I’ve mentioned time and again on this blog that talking to kids about media content is the best way to prevent negative media effects. By and large, this is what the research says. I believe it, without reservation. But every now and then we find research that suggests that talking to kids about some topics can actually makes things worse. And a close look at this research is starting to paint a picture showing when we should, and shouldn’t, bring some things up with our kids.
For example, as I’ve discussed in the past, research about mother-daughter “fat talk” suggests that when mothers talk to their daughters about things like body fat, their daughters can develop body-dissatisfaction, and even bulimic tendencies. It is for this reason that experts suggest that mothers should never talk about dieting or weight with their daughters. Such conversations, they suggest, should be replaced with conversations about healthy and strong bodies (not fat and heavy bodies).
In partnership with researchers at both Brigham Young University and Indiana University, we at Texas Tech University recently published a study in the Journal of Children and Media that found another instance where talking to kids about a certain topic might backfire. We surveyed nearly 250 youth ages 8-18, and one of each of their parents about “relational aggression” on TV. Relational aggression includes behaviors like gossiping, spreading rumors, and friendship manipulation (think “Mean Girls”). We found that watching relational aggression on TV leads to relational aggression in young girls (about ages 9-10), especially when parents talk to them about relational aggression.
Yes, you read that right. Talking to young girls about relational aggression on TV can actually lead to more relational aggression in these girls. This was a surprise to us conducting the study as well. If that’s the case, what’s a parent to do? Simply not have tough conversations about tough topics then? That runs in the face of everything I know as a parent and researcher. No, what I think it means is that our conversations about some things need to change from behavior to worth.
Let me explain by using an example. I played basketball in high school. If I had a bad game, the first thing I wanted to do was forget about it, and the last thing I wanted was for someone to say anything about the game. Even if my coach told me what I did well, I would simply remind him (and myself) about all the bad things I did. All the talk was about my performance.
And I think that’s the crux of the matter here. When we speak of fat talk or gossiping, we’re talking about performance. About appearance and behavior. But we, as parents, know that the appearance and behavior of our children often has nothing to do with who our kids are. Often, we forgive our kids of some things because we know that it doesn’t reflect who we know they are.
So who are our kids? They’re little people trying to navigate their way in a world in which countless things vie for their attention. The loudest of those things—appearance and social status—often speak the loudest. So, when we talk about things like body fat and friendship manipulation, perhaps our kids are getting the message that we also think those things are important. Maybe what our kids need to hear is less about performance, and more about worth. About their own intrinsic worth. About the intrinsic worth of others. How all of our worth is independent of appearance and social status. How hard work, health, and treating others as if they’re worth the price of gold is worthy of our kids’ attention.
So, in the end, it may not be bad to have conversations with our kids about tough topics. The tough part isn’t necessarily the topic—it’s finding a way to help our kids focus on who they and other people are, their own intrinsic worth, and the intrinsic worth of those around them. It seems that too much discussion about behaviors, instead of the worth of people, may be the driving force behind some of the research that goes against the grain.