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Family Friendly

Inside the door of Troy’s Children’s Museum of Science and Technology—an institution of which I am very fond and of which my family is a member—there is a bank of several television screens up on the wall. In my experience, these screens are always on, hovering over the area where the children hang up their coats and wait on line to pay and play in the dugout canoe next to the model of Lake Tear of the Clouds on Mount Marcy. The screens have signs on them instructing that they are to be left on.

Now, I’m not a fan of kids interrupting their museum time to become entranced with TV as a general rule. But worse, in the times that I have been there, I’ve seen those screens playing at various times prison dramas and explicit post- earthquake scenes from Haiti.

This is an institution that is so focused on children adults can’t even enter without an accompanying child. (My parents were kept waiting outside once when they were trying to meet up with us.)

I have complained to the staff about the TVs and their content and gotten no response.

I can’t imagine why. If I’m to be totally honest, if I ran into another parent who was holding forth about things they hadn’t wanted their child to be exposed to in a public place odds are fairly high that my response would be to make fun of them, possibly in print, for being so uptight and expecting the world to conform to their idea of appropriateness.

This is, of course, because the people who tend to make the loudest and shrillest fusses about this tend to be worried about their kids seeing body parts, hearing about different family structures, or hearing passing expletives. Having become a parent, these things still don’t bother me. I either find them easy to explain, or, more importantly, they don’t bother my kid, and I know if I don’t make a kerfuffle about it they mostly won’t register.

So I can make an argument that there is sort of a difference. I can argue that there is more of a developmental issue with the things that I resent being blindsided by—violence, dead/missing parents (why oh why are so many children’s stories and movies centered around dead parents?), things that force the issue of why people do bad things. I think this is true. People who study child development and write about talking to kids in the aftermath of events like 9/11 say that under six they really take everything personally, and have a hard time with the idea that something bad happened but it’s not likely to turn around and happen to them.

Even just explaining why we lock up our bikes has set my daughter on a streak of being paranoid that someone is going to steal any random thing she sets down for a second outside.

But even given all that, I’m forced to acknowledge that there’s not that much difference between my reaction to those CMOST TV screens and the nervous Christian Super Bowl watchers’ reaction to Janet Jackson’s nipple: I dislike being forced to have a conversation with my kid I wasn’t prepared for, about subjects she and I are uncomfortable about, without getting to check in with her other parents about how detailed we want to get at the moment about the depth of evil in the world. Dramatic though it may be, I feel blindsided, like my parental judgment has been superseded in a place I thought was “safe” and my guard was down.

I have come to realize that my initial solutions for those I have had little sympathy for—preview what your kids watch/read, enact your own controls (as opposed to calling for censorship), be prepared for difficult conversations—is great, but impractical writ large. I wouldn’t have been allowed in CMOST without my kid, and once there, I’m not going to make her leave just because there are TVs there. If I want to be able to preview everything she watches/reads we can’t bring her to the library at all. But that would clearly be a greater loss than ending up with some stinkers, some stories that leave her in tears, and some awkward conversations.

Where I depart from the right-leaning “family friendly” folks that I now have more sympathy for, is that I don’t put alleviating my discomfort and grasping for total control above all other values, especially the freedom to move about the world and interact with various people in various contexts, and, you know, the First Amendment. (I’m still not sure that pacifying a funder who wanted to buy TV screens with their name on them constitutes such a value, but perhaps I’m missing something.)

Meanwhile, we’ll be heading out into a world that contains all sorts of unpleasant things, and do our best to be on our toes.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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