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Deciphering the telenovela parenting dilemma: ¿Si o No?

cast of jane the virgin telenovela
Jane the Virgin/IMDb

Telenovelas aren’t just for entertainment. For millions of parents, across the United States and in Latin America, these sappy soap operas are a key element in child rearing. My family and I bond over the bilingual CW dramedy/telenovela “Jane the Virgin” regularly, just like my Abuelita and I did with Spanish-language novelas when I was growing up.

As a mother of 12-year-old and 14-year-old daughters, I have a particular interest in whether telenovelas are appropriate for young audiences. The girls and I watch our favorite telenovela every night after dinner. It seems the laughs, surprises and suspense brings us closer.

I’m such a fan of telenovela-driven bonding, that I recently wrote about my show-watching-as-a-family ritual for a Latinx publication titled: “Jane the Virgin: The Telenovela you must watch.” And I’m apparently not alone. Judging by the amount of feedback from readers who had similar childhood experiences, telenovela-driven bonding is a traditional part of growing up in a Latino household. Lots of us grew up watching the latest novelas with our whole families regularly.

In a Texas Standard article about watching telenovelas for Hispanic family bonding time, a University of Texas, Austin student, Julie Garcia, says: “We’d watch, like, three consecutive novelas until like 9 o’clock. … Even though [Hispanic parents are] constantly working hard, they all come together at the end of the day, sit down together, and have this moment of special time.”

But could millions of Hispanic parents, including me, be wrong? Are telenovelas actually really bad for young audiences? Some mental health experts say they may send our kids the wrong message. Adding that there is a lot of misinformation for kids in the programming, which, as a result, offers nothing more than a warped picture of reality during the developmental years.

Before throwing out our television sets, let’s look at these time-honored telenovela traditions (that generations of Latino families hold so dear) to find out if there’s a way to pass down this bonding technique the right way.

Telenovelas bring families together

When it comes to parenting, some of the answers we seek are not exactly clear. Not all topics have a black and/or white solution. Watching telenovelas to bond as a family, turns out, is one of those that requires an approach somewhere in the gray.

Telenovelas have been around since the days of radio and families have been enjoying them together for just as long. “Telenovelas—serialized melodramas broadcast in daily installments — have kept Spanish-speaking viewers glued to the edge of their seats with overly dramatic love stories for more than six decades,” USA Today reports. For immigrants like my grandmother, who arrived in the U.S. with little, telenovelas connected viewers to the countries and cultures they left behind. Besides bonding time, telenovelas become cultural touchstones. They’ve provided a common ground for Hispanic families, allowing them to connect with their roots and shared heritage. Simply put, as explained by the Journal of Popular Culture, watching novelas is a “family affair.” Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers gather around the TV for the daily half-hour or hour segments. Families are captivated by the characters, narratives and scenery. In its article “Generations bond around telenovelas,” USA Today quotes Adrian Santucho, a Univision studios executive vice president: “There’s also the hook, the payoff, the life lessons learned for all characters—especially the evil ones that repent—and the happy endings.”

Should families watch telenovelas?

This is exactly why I thought I could watch “Jane the Virgin,” a bilingual series based on the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela “Juana La Virgin,” with my kids. I felt fortunate to  have more options than our elders to watch our shows at any time with our kids. However, when Jane, the protagonist, eventually loses her virginity to Michael, her loving husband, in the second season, I started to wonder if my telenovela tradition was as vintage as my Abuelita’s Panasonic radio (which still works, by the way).

“It’s ideal for kids to learn about difficult topics, when parents or caregivers are available to explain them to them,” says Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, psychotherapist. “Watching a novella together can be the perfect opportunity to have these meaningful conversations.”

Lots of us survived Spanish and English-language soap operas just fine, I think. But, it’s important for parents to decide what their kids are ready to watch and which difficult conversations parents are ready to have.

“Now we look back and say, ‘What were we all thinking watching this stuff as families?’ And how did the shows unconsciously affect our perceptions of others,” Clinical Psychologist and Professor Professor of Behavioral Medicine Dr. Jeff Gardere says.

The possibility of me harming my children’s mental health scares me the most. What mother wants to pass down a toxic family tradition? Definitely not me.

The red flags of telenovelas

Like everything, there’s a dark side here. Some telenovelas have been criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes. “While some show makers argue that calling them out on their shows being whitewashed is racist, they refuse to acknowledge that leaving out dark-skinned characters because it ‘doesn’t fit the aesthetic’ is colorist and racist,” a young high school student wrote in her school newspaper article titled “Why your Mexican telenovelas look white.” Op-eds such as this one reveal the red flags of these beloved shows.

Characters are often categorized based on their skin color, accent or social status—Afro-Latino characters, for instance, may be portrayed as maids, gardeners or criminals, reinforcing harmful biases. “I would not let my children watch any show that perpetuated any such characterizations,” Dr. Gardere, who is a parent of six, says. “I have talked to many friends and patients, especially mothers and daughters, who shared that they bond while watching some of these telenovelas,” Dr. Gardere explains. “But with many of these shows the characters were either white or light skinned heroines and did not reflect audiences who did not look like them. Afro-Latina characters in these shows were mostly cast as housekeepers, maids and servants. So it would be difficult for Afro-Latino people to fully bond to such shows.”

Telenovelas have a long history of reinforcing traditional gender norms. That’s why “Jane the Virgin” seemed like a great fit for young girls. Jane, like some telenovelas, features strong, empowered female characters who defy societal expectations. These characters fight for their dreams, independence, and love.

However, it’s essential to recognize that not all telenovelas follow this pattern. Some productions have made efforts to depict diverse and nuanced characters, breaking away from stereotypes.

Telenovelas also frequently depict passionate romances, affairs and scandalous plots. While entertaining, experts say these themes may not be suitable for younger, less mature, audiences.

What age marks maturity?

Any parent will say that gauging a kids’ maturity isn’t exactly easy. The experts also agree. “There is no simple answer here,” Dr. Gardere says. “Each child is different.”

This is why, he says, it’s important to watch telenovelas together as a family. “You can gauge your child’s maturity by asking them questions as to what they are about to watch or what they are watching. Their answers should show some level of understanding, morality and consequences of the content they are watching.”

Dr. Ludwig says the tween years are a good time to check maturity and to introduce children to certain topics. “Kids tend to be more open to parents’ thoughts and advice before they are well into their teen years,” she tells us.

No matter the maturity level, though, the experts remind parents to do their homework. “Some of the worst experiences I have had in watching some shows with my kids are violence or sexual intimacy popping up. I have learned my lesson. Watch shows that provide a rating and warnings. This way there are no surprises,” Dr. Gardere, says.

Watching G-rated content that provides messages of hope, diversity, inclusion and egalitarianism is ideal family bonding. Luckily, more of these messages are popping up in Spanish soap operas all the time.

What is the best way to bond with kids today?

Watching telenovelas is just one way for Latino families to connect. However, it turns out that good old-fashioned talking and listening is just as great (if not better).

“Being interested and curious with your child is a wonderful way to bond with them,” Dr. Ludwig says. “Find out what interests them. Find out what concerns them. Parents who enjoy their kids and make time to listen to them set the perfect foundation to create a meaningful and lifelong bonding experience. “

Not surprisingly, Dr. Gardere agrees. “The best way to bond with kids is the old-fashioned way. Sit together and talk, without the distraction of TV or streaming.”

Featured experts

Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, psychotherapist and award-winning reporter

Dr. Jeff Gardere, Clinical Psychologist, Professor of Behavioral Medicine, Touro University, NYC

Sources

General Hospital’s Genie Francis Addresses Luke and Laura Rape Controversy (people.com)

Op-Ed: Why your Mexican telenovelas look white – Upstream News (cvhsnews.org) How Watching Telenovelas Is Bonding Time For Some Hispanic Families | Texas Standard

Telenovelas: A cultural phenomenon that unites generations. (usatoday.com)

Why telenovelas are a powerful—and problematic—part of Latino culture | America Magazine

Places, Faces, and Other Familiar Things: The Cultural Experience of Telenovela Viewing among Latinos in the United States (escholarship.org)