The little boy stood by the children's section in a shopping mall video store, angry. His mother wouldn't rent the movie he wanted because he'd seen it so many times before.
So how did he register his pique? He pushed the rack over, making a mess not only of that section but of the display boxes on the other side as well.The incident is admittedly an extreme case of a new parent-child conflict. But the conflict exists nonetheless: young children in households where a VCR is standard household equipment are demanding and watching the same movies over and over, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.
Parents often look disgusted, says Marcel Majors, manager of a Pittsburgh video store. "They say, `Why are you renting that again? You've seen it already.' "
Experts say parents should be neither repulsed nor surprised by a child's attachment to a particular tape. It's normal, it's not inherently harmful and it most likely will pass. But they warn of pitfalls.
Children watch the same movies repeatedly for the same reason they insist on the same bedtime story night after night, says Dr. Ann Baldwin-Taylor, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Children's School, part of the department of psychology.
"With a very young child, the familiarity of the story is very important. They know what's going to happen next. It's an old friend. There's a great joy in that" as well as great security.
Dr. Timothy Murphy, a psychologist in private practice, says he heard of one family that threw "The Wizard of Oz" into the trash because their child had watched the tape 23 times.
But the repetitions of "Oz" were not necessarily a waste of time, he says. "A younger child may watch something repeatedly because the way children learn things is to go over and over until they've mastered it."
Some children also watch a movie repeatedly for social acceptance - their friends do, so they do. Murphy says this is a big reason college students once attended "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" repeatedly.
Content, not repetition, is what needs to be watched, the experts say. And the danger from inappropriate content, they add, might by magnified by repeated viewings.
"Remember that this is a great teaching process," says Baldwin-Taylor, whose school enrolls children 3 through 6. "Children get totally immersed in the tapes. If you expose the child to violence in language or motion, the child's going to try some of that stuff out on the baby."
Michael Sproch Jr. doesn't have an infant sibling, but the 31/2-year-old sometimes whacks furniture with a plastic bat in imitation of his heroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, says his mother, Connie Sproch.
The change in his behavior is her greatest misgiving - "depressing," she laments - about his repeatedly watching cassettes of Turtle cartoons. "He was never an aggressive child. Watching these, he's much more aggressive."
She combats that behavior by taking away his impromptu weapon if he doesn't stop attacking the house and by renting a second, non-Turtles video for him whenever she rents a Turtles tape.
"He might not want it (in the store), but once he gets into something, he generally enjoys it."
Diane Costa and her husband Carmen rarely rent cassettes and have confined most purchases to the Christmas season "because I wanted to increase my daughters' level of physical activity," she says. "If I'm providing them a more pleasurable activity sitting in front of the television, it's going to be harder to convince them to get up and go play tennis with me or take a walk."
Psychologist Murphy also calls watching tapes too sluggish a pastime.
"With reading, the child is building a skill. We have created a very passive being in young children, and I think that is harmful."
He believes some children watch the same movie over and over out of loneliness or boredom, which indicates an underlying problem. Perhaps the child isn't relating well to other children; perhaps parents are using the VCR as an electronic sitter.
Watching movies that deal with difficult subjects such as good vs. evil or death can help children overcome fears, says child development specialist Deborah Krotec, project coordinator of the Parental Stress Center's Warm Line, a non-medical counseling service.
"By becoming more familiar with it, you're less afraid of it."