Little Box of Books exists because we think it’s crucial to monitor the messages that our children are receiving. Messages need to be accurate and helpful in forming a compassionate and kind world view. But books are only one part of the picture. There are a myriad of influences waiting to intrude and make an impression on their lives, coming from all directions. Influences comes through TV programmes, family members, advertising in supermarkets, school friends, YouTube, TV advertising, to name a few.
All parents have limits and boundaries. Not monitoring kids’ reading and viewing habits is as much of a choice as implementing Fort Knox style parenting controls on all devices.
Here are some top tips to help manage the influences around children and reduce the power they have over them.
Know why you’re managing their media usage and consumption
This is the single most important thing to keep in mind. My TV viewing was restricted when I was a child, but even to this day I don’t know on what basis some shows and films were banned. I do know that I didn’t see Back to the Future until I was 24… We want children to grow up with a balanced and compassionate world view. It’s good for them to be fluid in their thinking, holding the belief that all roles and opportunities are open to all people. Getting fixed and limited ideas about, gender roles or what people can achieve because of the colour of their skin is detrimental to their development. We don’t want them questioning the capabilities of people with disabilities, based on an unhealthy imbalanced set of influences.
Discuss with children who are able to understand why it is essential that their viewing choices aren’t mindless.
Monitor what they’re watching
A standard rating system and industry agreement would mean that we could all trust that kid friendly content was exactly that. Kids’ YouTube would be a safe land, full of the promise of exciting child appropriate adventures. But programmes are rated by each studio and are only used as a guide to help parents avoid scary scenes, drug references, swearing, blasphemy, violence and sex. The things they don’t rate for are problematic tropes, lack of racial diversity, dated gender roles and stereotyping based on gender or race or sexual preference. Think about these influences on their television consumption.
To protect children from some of the damaging ideas about girls and boys, about race and culture, it’s good to check out the shows that they’re watching. Help them to understand what they’re learning and make sure there’s some balance in there.
Some TV channels have great TV children’s TV programming, that are littered with advertisements. An hour of watching Pop or Channel 5 and children will have lists bigger than the Argos catalogue of new toys they need. Not only do they encourage children to think about all the things they haven’t got, adverts repeatedly tell little girls how they should be. That they should be brushing their plastic pony’s hair wearing a dress and smiling alongside their well-groomed little girl friends. Boys are told to smash and grab and run and fight with their toy aeroplanes and big cars, all to rock music soundtracks. CBeebies and CBBC are great for showing lots of diversity, aiming to be inclusive. This piece about why lots of girls like pink and unicorns is a useful read on the subject of influences.
Don’t fear boredom
Children are constantly stimulated through tablets and TVs and games consoles. It’s possible for children to barely engage with the world around them. So encourage them to get bored and seek out alternative forms of entertainment. Switching off devices and not filling the void with activities encourages them to use their imaginations, dig out toys they might not play with anymore.
Model good screen discipline
It’s increasingly difficult to manage phone use. Phones are newspapers, recipe books, diaries, personal trainers as well as being communication devices. But it’s essential for parents and carers to manage their own screen time if they’re limiting that of their children. This one is about modelling to children how to be present and in the moment.
Be careful what you ban
I don’t like Horrid Henry; I think it’s a weird show for children and I can’t see anything positive in it. Of course, when I told our eldest that, it became his favourite. He borrowed the books from the library, begged to watch it and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I relaxed my stance on it, we talked about it after he had watched it and read the books together and it’s all but gone away. It was much better to divert his attention to other books and stories that he really enjoys, rather than pointing firmly at something and saying no. Although I do draw the line at the Chipmunks. They’re horrific.
Enjoy lots of alternative activities together
There are loads of things to do that doesn’t involve being marketed to and influenced. Board games, walks in the woods, hikes up hills, make believe with their toys…a good resource for this is https://www.maketime2play.co.uk/ who have loads of age appropriate ideas on their website.
Challenge ‘casual’ racism, sexism and homophobia
It’s awkward challenging family members and friends for comments that are racist, homophobic or sexist. But it’s an essential part of managing the messages children receive about the world. Family members and friends are hugely influential in children’s lives. Calling out inappropriate comments kindly and firmly is important. It demonstrates good boundary setting, role models being a good ally to marginalised groups, and consistently supports the world view advocated in other settings.
Talk about it
The golden rule of everything, is that if they’re old enough to speak, then talk about it. We have a little game where we point out all the ways we are being asked to part with our cash and all the clever ways that there are influences. This hopefully makes our kids much more aware of the influences around them.
Make sure they have access to diverse books
This is essential and it’s one of the things that is most easy to control. It takes a while for a child to read a good book. It’s good to read books that show a diversity of characters. Different lifestyles, family set ups, races, cultures featured in books help more children see themselves in stories. They also help children see into the lives of others. It’s good to ensure that all primary schools that children attend have a plan in place to diversify their bookshelves. It’s unacceptable in 2020 that 1/3 of schoolchildren, who are of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic origin, don’t see themselves in stories.
Everyone can play a part in helping schools to diversify their bookshelves. Please speak to the literacy lead at primary schools about the books in their classrooms and library. Ask them particularly if their storybooks feature a variety of races, cultures, family set ups and socioeconomic backgrounds.
If funding is a problem, contact the school’s Parent Teacher Association and board of governors and request to fundraise to make the school’s books more inclusive and representative.