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'90s FAMILY : Sticking to Their Guns : With all the violence on kids' TV, it's hard guiding children these days. But some parents are finding a middle road to success.

October 12, 1994|DAWN BONKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No toy weapons and no play shooting, Siobhan Vila said.

Uh-huh, sure, her boys said, and then nibbled their graham crackers into pistol shapes and ka-pinged and ka-banged each other across the kitchen table.

So now they play with guns, but only what they can create themselves.

Chris Boyatzis said no to the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Too violent, he said. And he should know. He's the child development professor who made headlines last spring when he skewered the masked heroes after studying violent outbursts in little Morphin watchers.

So what did he let his daughter watch, with conditions? The Power Rangers, of course.

Aha, you're thinking. Even those earnest types who start on the high road of child-rearing fall from PBS grace with the rest of us, and end up with kids who amass plastic arsenals and watch shows featuring slime buckets from the planet of Bad Animation, where cheesy action figures are always available.

Not exactly. Many of these parents say they have found a middle road through the traffic of children's mass culture, that land littered with toys and TV that just don't compare with the squirt guns and superheroes of yesteryear. It's not an easy route and requires constant evaluation. But parents who let a little reality in, rather than shutting it out, say they have learned to use it rather than be used by it.

"You have to deal with the world," said Barbara Dab of Studio City, whose three children are 7, 5 and 15 months. But what happens when it feels like the world is winning? Vila said her four boys--8, 7, 5 and 3--were growing too mouthy, rude and pushy last year. It exceeded the usual kid and sibling squabbles--fueled, Vila believes, by peers and television.

"We didn't think we had been letting them watch a lot of TV, but they were getting so much of it from school it was like they were watching it," she said.

Vila and her husband, who live in Burbank, circled the wagons. They began home schooling, discontinued their cable service and announced that television would be limited to family video nights. Without cable, reception is zilch in their neighborhood, so no one even tries to sneak some tube time.

The children catch occasional shows at friends' houses, but there's no clandestine sting to it.

"I don't say we can't talk about this or it doesn't exist," Vila said. "If they see it at their friends' houses and they come home and they're really interested in it I'll say, 'Oh, really. Why don't you tell me about it.' And we'll discuss the show."

As for guns and weapons, the Vilas took their cue from the graham cracker incident. They don't buy toy weapons, but if their children craft their own from cereal boxes or whatever they find on hand, so be it. While studying the history of knights and castles, the boys made swords and jousted about the back yard. The rules for combat: even the homespun guns can't be pointed at people and swords can't make real contact with a person.

And the beauty of cardboard weapons? Their life span is short, so Vila said the boys don't get stuck on one type of imaginative play.

"It lasts for two days and then it's gone. And then they're off to a different game," she said.

All this has not made their kids "weird" or too sheltered from the real world, Vila said. But are they missing out on the less tangible experience of living in and learning from the mass culture, the so-called school of hard knocks? Vila said the hard knocks were too hard and frequent to be lessons anymore.

"When you're having to deal with it day in and day out, you just learn survival techniques," Vila said. "You don't learn to deal with it."

*

Dealing with television is a great part of Boyatzis' professional and personal life. An assistant professor for child development at Cal State Fullerton, he led a small but provocative study that found that children, particular boys, were six times more likely to throw karate-style punches and flying kicks at their playmates after watching a single episode of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."

The show's creators denied that the show spawned violent play and noted that each episode ends with a reminder that the fight scenes are fantasy.

Boyatzis said that message runs past children like water through a sieve. It's time-consuming, but the better bet is for parents to watch television with their children. That has been Boyatzis' tack with his 8-year-old daughter. Yes, even with the Power Rangers.

"I realized I was creating sort of the forbidden fruit syndrome and the more I said no, and the more she saw her friends talking about it at school, the more interested she was in watching," he said.

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