“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” –-Mark Twain
If truth be told, I’d rather hear a story. Despite the reluctance to idealize young minds with happily-ever-after narratives, we’re still more likely to read our children a picture book than share details of a real life adventure.
We stay safe in fiction; we know how it ends. But for all its imagination—the multilayered worlds, morphed creatures, snowflakes that turn into washing machines or trains that travel back and forth in time—reality is still the most unbelievable story. It surprises us beyond imagination; the biggest shock factor being that it actually happened.
At a recent Indian wedding, the groom’s mother and the bride’s father fell in love, divorced their respective partners, and married each other. The happy couple (the original, not the parents) is now husband and wife and also stepbrother and sister.
A man in China shipped himself to his girlfriend in a box and nearly died when the package got lost in the mail. “I tried to make a hole in the cardboard,” he said, “but it was too thick and I didn’t want to spoil the surprise by shouting.” An unconscious boyfriend was the eventual romantic surprise she received.
If we want reality a bit more grim, there’s nothing quite like Josef Fritzl who held his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years, a horrific incestuous relationship that resulted in the birth of seven children (or grandchildren).
It’s no surprise we stick to tales Grimm of another kind.
But if reality is too harsh and fairytales are too idealistic—what are the stories available to our children? It shouldn’t come as a surprise reality shows are so popular, or that teenagers forge such strong bonds with TV characters. In fact, despite the research linking drinking, smoking, and becoming sexually active sooner in life to increased on-screen exposure to related television content¹—there is increasing evidence that consuming media in a social environment can alleviate its negative effects².
For teenagers, identifying with favorite fictional characters and observing how they navigate tricky situations allows them to learn strategies to handle similar problems they feel uncomfortable discussing with family or friends.
Particularly in South Asian households, where we’re hush about both on- and off-screen stories, it’s no wonder children are seeking to understand reality through fiction.
So while our inclination as parents might be to monitor exposure to what we deem inappropriate role models, it might be necessary to let our children have at least one medium in which to discuss relationships that look most like the ones they’re having in their own lives.
Teenagers discuss favorite on-screen characters with friends and family and form opinions based on those conversations. Parenting in the new age means being a part of those conversations, and using the media as a powerful teaching tool.
Sixty-five percent of Friends teenage fans remembered one key fact from a popular episode: that condoms are only 95 percent effective at preventing pregnancy³.
If our households don’t allow for such conversations, a sitcom might. And if we’re not yet ready to talk about reality, there might be an indirect way to get at it.
We’re worried—rightly so—that fairytales will disappoint our girls if Prince Charming never shows up. We’re afraid learning how to date the Barney Stinson way will make everything short of a gentlemen of our sons. But we’d do well to remember, when we point the finger at fiction, that reality isn’t any less far-fetched.
Until we’re ready to admit to our children that the truth can be just as transitory as make-believe, we’re probably safe enough in our storybooks.
¹Dalton, M.A. et al (2002). Relation between parental restrictions on movies and adolescent use of tobacco and alcohol. Effective Clinical Practice, 5(1): 1-10.
²Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. V. J. Rideout, U. G. Foehr and D. F. Roberts. Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2010.
³Ward, L. M. and Friedman, K. (2006), Using TV as a Guide: Associations Between Television Viewing and Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes and Behavior. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16: 133–156.