Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Drawing the line on pop culture

Matthew 12:33-37 (NIV)

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we’re making a list of parenting tasks I’m not excited to encounter, monitoring cultural influences is sneaky high on the list. Clearly it’s a big challenge, but I don’t think I’m fully prepared for just how difficult it will be to properly supervise TV, music, movies and so on. That “and so on” includes the Internet, which of course was not in my home until I’d left for college. Nor, for that matter, was cable television (though, to be fair, we got an awful lot of channels over the air on account of being so close to Chicago).

Managing my music was not much of a challenge, since I listened to primarily oldies until deep into high school (Hootie and the Blowfish, the Wallflowers and Sister Hazel were my first notable forays into mainstream music, and I didn’t care for anything edgier than Pearl Jam, which is saying something for someone who grew up around the time they invented the parental advisory sticker for music with explicit lyrics.)

Likewise, I’m not one for gory films or action movies or thrillers — actually, I don’t see many movies at all. I do enjoy good comedies, though, and while somehow I was in college before I’d seen “Billy Madison” or “Happy Gilmore,” I was all too familiar with “Dumb and Dumber,” “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and several other films that don’t exactly smack of purity.

But enough about me. What about my kids? How do I decide what to let them watch, hear, etc., and when? The passage above — “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” — could be boiled down to the blunt adage “Garbage in, garbage out.” Am I the tree and my kids are the fruit? Are they the trees and their actions the fruit?

Part of the challenge is my belief you can enjoy certain forms of entertainment without it becoming poison to your soul. There is a line between protecting your children and overtly sheltering them, and my early inclination is to fall on the side of protection. On one hand, it’s pretty tough for kids to fit in as it is, let alone if they have absolutely zero concept of popular culture. And yes, I realize how that sounds as I read it back. But going deeper, I’m somewhat anti-prohibition in this arena for a few reasons.

For starters, forbidding gives the banned material more worth than it warrants. Many times, nothing makes a kid want to do something more than being told they can’t. So why would I knowingly increase the appeal of something that might be fairly harmless if consumed in moderation? (Remember, we’re not talking booze or tobacco here, which will not be tolerated, more like a prime time comedy or a Jim Carrey movie for a high school sophomore.)

Further, the kids also need to learn to make choices. Much of the music or movies my peers fought over with their parents simply didn’t interest me. Maybe I would have gotten similar resistance from my parents had I tried to hear or see such stuff, but I knew enough to know it held no appeal. When I got on my own, I was prepared to make choices about such things. Did I always choose wisely? Heck, do I choose wisely now? Probably not. Have I become a degenerate as a result? I’d like to think I’m doing OK.

I very well understand the notion of our world view being affected by the entertainment we consume. While much of it is subconscious, if we take a step back, we may be able to see how we behave like certain characters we enjoy, or how we perhaps accept certain things because we see them accepted in TV or movies and ignore the fact we’re not observing real life on the other side of the screen. Music, too, can speak to the soul for good or ill. Sometimes the catchiest of tunes are covering up a dreadful message, but we’re only too quick to sing along because it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Then of course there’s the issue of seemingly innocuous entertainment media, such as the messages little girls might infer from weak-minded female heroines like Snow White and the Little Mermaid. And while it’s true Ariel agrees to completely change who she is just to lure a man she doesn’t even know, well, if you’re a parent and you let just one movie teach your kid how the world works, you’ve abdicated your responsibility to be their leading influence.

This challenge already started with Jack, especially with his Nook and an abiding love for pop music. The Kidz Bop versions of popular songs, while offending my musical sensibility, at least have sanitized lyrics. I have to be vigilant when listening to the radio with Jack in the car — even my own iPod, which has been scrubbed of songs I deemed him not ready to hear. He has an affinity for Pandora and Spotify and has been told he may not listen to anything with the parental advisory warning. But that doesn’t stop him from hearing third-graders sing “Sexy and I Know It” on the bus.

Certainly if I stay involved with what the boys listen to, and especially watch on TV, there will be opportunities for us to actually discuss issues me might not otherwise encounter. I’m not saying you pop “Wayne’s World” in the DVD player on a quest for teaching moments, but my belief you can watch certain things and not simply become the people you see on TV is only possible if there is some other influence — ideally a much stronger, more trusted influence — providing the relevant context.

I also will rely on the experiences of my fellow parents. I worked with one woman who would go with her husband to see a movie before deciding if her boys would be allowed to do the same. I’ve discussed certain shows (and we’re talking “SpongeBob” and “iCarly” here) with others to see if I’m on target with my assessment. I still largely prefer music from the 60s and 70s — though I have to admit, some of that Lady Gaga stuff is strangely enchanting — so I’m going to need someone besides Jack to keep me plugged in to what I should and should not allow.

Dealing with cultural influences is perhaps one of the best places for a “we’re all in this together” approach. So a word of warning to the parents in my immediate circle: I’m counting on you, and I’ll do my best to return the favor.

A prayer for May 29:

Lord, I thank you for your teachings. Please help me to remain a strong influence for my children, and also help me as I monitor their other influences. The world is full of so much information and so many distractions, I ask for your wisdom in helping to show them a straight path, and to be with them as they learn to make their own choices. I thank you for good relationships with other parents with whom I can share this burden, and I ask that you help me, too, as I make choices affecting my own life. Amen.

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