Veteran Voice Actor Bill Ratner Explains How To Parent In The Digital Age

Bill Ratner

You might not know his face, but you definitely know his voice. A famous voiceover artist, Bill Ratner is known for his work as the voice of Flint in G.I. Joe and countless other television shows and video games. Bill has now added author to his resume with the amazing book, Parenting for the Digital Age. We spoke exclusively with Bill about his career, how kids can get unplugged, and why your child really just wants to read and spend time with you.

I read your book, Parenting for the Digital Age, and thought it was great. It’s so relevant for today. What was the impetus for writing it?

I have a career in voiceovers. I got a job with Hasbro in the 1980s doing the voice of Flint in G.I. Joe, and two years ago I got an invitation to the 48th annual G.I. Joe Con. I had no idea; these are mainly men 32-50 who have watched G.I. Joe and Transformers and it really blew my mind. People would come up to me and say that the PSA’s that I did about knowing is half the battle really helped them grow up. I thought, “A television show?” I started going to public schools and doing media awareness for kids. Years later, I got approached by someone who asked if I wanted to write a book about it. And that’s how the book got written.

It’s amazing because you were so influential to kids in the 80s, who are now parents trying to navigate through this tricky digital landscape.

In those days, when kids were watching everything from Barbie to G.I. Joe to Transformers videos, those days seem absolutely innocent and creative. An executive told me that kids aren’t playing with action figures anymore; girls are going to and moving pixels around. There isn’t that crazy, creative play anymore. I think it’s a big problem for kids and for families.

You have to be there to monitor your kids online.

It’s a lot easier than one might think. It’s so easy to hand a two-year-old an iPad but I interviewed parents for this book and there are wonderful tips. Even for parents who are single parents or both parents who are working; it’s things as simple as soon as cell phones come into the house, they charge in the kitchen. That’s it. Even that rule makes for an easier household that’s clearer; the kid doesn’t have the cell phone while doing homework. Look, I love my phone and I love my computer, but I also have a fire extinguisher and a microwave oven, and there are specific rules on what to do and not to do with a microwave oven. You don’t put your head in it, you don’t put your cat in it; the fire extinguisher is not a party favor. The rules are clear and if they aren’t followed, they have to suffer the consequences from their parents. It’s that simple.

But parents, oddly enough, don’t feel the same about a cell phone or a laptop or a tablet. They not only view it as a resource for homework, but something that will shut their kid up when they need their kid to shut up. There’s a real upside to this; my kids weren’t denied computers, but their phones went into my sock drawer at 6:00 at night. I had to endure the screaming, but they got used to it. We asked the kids what they should do, and suddenly they were put into the roles of decision-maker. They helped create the rules of the house. And kids move on. Once kids get that’s the rule, they’re okay with it. And that’s another reason I wrote the book. It’s not in the manufacturer’s best interest to come up with suggestions on when not to use the device.

In my kids’ schools, they work solely on laptops and they bring those same laptops home to do their homework. So there’s no separation between school and home and therefore it’s like they’re constantly plugged in.

There are apps that limit the amount of sites they can go to. It takes some time to do the work, but it’s worth it. Some don’t have the patience or skill, but those who do, should.

A study just came out a couple of days ago saying that it’s not a good idea to give a child under the age of 2 a laptop or a tablet. It discourages children from learning how to write or color with crayons and paper, not just swiping on a tablet.

It’s interesting to hear what you’re saying. If parents could see it for what it is, that kids need to learn how to conceptualize, it’s important. It’s an addiction. They just said that there’s a new thing, Phantom Vibration Syndrome. It’s the instantaneous belief in your hip or leg that your phone is buzzing. It’s the neurological anticipation in your body that’s been programmed in by the device itself. Not that this was Steve Jobs’ idea, but still, it exists.

Let’s talk about some of your voiceover work.

I just finished Season 2 of Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks. It’s one of a series of reality shows that I narrate. I’m also doing one for the Smithsonian Channel, called Air Disasters. I keep asking the producers why people want to watch this, since they’re brutal, tragic stories. The reason is because they always solve the problem at the end of the show. I have become, by default, the narrator for tragedies. I did one called Lincoln’s Last Day; it was historically very interesting about John Wilkes Booth and who his father was and what Lincoln was doing. For Discovery ID, I do, I Almost Got Away With It; they’re fascinating 1-hour long chase scenes. Along the way, these terrible tragedies happen, and families are left in the wake.

How do you feel about that?

Years ago, I was given a present, which was an hour-long session with a psychic. So I went, and the woman had no idea what I did. She said to me, “People trust your voice, so be careful what you tell them.” The truth about storytelling that has tragedy but some kind of resolution is that I’m becoming very emotionally affected during the reading. The sessions take place in my studio, and the producer might be on the phone or Skype and they can’t see me, so they don’t know that I’m sobbing in the booth. Actor Peter Coyote gets the celebrate America pieces, and I get the tragedies. I spent seven years selling Hyundais and if you steal a car in Grand Theft Auto and turn on the radio, I’m the one doing political ads! [laughs] And then I did 50 episodes of G.I. Joe in the 80s.

How do you preserve your voice?

It took me a while to realize that I have an instrument that I need to protect. I didn’t think about that for many years until I injured my voice. I didn’t want to get nodes or an operation and there was a guy in my daughter’s school who was a voice coach so I studied with him. I do a warm up every morning when I get out of bed. I do breathing exercises and stretches and stuff. If my voice is in trouble I will do a warm up, or I’ll talk like Yogi Bear!

For parents reading to their kids, how can they bring the books more to life?

If you’re reading to your child, bravo! If your child is young, under 7, point to the thing you’re talking about. Very simple finger gestures can be effective. There was a study done on the things that parents should and shouldn’t do to make your child a success. There were 54 different things and only three things that floated to the top. The number one thing was reading to your child. The second thing was to talk about the future. The third thing was to find the right teacher for your child, if you could. I also say to not read too fast.

Maybe parents don’t feel comfortable to read to their kids or just want to get through it quickly. But if you don’t want to do it, they’re going to feel that tension. I love that idea of slowing down.

The other thing is that your child loves you more than you can imagine. And beyond that, they love you reading to them. Some people think, “My voice is so horrible,” but that’s not true. If parents can shed that very false delusion that you’re a boring reader, that your voice sounds weird, that your kid is not going to like your reading and would rather watch TV, you’ll have a wonderful experience with your child. My 20-year-old daughter was drawing pictures the other night and she said, “Would you read to me while I draw?” I think that if adults could only see the reality that your child loves nothing more than you reading a story to them—no matter what their age—they would get to experience something amazing with their child.

Photo credit: Myles Pettengill
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