Animal violence on TV

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband loves to watch Big Cats Diary (about cheetahs, lions and leopards in Africa) and similar clips on YouTube. He often shows our three-year old daughter TV and videos that contain chase and kill scenes. The other day they watched a 9-minute video of a killing scene involving a buffalo calf, a couple of lions, and a crocodile. I feel our child is too young for such cruel nature shows but her father thinks it’s o.k. I want to instill empathy into our daughter, and I feel my husband’s attitude—“nature is cruel, that’s life”—is a lesson I want her to learn, but later. What’s your advice?

A. I understand and agree with your concern about whether Big Cats Diary-type of program is appropriate for your young child. You’re not alone. A lot of parents have trouble creating firm boundaries on subjects like violence, sex-education, drugs, crime, and the like.

We’d all probably agree, though, that what’s okay for adult viewing may be entirely unsuitable for children. Adults can separate reality from fantasy, “real” from “fake,” young children can’t. So while your husband may find chase and kill scenes thrilling, your daughter may experience them as terrifying—even if she doesn’t give overt signals like crying. Fictional depiction of animals being killed could have a lasting and disturbing impression on a young mind.

I’m sure your husband treasures the time he spends with your daughter. But I think there are plenty of much better—and more appropriate—activities than watching animals kill and eat each other. Children love and need their precious Daddy-time, but even a child as young as three might want to “please Dad” by cuddling in his lap even if she’s a bit frightened by the subject matter. Although it’s better for a child to watch violent imagery with a parent, rather than alone, But I still question whether that material is appropriate AT ALL for a three-year old.

Most researchers agree that children watch too much TV. So at the very least, you could insist that your husband cut back tub time and increase other activities. A far better way to teach your daughter about animals would be to go to a petting zoo, where she can actually feed, touch, and see gentle animals up close. Then, perhaps, replace some of the real-life animal adventures with more age-appropriate fare, such as “Charlotte’s Web” or “Aesop’s Fables” and “Finding Nemo,”

The best parental rule of thumb regarding sensitive topics is: Expose kids when it’s right for them—not when it’s right for us. And when in doubt, choose moderation. The most important thing you and your husband can do for your daughter, though, is to talk together, understand and respect each other’s differing feelings. Then, agree on what’s appropriate for your child and—above all—present a unified front.