Parenting for Media Literacy: Storytelling and Power Matter

I used to teach a course on digital media, storytelling, and social change to college students in Minneapolis. One of our first field experiences every semester was to the artist studio of Minneapolis-based visual artist Ricardo Levins Morales. My students tended to be emerging filmmakers and media makers so many were surprised (and sometimes annoyed) that we weren’t starting the semester by diving into camera operation, gear, or editing techniques.

Instead, we always started with “story.” Because all forms of media production are a form of powerful cultural storytelling.

Ricardo often greeted my students in his studio by saying, “Welcome to my medicine shop.” Every surface of his studio is covered with his prolific prints, vibrant images of community leaders and connected communities. Ricardo explained to my students that each print he creates is a source of nutrients or antibodies for people who are hurting. Each print reframes or transforms a story that has done damage to someone.

This approach reflects Ricardo’s approach to art-making and storytelling: it is a way to tend to the soil. Instead of the kind we might actually find in our gardens, he explains that this kind of soil is the “compost of beliefs, ideas, values, narratives that create the environment” in which we ultimately plant the seeds of our work and life. In other words, stories are the substrate of policies, institutions, systems, ideas, and dreams.

Ribbon on a typewriter with the words "stories matter" above

“Whoever tells the stories, defines the culture.”

The power of story and storytelling is not new in 2020. Stories have always been the primary way that we pass down culture, values, and identity. We are hardwired for story. Storytelling focuses our kids’ attention, forms memories, and bolsters meaning across developmental stages.

Far from being neutral accounts, stories combine to form cultural narratives that include assumptions, values, and frameworks that reinforce commonsense understandings of the world. Narratives are tricky. While they are everywhere, they don’t always start with the classic cue, “Once upon a time….” Moreover as kids get older, stories are not read aloud in our laps. Instead, our kids absorb them through news coverage, video game plots, graphics, memes, advertisements, and on and on. Our kids desperately need digital guides as they move through this narrative landscape, not just to help them decide what is safe and what isn’t, but to help them see that each story, storyteller, and audience member holds different kinds of power and influence.

Start early.

Critical media literacy starts long before we are deconstructing feature length films or Twitter feeds. It starts by asking our kids to take an active role in thinking about the media they consume – whether it is a show or a book we are reading out loud. We can ask questions about things like:

      • Authorship. “I wonder what the author wants us to think here?”
      • Perspective. “This character assumes that she knows her new friend is a boy because they have short hair. How would she actually know?”
      • What is inside and outside of the frame. “We haven’t seen where the bear sleeps at night. Where do you think she sleeps?”

Pay attention to identity and authorship.

By engaging our kids in stories that act as both mirrors and windows to different parts of their identities early on, they will be more sensitive to representation in media as they grow up. Check out these activities for older kids and engage even young children in conversations about character’s racial and cultural identities:

      • “I notice that the main character wears a Hijab and has brown skin just like you. Is there anything else you have in common with this character? What’s different?”
      • “Every one of the characters on this show has been white. Does that look like the real world?”
      • “Let’s take a look at who wrote and illustrated this story / or who created this video and learn more about who they are.”

Treat all media as storytelling.

Whether it’s Elmo’s World, books, TikTok videos, or the evening news, all media is constructed and communicates a point of view. As kids get older, use the Center for Media Literacy’s Questions/TIPS format for ideas about the kinds of questions we can explore related to authorship, format, audience, content, and purpose.

Talk about power and privilege.

Questions about authorship, format, audience, content and purpose are not neutral. Some narratives (or elements of some stories) uphold systems of oppression and others have the capacity to disrupt them. Engage your kids in questions about how stories fit into systems of power:

      • “Whose voices are we hearing? Whose are not included? Why?”
      • “What stereotypes are reinforced in this story? How?”
      • “Who benefits from the story being told this way? Who is harmed?”
      • “Who gets to speak for themselves? Who speaks for others? Why?”
      • “Who or what is depicted as ‘the problem’ in this story? Who has the solution? Why?”
      • “Who is the ‘hero’ in this story? Why?”
      • “What ideas are new to you in this story? Why are they new? What else do you need to learn to better understand this?”

Help kids follow the money

We can agree that media can connect, inform, inspire and educate. But if kids don’t understand the business model of media platforms they are less likely to think critically about the narratives, content, and calls to action that they find there.

Remember, thinking critically (looking for evidence and considering multiple viewpoints) is different from thinking cynically (generally distrusting everything). Just because something generates revenue doesn’t mean it isn’t true or valuable. But understanding the business model matters. It’s okay if we don’t have all the answers. We can set a powerful example by modeling curiosity and a willingness to investigate the platforms that we use and care about. We can ask questions like:

      •  “What are they selling?” or “How do you think they make money?”
      • “How might this shape what they produce? I wonder how they protect against bias?”
      • “What kinds of ads are you seeing in your feed? Why do you think those are there?”
      • “How do our actions help them make money?”
      • “Let’s learn more about who owns these companies.”

Raise media creators, not just media consumers.

Finally, encourage your kids to be creators, not just consumers. Kids learn that media are constructed by researching, interviewing, writing, editing, or producing their own work. You can start by:

      • Encouraging your kids to create family media (slideshows about your summer, infographics about your neighborhood, etc…).
      • Take the time to listen, watch, or view your kids’ media creations so you can ask them questions like, “Why did you decide to do that?” or, “I am curious. Why did you use this photo?”
      • Connect your child to opportunities to produce media and receive mentorship from other caring adults. Libraries, public access TV stations or community media centers, and youth-serving non-profits often have a focus on youth media.

Parenting, storytelling, and cultivating the soil

Early on, we parents are certainly the primary storytellers in our kids’ lives. We should take this role seriously. We should also parent with the understanding that there is a powerful new ecosystem of storytellers in the digital spaces that they are growing up in. It’s not easy to keep up with the latest games or learn about popular YouTubers and influencers. But we owe it to our kids to ask questions, do a little research, and approach each of them not only with an eye to safety but also with an understanding of story.

We don’t know what seeds our children will plant, what they will become passionate about, and where they will ultimately decide to take their lives. The job of critical media literacy isn’t about giving our kids a media instruction manual or downloading a set of safety tips, it is about ensuring that they know how to find, consume, and create media that nurtures rich and nutritious soil where everyone can grow.