Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Hunger Games

"Don't worry mom.  We're not actually going to kill anyone," Katherine calls to me as she skips from the house.   She and her friend like to play a game based on The Hunger Games.  In case you haven't read this bestseller, here's a synopsis: Set in the future, the former United States is now divided into 12 districts.  Each year, two children from each district (24 total) are chosen by lottery to fight each other to the death in a large arena, a televised production called The Hunger Games.  Sounds like a fun competition, doesn't it?

Kids killing other kids?  What kind of book is this?  And why would I let my children read it?  At first I didn't.   As I read it myself, I was disturbed not just by the premise but mostly the graphic details describing the deaths of the children.  I was also concerned about the relationship developing between Katniss and Peeta, the two main characters.  Their romantic bond is initially built on coercion, acting and manipulation.  In one scene, Katniss begins kissing Peeta, not because she loves him, but because she knows what the TV audience wants.  Sure enough, she is subsequently rewarded with a gift from her sponsor.   Ugh.  Not the type of message I want to be sending my own teenage son and daughter.  There are so many well written books in the library.  Surely my children could find something-- anything-- else to read.  Then the book became a popular movie.  "If we read the book, can we see the movie together?" Jack begged.

Eventually, after much consideration, I relented.   The first counter argument came from Jack's friend Josh rationalizing this type of book or movie.   "They are just fantasies and we know that," he explains patiently to me.  "When you were a kid and you saw Star Wars, did it make you want to start killing people with a light saber?"  Well, no, it made me want to put my hair in two side buns like Princess Leia but I get his point.   As a child, I had certainly watched my fair share of violence.  Every Saturday morning that sneaky Road Runner would trick poor Wile E. Coyote over and over.  What would it be this week?  A stick of dynamite tied to his tail?  A two ton anvil dropping on his head?  Still, just because I watched violence as a kid doesn't make it right.  I also tried cigarettes and making illegal left hand turns.  All that got me was bad breath and a dent in my car.

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three potential negative effects of watching violence in the media: children could become less sensitive to others' pain and suffering; children may be more fearful of their surroundings; and children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or hurtful ways toward others.  I wasn't yet convinced.

Then Jack came home from school and announced that during their daily reading time, his teacher had begun a read-aloud: The Hunger Games.  I couldn't believe it!  Here I am trying to make the decisions I feel are best for my family and then he reads the book in school.  I'm not opposed to read-alouds-- It would be different if she had chosen some classic literature like, say, Lord of The Flies....hmmm, wait a minute.   This is when I thought about the impossible goal of my trying to censor the media I expose to my children.   The reality is that they are going to be exposed to it anyway.  It's absurd and unreasonable to shield them 24 hours a day.   If they are going to read about difficult topics, wouldn't it be better if they felt welcome reading the book at home?  Don't I want my kids to feel comfortable enough to ask me questions?  Could I use the book as a catalyst for talking about values during dinner table discussions? 

I let them both read the book and then the series.  We watched the movie together and they both agreed the book is better.  (Yay, reading wins over screen time; one point for mom!)  And in the car on the way home from the theater, they began a spontaneous discussion about the characters: the decisions they made and the consequences of their actions. 

So now Katherine runs around the neighborhood with friends strategizing and hiding from the imaginary Careers.  Is it any more violent than my generation reenacting Star Wars or my mom's generation playing Cowboys and Indians?    Probably not.  And Katniss has a pretty cool hairstyle too.  Just not as cool as Leia's.

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