we are to have true peace in the world, we must begin with children.”  This is often attributed to Gandhi, but he actually was quoting her in a speech he gave at a Montessori School where he spoke at her invitation.

Around 1990, I became familiar with the Ethical Culture movement and became involved with them.  As a result, I became involved in ethical and moral education for children.  Around the same time, I became familiar with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who had a tremendous impact on my ethical and moral outlook on life.  And my background is in special education and early childhood bringing me to the place where I’ve become a tremendous advocate for children. Working with children is my life passion.  Several years ago, I became familiar with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and their work fit into my life stance and the work that I’m doing to help children and bring peace into the world.

M.R.: What are the chief concerns you have around media and young children?

A.B.: I own and run Peace through Play Nursery School in Chestnut Ridge, New York.  I chose that name because I wanted the name of the school to reflect the work we wanted to do with the children.  At that time and until today we see that children are disconnected from their childhood in many ways.  I believe that this is, in many ways, a result of their exposure to the dominant culture.  I’ve owned the school for 9 years and throughout that time we have seen young children bringing the outside media into the school environment; bringing the behaviors they witness on TV, bringing the action figures.  So, we’ve had to really work to counteract that by bringing our own brand of Peace Education and pulling from other Peace philosophies as well.  For example, one thing we do is that we try to direct super hero play into other types of more peaceful play.  We’ve turned power rangers into peace rangers. We’ve helped children use their superhero play to impact on something that is for the greater good.  For instance, instead of fighting each other they are going to save the earth or help save a tree from being cut down.  So, we try to redirect their behavior from fighting each other to saving the world!!

M.R.: What does that look like?

A.B.: They are engaged in imaginary play: instead of going after each other, we help them come up with a story about what’s going on with the earth.  We based our work on “Superhero” . It looks like us engaging the children to work for the greater good –  a cooperative cause. It’s about: What do we do to restore the tree?  Finding a magic formula; that’s where their imaginations come in.

If the children bring in commercial toys, our policy is: they go back with the parent or keep it in their cubby.  Most of what we have been talking about is relevant to boys.  With girls we see some who are challenging in terms of exhibiting “adult” behavior.  For instance, we are a cell phone free school.  But, we have children coming in with cell phones.  We don’t allow them.  That is an adult behavior.  There’s a girl who is sophisticated but in an adult “sassy” way.  It is a struggle, a result of a family that has a lot of adult media and music.  Her mannerisms are steeped in the culture of her family.

M.R.: Most parents of young children were brought up very influenced by media themselves.  Why do people come to the school and not reinforce its philosophy at home?  Is that a challenge?

A. B: People come to the school for many reasons.  Some come because of convenience, subsidies, and, yes, the philosophy.  Sometimes it is logistic.  Yes, it can be difficult.  For instance, one girl, we can’t get to the mom; she is on the fly.  Child is left at the door; there is no time.  Other people pick the child up at the end of he day.  It is difficult to spend even a half hour with the mother.  A boy had a lot of violent angry language.  I was able to speak to the mother and grandmother.  He stopped watching video games after that conversation and we saw some improvement.

Another way I would describe myself is: I am a Humanist.  I am on the Education Committee of the American Ethical Union. My practice is eclectic.  I love Buddhism as well as the Ethical Culture Society.  I see them as connected.  My interest is in how people relate to each other and how we relate to nature.  In my work in advocating for children, I bring a sense of what is morally right for children, what is it that we want children to have that will help them be the best they can be and impact on the world in the best possible way.  Most important is how we interact with the children, what we model.  We’ve taken the stance that we are trying to show the children what peace is.  Giving them the word “peace” and giving them ideas about what the word means and ways to be peaceful.  We are constantly looking at our own place, our own actions. What are we bringing every day to children?

M. R.: Do you find that sometimes that means admitting that you messed up?

A. B.:  Definitely.  We are not perfect.  We apologize.  We let them know why we got angry, for instance and that we are sorry we did.  We are all learning how to be together.  A member of our staff is reading Hanh’s bookAnger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames and it is a help in working with challenging children.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about Buddhist community.  It is not perfect.  We are implementing a peace rug, small carpet.  Children roll it out when they are in conflict; sit on it and talk until the issue is resolved.    This is a more formal way for them to see the efficacy of peace.

For 10 years I was director of Ethical Culture Society of Queens. We were really concerned about what child are exposed to and what they are getting from the dominant culture.  The great thing about Ethical Culture Sunday school is that, though there is a lot of material to use, such as Love Your Neighbor: Stories of Values and Virtues by Arthur Dobrin, you bring whatever you wish, so I could speak to them as a person.  I could say; “I don’t own a TV” and have a discussion.

M. R.: What do you see as the challenges and opportunities in your situation and from your background?

A. B.: The main challenge is a culture that does not honor children.  This is why I love Raffi’s concept of Child Honoring so much.  He speaks to what the real problem is for children at this time.  Our other big challenge is getting the parents on board. The parents are doing everything they can to grow a family.  People typically follow in the traditions they were brought up in.  We give information. How do we wean people off the media culture that impacts them so negatively?  How do you get the parents out to events?  At our parent meeting in the fall, we showed Consuming Kids and the supplementary portion with the  Barney/Power Ranger comparison film.

We need creative ways to engage parents.  I share my perspective through workshops at Childcare Resources of Rockland County.  Curricula are available from Ethical Culture, but the teacher has the freedom to work with children and teach about the world and how it operates; freedom to talk about decision-making, ethical choices and right and wrong. This is what I brought into the school.  What are children taking away?  It is important to bring it into the preschool environment because preschool children are being exposed to adult material.  We are an antidote to the dominant media culture.

M. R.: Early childhood is the window of opportunity because it is such a sensitive time for brain formation; the neurons are connecting in a “fire together, wire together” way, for good or ill.  Do you think there can be the greatest impact for the rest of life by working with this age group?

A. B.: This is when the children are forming and noticing how the world impacts them and they on the world.  I see what these children already have: the beauty and the challenges.  Some are getting beautiful input and others are at the opposite end of spectrum and not really experiencing childhood.  That’s where we are trying to be an antidote.

M. R.: I interviewed Richard Lewis.  He sees the adult’s presence and attention as crucial – the magnet for children.

A. B.: That’s the practice.  Children cause you to be present.  I like the idea that children are really Zen masters because they bring you into the present and they are always in the present.

M. R.: There is some evidence that the ability to be present in the moment is being eroded.

A. B.: I see that, even if the children are playing beautifully, making things out of clay, if they are creating and acting out media figures – what is that?  The dominant culture has infiltrated their creative processes.

Even look at adults.  I have things in my consciousness that I don’t want there.  On the other hand, as we experience life and challenges, how do we work with our thoughts? Meditation helps.  At the school, we do yoga every day for 15 minutes before lunch to instill the practice and that includes mediation.  How much do children remember from preschool years?  I think quite a bit – it give them an early influence.  The tool of meditation is important.  How do we deal with our issues, let go of difficult thoughts and move out of the past?  Where do we begin as humans?  Right here in early childhood – giving children the beauty that is their birthright.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Interview

Susan Linn, Ed.D. Director of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Listen here: Witness.Linn

This conversation with Dr. Susan Linn took place in March, 2009. Dr. Linn is Director of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is author of Consuming Kids: Protecting our children from the onslaught of marketing and advertising and The Case for Make Believe: Saving play in a commercializaed world.

Dr. Linn’s article “Sages for Sale” in Tikkun Magazine in 2005 is the basis for this conversation.  She points to the role of faith and humanist in addressing the need for stillness and absence of intrusion from commercial interests – especially for the very young.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Interview