Developing and Maintaining Children's Authentic Self-Identity

by Gloria DeGaetano
Founder and CEO, the Parent Coaching Institute (PCI),
Author, Parenting Well in a Media Age

In 1986 I decided to leave my position as a school district administrator in order to work with parents and teachers to help them thoughtfully counter media and popular culture's negative influences on children. I had enjoyed my career in public education. But two decades ago I realized one startling fact: Until parents are equipped to accurately understand and prevent the impact of mass media, children cannot develop authentic self-identity. With on-going overuse and misuse of screen technologies and over-attention to popular culture, there will always be too many children and teens emotionally and socially immature, intellectually stunted, and spiritually hungry.

Children who spend four to six hours a day (the average in the United States, depending on the age of the child) with screen machines (television, videos, video games, etc.) will be more at risk for lacking foundational learning skills, disconnected from their innate curiosity, internal motivation, and creative expression. All this time replaces pertinent developmental activities, along with critically important bonding activities with loving adults that are essential for healthy self-identities.

Indeed, with five hours of screen machine time each and every day, the cumulative negative effects on cognitive, emotional, and social growth are stunning. Parents in the United States spend ten minutes a week or less in actual conversation with their children. (1) Canadian studies put North American parents' conversation with their children at two minutes a day. (2) Yet, we know with clear certainty, according to experts such as Dr. Urie Brofenbrenner, that "in order to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally, a child requires participation in progressively more complex reciprocal activity, on a regular basis over an extended period in the child's life, with one or more persons with whom the child develops a strong, mutual...emotional attachment and who is committed to the child's well-being and development." (3) With televisions outnumbering the people in U. S. homes and with those televisions on an average of eight hours and forty-four minutes each day, (4) how can these complex, emotional/social bonding developmental prerequisites be accomplished by constantly distracted parents?

Children who grow up in such environments will be more impulsive, aggressive, and overweight, with health issues following them into adulthood. Experts know this. Some parents know this, too. But how do we professionals help all mothers and fathers to parent well in a media age so their children will bloom in fullest beauty of mind, heart, and spirit? This is a critical question that has an urgent need for an effective answer.

Mass-produced entertainment, along with mass-produced toys, clothes, lunch boxes, and countless other accessories, form a larger culture that parents and children inhabit but don't create. This culture, manufactured for a market, is actually a huge industry that combines advertising conglomerates, media entertainment multi-nationals, and global corporations. I call it an industry-generated culture. The messages of these huge companies are delivered to the masses through mass media, including all forms of screen technologies, along with radio and print. An industry-generated culture relies on the media for its existence. It couldn't exist without a mass delivery system. Screen technologies, particularly, form a historically unprecedented, massive transmission engine, enabling industry-generated messages to reach millions simultaneously and influence them in conscious and unconscious ways that we as individuals cannot begin to replicate in our personal interactions with others.

Distracted by mass-media image saturation and manipulated by an industry-generated culture, our children can easily become unthinking representatives for global conglomerates, if safeguards are not put in place. Indeed, the main aim of these corporations is to by-pass parents altogether in order to turn our lovely children into unthinking consumers. As popular culture amplifies immediacy and obsolescence, our children can grow up not recognizing the value in the rich traditions from our ancestors, leaving them adrift in a mass media sea of nihilism and narcissism. With all sorts of screen technologies shouting messages on how to live, what to need, and what to pay attention to, our children are lost, unwittingly adopted out to corporate greed, while parents helplessly wonder why they are becoming more and more peripheral to their own children.

Ideally, we would live in a larger culture that affirms the morals, values, attitudes, and behaviors we teach our children, a culture that affirms our parental voice. But we don't. As parents strive to stay afloat and in control, they find themselves continually reacting to toxic messages instead of having enough time to thoughtfully and caringly respond. Most give in to nagging kids in order to stay sane, instead of setting important boundaries, like saying "No" to that violent video game or one more hour of TV watching. Moms and dads can't keep up with all the onslaughts from mass media. It is exhausting and depleting. It can feel hopeless to parent in an industry-generated culture. Kay Hymowitz, an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, reminds us that "parents need to do something they've never been required to do before perhaps at any time in history: deliberately and consciously counter many of the dominant messages of their own culture." (5)

Actually the culture she speaks of is not really our culture. Rather, it is an artificial set-up, an intentional ploy to convince and cajole us—a culture that doesn't know our children as people, but only as objects; with an agenda not for what is timely and appropriate, but for what is the most profitable. Unfortunately it is this "popular" culture that is the most popular with our young. Not the traditional culture of parents, teachers, grandparents—humans—the real culture. That culture, our true culture, is the unpopular culture with far too many children. Indeed Neil Postman argued that "grandmothers and families, regional loyalties, and two-thousand and-year-old traditions are antagonistic" to popular culture. They represent a thought-world that stands apart from an industry-generated culture. (6) Yet, our youngsters need to access the thought-world of the human, loving adults around them if they are to remain human and humane.

The average parent is unaware that the thought-world of businesses is slowly and successfully replacing their own thought-world and eroding and dismantling children's organic culture on many levels. If this trend is to reverse, it is imperative that mothers and fathers:

Six New Challenges for Parents

(These challenges are explained in more detail in Parenting Well in a Media Age.)

  1. Global conglomerates influence on an unprecedented scale.

    Over the years multi-national companies have increased their hold on our children. Judith Rubin, writing in an issue of Mothering, reminds us that "marketing professionals cross-reference, cross market and cross-pollinate products and entertainment. By intentionally blurring the distinctions between products, entertainment, school curricula and advertisements, marketers readily capitalize on young children's limited ability to differentiate between them." (7)

    In the past, media companies were not nearly as influential as they are today. Twenty-five years ago as many as 50 companies owned the majority of the media. By 2001, six companies owned and controlled 90% of global media production and dissemination. (8)

  2. Community standards are being eroded through the co-opting of social institutions.

    In the United States and in many other countries as well parents can no longer rely on the social structure around them to reiterate their values to our kids. In fact, one of our biggest challenges as parents today is that too many societal influences are corporate clones. Many public schools in the United States, for instance, beam Channel One into the classrooms. In doing so, these schools implicitly add their authority to the commercial ads for junk food and violent video games the students see each day. If parents want to lend support to the school, how can they speak out against this practice without potential repercussions of their children being ostracized by teachers and peers? Most moms and dads aren't thinking about this fact: Corporations seek what they can get from the people. What they give and how they give is always based on monetary profit. Most parents give from a deep love and from wanting their children to possess well-developed skills and talents for a full, satisfying life. If the community decides what on a "full, satisfying life" is for children based on corporate agendas, then where does that leave parents to rear children optimally?

  3. Corporations market specifically to children and to their inherent vulnerabilities with the intention of undermining parental authority and responsibility.

    Mass advertising intentionally drives a wedge between the parent and child over a specified product. Parents who say, "No," and strive to set boundaries are seen as stupid and unfair. Today, the child's peer group may as well have an umbilical cord tied directly to global conglomerates, making them significant authorities in children's lives. Parents who lack conviction or motivation get easily persuaded by nagging children, compounding discipline difficulties, making life with kids a constant struggle rather than an on-going joy.

  4. Lack of relevant information and a pattern of disinformation keep parents in a state of confusion.

    Corporations spend millions each day to guide parents' and children's attention in specific directions—often leaving out critical information that would support children's development. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that children from birth through age two not be exposed to television viewing, yet only 6% of American parents know about that recommendation and 43% of children under the age two watch television daily. (9) In an age of information it seems ludicrous that this vital information is lost in the vast sea of promotions for baby videos. But it is. Parents can only make decisions based on the information at hand. And they do.

    A recent article in The New York Times discussing the impact of beginning screen viewing in infanthood dismissed advice by such experts as Dr. Berry Brazleton and Dr. Alvin Pouissant. In one line, an uneducated journalist erodes decades of serious research and understanding of what is best for human development. (10) Intentionally leaving out critical information that would help parents make informed choices creates an untenable situation in which parenting practices increasingly align with what the industry-generated culture dictates.

    Case in point: TV, video, and DVD viewing for infants is on the rise. It is now common practice to see young mothers soothing infants with images on a cell phone or propping up their nine month old with his own DVD player so he can watch a movie while the family gathers at a restaurant to eat a meal, or while the family travels in their new van on holiday. Recently, grocery stores in Atlanta, Georgia have released carts which keep babies and young children in front of small televisions while parents shop. The children never have to look at what is going on around them and the parent never has to talk to the child. It seems that there is no end to ways that small screens are promoted ceaselessly to keep children silenced, in their place, and not moving.

    Most parents are unaware victims in this matter. They do not expect that the larger culture in which they live would misinform and misdirect them. They aren't prepared in any way to question or distrust what everyone else accepts as normal, even if that "normal" standard was set by a corporate culture. But since the inception of television over fifty years ago, the majority of parents continue to dismiss the experts' advice as too radical. They obediently, often unconsciously, conform to what is endlessly promoted to them by corporations. They are so awash in misinformation, they cannot admit new information in. For instance, many experts think the AAP's recommendation is not strong enough. Researchers Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Eduardo Castro recommend no television before the age of five. They emphasize, "We can say with confidence that excessive television, particularly in young children, causes neurological damage. TV watching causes the brain to slow down, producing a constant pattern of low-frequency brainwaves consistent with ADD behavior." (11) This quote is highly unlikely to appear in major print publications or on radio or television shows that reach millions of parents. And even if it did, chances are the majority of parents would ignore it or disbelieve it, since it doesn't conform to mass-mind expectations.

  5. A screen-machine culture turns mass attention to sensational and mindless content, while downplaying and often deriding analysis and other higher-level thought processes.

    The reptilian part of the human brain is attracted by what is distorted or out of the ordinary. That means it's easier for children and teens to be drawn to gratuitous violence, titillating sexuality and fast-paced action than it is to educational television programs, mentally challenging computer or video games or the teacher in the classroom, for that matter. When sensational forms of images fill children's lives at an early age, selective cognitive attention processes—that is, the brain's ability to filter out extraneous information and determine what is really important—can't develop appropriately. Within this process, metacognitive abilities cannot function and it will become increasingly difficult to children to learn to talk to him or herself. With undeveloped metacognitive capacities, a healthy self-identity is not possible.

  6. A screen-machine culture pushes a "machine-like" view of the world, treats people as objects and promotes a "quick fix" as the only way.

    Sitcom characters solve dilemmas in less than thirty minutes. Commercials imply an end to malaise by purchasing a new car or the demise of depression with a new color of lipstick. Drug companies visually portray people having more joy in life with the intake of a pill. Constant images of quick fixes influence thinking about what works best for kids. For example, variances in growth are common in all living things. The industry-generated culture, though, causes parents to panic, worry and seek quick fixes if their children don't learn to read or write or count at a prescribed time, when in reality the best thing for optimal development is to allow the child to mature at his/her own pace.

Most parents are not aware of how their human identity and that of their children is sacrificed within an industry-generated culture. Therefore, it is the mission of the Parent Coaching Institute to help parents not only understand the impact of the industry-generated culture, but also to know how to protect and educate their children concerning it. PCI trained parent coaches help parents provide for children's cognitive, emotional, and social developmental needs as the basic starting point. It can't be overstated that when children's needs are met, they more likely grow up into thinking, caring, and pro-active adults, with strong self-identity. They will then be more likely to see through advertising ploys, for instance, and know how to thoughtfully and creatively live alongside a mass media society.

Controlling Children's Time with Screen Machines

Historically, we have not been able to do this since the invention of television! Time in front of television, video games, and small screen entertainment increases, despite hundreds of books written on the subject, encouraging less time. Overuse replaces essential developmental activities. Windows of opportunity are missed and if not given attention later, children grow into adults with much less potential for affecting their world in constructive ways. They cannot explore their interiority and other dimensions of themselves when they are watching TV, for instance, as they can when participating in an art project where they are making continual decisions. What important decisions do they make when they are watching a cartoon? What do they learn about themselves when they are playing a violent video game?

It is really important for parents to understand the benefits of reducing screen time. Some examples include:

The PCI Coaching Model encourages parents to try out gradual reduction of screen time and for parents to witness themselves the many positive changes that occur as a result. Small changes can be very significant; their cumulative effects, very powerful. When parents see their children thriving they become more convinced that they can find ways to keep children directed into productive activities without putting them in front of a television or DVD player. One good parenting act leads to another and by the end of the four to six months of PCI parent coaching, new family habits are in place and use of screen technology is reduced to appropriate levels.

Most parents understand the need for print literacy. In today's world, media-literacy, the ability to understand and interpret media images and to recognize manipulative techniques, is as much a necessity as print literacy for supporting children to know themselves apart from the media personalities they encounter everyday. How families interact in their homes around all forms of screen technology will determine if the child grows with the necessary media literacy skills to analyze media messages, feeling secure in themselves to logically counter negative and demeaning messages. Some ways parents can do this are:

Teaching media literacy skills at home can best be described in one word: Talk. Talk and talk and talk some more. In fact, the heart of media literacy lies in the power of discussion. A free-flow exchange of ideas gives children invaluable skills in the art of communication and provides numerous opportunities to try out ideas in a safe environment. Regular family media literacy discussion sessions, once or twice a week, over months or even years, can have a profound effect on a child's understanding of screen content and its impact. Through these family interactions children will gain specific knowledge and skills that will help them throughout their entire lives to think, discern, and question media messages. Family discussions can take place around the TV, before, during, or after viewing. Or they can occur spontaneously in the middle of everyday activities—while mom drives the kids to the soccer game or as dad folds the clothes. Just as parents ask questions about a child's day at school, so too they can ask questions about a movie or TV program. Younger children can answer to the best of their abilities; older children can handle more analytical questions. Below are some examples:

For children under eight:

For older children and teens:

Developing an Interior Life

Since an industry-generated culture with its emphasis on the material must always focus on the external in order for it to exist, it's no wonder that as a society we don't place an emphasis on the growth of an interior life. Inner qualities, like integrity, are invisible and thus can't be seen or valued as significant. Therefore, parents must be quite intentional in creating home and local community environments that allow children and teens access to their inner terrain. If we want to raise children with character, it's important to remember that virtues, such as honesty, empathy, and generosity, make up the personality. They can't be imposed or taught. Rather they are birthed inside of a person when the interior life of the person reflects those qualities.

An interior life is to our minds what an enclosed porch is to our house. It's a place separate from, yet a part of the structure in which we live. It's a place to meet ourselves and have a good chat. It's a seclusion to muse and ponder. It's a timeout where we can regroup and understand ourselves better. We enter when we wish and leave when it's time. Hopefully, it's a room of light; a place where we achieve clarity and purpose.

Discovering and building an interior life opens up whole new ways of being in the world and brings important insights for interacting healthily with others. We can invite children to focus on their inner selves through three basic skills that start with the letter "I," necessary for crafting a positive self-image, the "You" in each of us. I have seen minor miracles occur when parents emphasized these skills consistently:


Important research in environmental psychology shows that too much stimulation has serious side-effects. The more overly-stimulated children get, the more likely they will have trouble sitting still to wander their mental landscape. Actually initiating time to be inside of self can seem a huge obstacle for a lot of kids. Why? Too much stimulation takes away the capacity for introspection. One fascinating study even showed that when kids have to repeatedly tune out noise in order to concentrate, they may also lose other abilities as well. Children living over a noisy highway screened out audio cues required to discriminate sounds critical for them to learn how to read. Another study showed that children in classrooms on a noisy street had lower reading scores than children in quieter classrooms. (15) Another study measured the effect of music and television on sixth grade and college students' reading performance on a standardized reading test. It was interesting that most people thought that the music was the most difficult to have on while reading and that the television being on had not bothered their performance too much. However, the results were just the opposite. In fact, the reading performance of the sixth graders was two grade levels lower with the music on and four years lower with the TV on. The college students performed one and a half grades worse with the music on and two years worse with the TV on. The author of this study concluded, "Apparently, although we are able as humans to do some things well at the same time, we are not able to effectively read and either listen to something or watch something at the same time. Students should not study with radio or the television on if they wish to do their best work." (16)

Time in front of televisions or video games doesn't count as introspection time, either. They are too stimulating to low brain sensibilities. With bright colored images, often fast-paced flashes, they actually distract the child from having his or her own thoughts. Some teens can manage to travel their inner paths while listening to music, but often they are immersed in the lyrics and not discovering their own inner voices. Working on a computer can be a wonderful thinking adventure. But too much time with computers also distracts kids from their inner selves. Dianna Vashro is a therapist in Deer Lodge, Montana who laments the effect of overuse of computers in childhood. She has a ten year-old client with carpal tunnel syndrome because he spends six hours a day on the computer, almost every minute he is not in school or sleeping. Diane explains, "What is so sad is that this boy has no emotional affect at all. There's no joy or curiosity in his eyes. He is withdrawn and socially inept. All he wants is to be on the computer. He eats dinner alone in front of the computer and will only do his homework if promised more computer time." (17)

It would be important to know what this boy is actually doing on the computer. Is he composing poetry or writing an interesting research paper? If he were in these creative endeavors, he would be drawing upon his interior life and feeding it as well. Chances are, like too many children today, he spends computer time in easy games or surfing the Internet. It's difficult for humans to become addicted to using mental functions or creating something new. Rather, we form addictions to activities that don't require us to bring much of ourselves to the activity. The very nature of an addiction is that the person is unconscious of the detrimental effects of his or her pursuits. Not being fully present in the activity, the activity controls the person, rather than vice versa. Entering the worlds created by software developers, computer programmers, or video game designers means that kids don't have to give much of themselves to the process in which they engage. It's all been done for them. They can play the game well, unaware of their inner selves. When children are given opportunities to be able to be "inside themselves" without need of any external stimulation, they come to value their own thinking processes and capabilities in important ways. Too much time with externalized images on screens prevent children and teens from knowing themselves. And, they can't value what they don't know.

Simple Ways Parents Can Encourage Introspection

Children no longer live in a nineteenth century Secret Garden world where they amble through nature in walled-off comfort. Therefore, we have to figure out how to provide opportunities for introspection within an extremely distracting culture. Like any skill, introspection can be learned when practiced. Here are ways that work:


While introspection helps kids value themselves, inspiration enables kids to value their capacity to come up with ideas. When was the last time you felt inspired? Think back upon a time when you encountered illumination. Whether you were struck with just the right way to fix a leaky gutter, or captured the exact colors on a canvas, chances are these moments also connected you to a positive sense of self. A can-do attitude springs forth and we feel good about what we can accomplish.

What's inspiring out there for our kids in the industry-generated culture? When we look around we see superficiality, nihilistic attitudes, messages that shout we are terminally deprived, a quasi-human if we don't measure up to an arbitrary industry-generated standard. Rather than seeing this as the ultimate lie, a lot of kids absorb these messages as gospel truth—not a way to induce inspiration by any means. In a commodified culture such as ours, it seems we parents need a lot of inspiration to figure out how to help our kids experience inspiration!

Perhaps the best way is the simplest. When children go with an idea or produce something, we can help them get acquainted with the impetus behind their creations. When a young child runs to us and says, "Look Mommy, see what I did," we can pick up his drawing and say, "That's beautiful. I can see that you were inspired." When our ninth grader works hard to score a goal for her team, afterwards we can comment, "That was some inspiring play out there." When our high school senior has to write his college application essay and is in a panic because he can't think of anything, we can reassure with, "Just take some time, inspiration will come, it always does. You know that. Be patient and trust it." When we identify inspiring moments for our kids and affirm their ability to be inspired they will have faith that it will show up when needed. And it will. In addition by allowing space for inspiration children learn to trust their competence. And competence, along with autonomy and the know-how to relate well to others feed the development of a strong sense of self. (18)

Intrinsic Motivation

Inspiration will naturally lead to children and teens capable of motivating themselves. This may seem like a surprising statement given the tremendous amount of resources that go into prodding kids to function in our schools. It's as if we have lost all trust in their commitment to learn and we have taken up "the burden" for them. Joy in discovery, satisfaction in accomplishment, and enthusiasm in creativity are sadly missing from too many children's experiences—either at school or at home. For these qualities to be present in learning experiences, humans must be motivated from the inside out. Yes, external rewards play a part in determining our choices. Few people will work forty hours a week without a paycheck. But most want those forty hours to be meaningful to them in some way. Unless we are also intrinsically motivated, our activities are void of meaning and purpose.

Parents can learn to draw out their children's talents and skills by affirming their internal drive. This sets up the foundation for healthy self-identity. When parents provide choice, acknowledge children's feelings and provide opportunities for self-direction they enhance intrinsic motivation because when they do so "they allow…a greater degree of autonomy." (19)

As children's feelings of competence increase, so does their sense of agency. Relating to others authentically is the third component of developing and maintaining a healthy self-identity. Several researchers have found that intrinsic motivation flourishes in contexts characterized by a sense of security and relatedness. (20) It can seem too simple to many parents, but it's true: being with their children in ways that demonstrate love, connection, and caring is the most essential ingredient of supporting growth of a healthy self-identity.

In a mass media culture with all its challenges and demands, parents are wise to focus on developing and maintaining children's authentic self-identity. When children have a solid sense of self, they can accomplish creative works, contributing to the good of society and moving society forward to a mature relationship with screen technologies. After all, it will take mature individuals to control and manage screen technologies well. It will take mature, wise adults to transform the current industry-generated culture to a personally-generated one in which parents reclaim their roles as creators of the society they inhabit.

Gloria DeGaetano, the founder of parent coaching, is an internationally acclaimed educator, speaker, and author. This article was adapted from her latest book is Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Human (Personhood Press) which has won the iParenting Media Award for 2007.


  1. Thomas Lickona, M.D., Raising Good Children, Bantam Books, 1983.
  2. Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children's Culture in an Age of Marketing, Stephen Kline, Verso, 1995.
  3. "Discovering What Families Do," Urie Bronfenbrenner in Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family, Family Service America, 1990.
  4. "TV Sets Now Outnumber People According to the Latest Nielsen Ratings." The Seattle Times, September 18, 2006, A2.
  5. Kay S. Hymowitz, "The Contradictions of Parenting in a Media Age," in Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 223.
  6. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Alfred A, Knopf, 1992, 46.
  7. Judith L. Rubin, "No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children's Gifts," Mothering, (November/December 2003), 47-48.
  8. "The Troubling Arc of Media Concentration," The Seattle Times, March 31, 2004, B10.
  9. Victoria Rideout, Elizabeth Hamel, "The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and their Families," The Media Family, Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and their Parents, Kaiser Family Foundation, May 2006.
  10. Conversation with Susan Linn, Ph. D., Judge Baker Children's Center, Harvard University, June 3, 2006.
  11. Robert Hill and Eduardo Castro, Getting Rid of Ritalin: How Neurofeedback Can Successfully Treat Attention Deficit Disorder Without Drugs, Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2002, 151.
  12. Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; David L. DiGiuseppe, MSc; and Carolyn A. McCarty, PhD, Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children, Pediatrics, Vol. 113 No. 4 April 2004.
  13. Huston, A. C., Donnerstein, E., Fairchild, H., Feshbach, N. D., Katz, P. A., Murray, J. P., Rubinstein, E. A., Wilcox, B. L., and Zuckerman, D., Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  14. Armstrong, G. B., Boirsky, G. A., & Mares, M-L. "Background television and reading performance," Communication Monographs, 1991 September, 58.
  15. The Power of Place, 157.
  16. Kevin Bogle, "What is the Effect of Television and Radio on Reading Performance," Classen School of Advanced Studies, (Oklahoma City, Fall, 2003).
  17. Personal Interview, March 2004.
  18. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, "Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being," American Psychologist, January 2000, pp. 68–78.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.