I really wanted my 11-year-old daughter to read "The Hunger Games", but my 14-year-old intervened. It doesn't matter that kids her age are reading them, Elsa said, it's a bad idea for Natasha.
It was out of curiosity that I picked up the first book of "The Hunger Games" -- and I couldn't put it down. I devoured the whole series. It's an exciting story. The characters are interesting. The fact that the killing is televised and glamorized and that there are "sponsors" rings uncomfortably true in our "Survivor" society. The idea of kids fighting bravely and resourcefully against the Bad Big Brother government is appealing. I was sucked in -- and that's what I was hoping would happen to Natasha.
By her age, all three of Natasha's older siblings were routinely sucked in by books. They had fully discovered how wonderful it is to be lost for hours in a book (even if, as was the case with my older son, it was in repeated readings of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). Natasha rarely gets lost in a book, and this worries me because I worry that we are losing this as a society, that our attention span is getting shorter and shorter, that we are becoming all about sound bites and videos, and we are missing out on all the great gifts we get from reading books.
But in my zeal to get Natasha reading, I lost sight of some more important things: what Natasha wanted, and what she could deal with. Elsa was right: not only was it unlikely to interest her, a book about kids killing each other wasn't a good choice for sensitive Natasha (this is one of the many benefits of having five kids -- they keep me in line).
As for the movie, Natasha would never be able to handle it. That I didn't need Elsa to tell me. I agree with my colleague Mediatrician Michael Rich that there is a real difference between book gore and movie gore. When you are reading a book you can skim read the violent passages or skip them entirely. You can put the book down and take a break. You can imagine scenes in a way that isn't gory. But when you go see a movie, nothing is left to the imagination, there are no breaks or ways to avoid anything, and the filming and music are done in a way that heightens the emotions of it all. It's in your face, big time. So the argument that if your kid has read the book it's okay for them to see the movie doesn't work for me. Some of them will be okay with it -- but some will not.
This, to me, is real point of the whole "Hunger Games" debate. It's not about whether exposing kids to violence is okay; it's about being in touch with your kids, and understanding how that exposure affects them. "The Hunger Games" is getting all the attention now, but it's not like it's the first or only violent or disturbing book or movie out there that kids might be exposed to. There is an awful lot of violence out there, some of it alarmingly gratuitous. Even Disney movies and cartoons have violence in them. And don't even get me started on video games.
Our job as parents, then, isn't as simple as just keeping kids away from violence. We can do it for a while, but it's hard to do it effectively -- and the reality is that violence has become part of our world and our media. Our job as parents is to help our kids navigate this violence. We don't want them to be too upset by it, but at the same time, we don't want them to think that violence is good. We need to understand what they are ready to see or read, and then we need to talk with them again and again about it. Talking about the violence in "The Hunger Games" could lead to all sorts of really interesting conversations about what people are forced to do in desperate situations, about power and its abuse, about media and the glamorization of violence.
But I won't be having those conversations with Natasha just yet, because she's not ready for them. And I'm back to the drawing board in my quest to get her sucked in by books. I'm thinking maybe "The Mysterious Benedict Society". Anybody have ideas?
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire