Our daughter Caetlin is 14. She reads the Bible, wears T-shirts that proclaim "I believe in God" and writes down Scripture passages for friends who need encouragement. She is an honor roll student and holds admirable goals for her future. Caetlin also loves watching music videos and television programs such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Friends."
Since I?ve written newspaper articles about television for the past ten years, I thought I had a handle on what my kids were watching. I felt my endless commentary (that?s polite for nagging) about appropriate and inappropriate programs had sunk in. But somewhere between "tween" and "teen" I lost control of the remote control. I remember walking into our rec room one evening and finding Caetlin laughing along with the laugh track of "Friends."
"What are you watching?" I asked, even though I recognized the program immediately.
"It?s ?Friends,? Mom. There?s nothing wrong with it," she said defensively.
I sat down and watched the episode with Caetlin. The central plot of the show glamorized the premarital affair between characters Monica and Chandler and emphasized the specifics of their sex life.
"You shouldn?t be watching this," I said.
"Oh, Mom. It?s funny. I don?t take any of this stuff seriously," my daughter replied.
At that moment, I realized all my warnings and fiery commands forbidding offensive programs had been shoved aside by peer pressure and teen curiosity. My words were no longer enough to keep Caetlin away from what she believed to be OK. My daughter needed to develop an understanding of why routine viewing of sexual promiscuity and gratuitous violence would penetrate her spirit. She needed to know how to tell the good stuff from the bad, and she needed to summon the fortitude to change the channel when a show went against what she knew was right.
Where to start
How do we help our children learn to discern? Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College and author of Winning Your Kids Back from the Media (InterVarsity Press), says, "TV discernment for kids grows out of the relationships they are building with their parents." He believes most families are media rich and communication poor, spending tremendous amounts of time consuming mass media products and almost no time talking about them. According to Schultze, the average mother spends less than ten minutes a day talking with her children and the average father spends less than one minute.
"We are talking about a structural problem, not just a personal issue," says Schultze. "Parents need to eliminate the 97 television sets they have in the home, and in most cases get it down to one TV set which is located in a public spot in the house. They have to be willing to adjust their own viewing standards in tune with what they preach to their children. Parents need to invest time in relational activities that promote communication?such as sports, vacations and family meals."
That same principle holds true even for very young children. According to a recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, TV contributes to a lack of interaction between infants and adults. The study warns that this lack of interaction can stunt healthy brain development in small children. The AAP suggests parents pull the plug on electronic media for children under 2 years old and replace it with physical closeness, human contact and activity.
So does that mean you need to throw out your TV? Probably not. But if television has become a major battleground in your family, unplugging the TV for a few weeks might be the best way to restore peace.
Consider the example set by film critic and radio talk-show host Michael Medved, who pulled the TV plug back in college and never has gone back. He says his three boys aren?t culturally impoverished by the lack of TV in their home. In fact, he feels they are much better off.
"There have only been benefits from not having television in our home," says Medved, whose kids are allowed to watch six hours a week of videos they choose with parental supervision. "The benefits are being able to prioritize more effectively. Because the video can be watched any time, the kids can do homework or eat with the family, then watch their movie. We?re not beholden to the TV schedule.
"The other great benefit is that they are not exposed to this constant barrage of bad news," says Medved. "I believe my children are somewhat more civilized than most kids we meet because they don?t have the influence of that short attention span and the abruptness and rudeness that is built into the TV medium right now."
Even if our kids get through their early elementary years watching little or no TV, pre-adolescent and teen culture revolves around media?television, music, movies?making it harder for our kids to resist the call of the tube.
For example, when "Dawson?s Creek" debuted, I told my kids they couldn?t watch it. Naturally, Caetlin told me all of her friends were watching the show (a big exaggeration). She said the characters and their escapades were the topic of conversation at the school lunch table. Stars from the show appeared on most of the teen magazine covers. Because she was not allowed to watch "Dawson?s Creek," my daughter said she felt left out.
But according to Medved, it is possible to help our kids set themselves apart and feel good about it. He says, "I think it is tremendously important for parents to stand up to the pressures from other kids. When your child asks why she can?t see Eyes Wide Shut because the kids down the block are going to see it, you are able to say that God expects something different for us."
Medved continues, "Our family is Jewish, and one of the things we?ve tried to teach our children is the courage to be different. They get this message in all kinds of areas. We tell them, ?Everybody eats all kinds of foods?you are very restricted. Everybody can go to a dance on Friday night, you can?t.? I think one of the most powerful gifts any parent can give a child is the strength to stand apart and to be able to explain why."
As Christian parents teaching our children what it means to live as followers of Jesus, we can point them to examples of godly men and women who turned their backs on what culture expected and instead followed God (Daniel:3:8-30; Acts:5:17-29).
If we want our children to apply this principle to their TV viewing habits, Schultze suggests that parents clarify why a program is not suitable. In the case of Caetlin?s desire to watch "Dawson?s Creek," I found an article that supported my objections to the program, describing its content as "hormones on the rampage." Seeing another credible source back up parental concerns about the show seemed to register with Caetlin.
As parents, we also need to recognize that peer pressure isn?t simply about wanting to fit in. Cynthia Power, a certified sex addiction counselor who specializes in television and the Internet, says children who watch inappropriate programs and then talk about them with friends are trying not only to impress their peers, but to normalize their feelings.
"Kids often experience exciting or scary reactions to these programs," Power explains. "They think that if they talk about the show and realize other friends reacted the same way, then somehow it makes the feelings less scary and less intense. They feel less weird."
That doesn?t mean parents should allow their kids to watch anything they want in an effort to help kids feel "less weird." Rather, parents can use discussions about TV to help their children start applying what they believe to what they do. Power says, "Up to about the age of 16, kids have difficulty clarifying their own beliefs and values. They break away from Mom or Dad, but become ingrained with their peer group. You see them in all different sizes walking in the mall?fat, tall, short, skinny, red hair, no hair?and they?re all dressed alike. We need to encourage kids to think for themselves."
On Their Own
To help our children translate their values into healthy viewing, Power suggests asking children 8 and older questions that will encourage them to examine what they believe. Parents can ask questions like: What do you think about the guns on this show? What do you think about hitting in cartoons? What are our family?s values? What does our church say about these things? How do you feel when you watch or do or say something that varies from your beliefs, our beliefs or the church?s beliefs?
Another exercise to help children reach a deeper understanding of what they?re watching is what Power calls the TV Report Card. Give everyone in your family a sheet of paper on which they list the programs they watch during the week. As they watch a show, they assign it a letter grade and add comments emphasizing the positives and the negatives of the program.
At the end of the week, plan a family party, with snacks, and discuss the highest- and lowest-rated programs and why they got those grades. This exercise can help parents learn more about the shows their kids are watching, and it teaches kids to be more discerning.
Power also suggests watching television with your child. Obviously, this helps you monitor the content of the program, but more important, if the story deals with inappropriate themes, you?re there to talk about them with your child.
"As Christians we want to imitate Christ," says Power. "He was constantly taking everything from a mustard seed to a person sitting in a sycamore tree and using it as a teaching moment. As parents, we need to do the same thing. I had parents last year panicked because of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. They asked how they could explain such a thing to their kids. That was a teaching moment. But parents have to be around and available for that. You can?t talk?or listen?to your kids enough."
Admittedly, I?m one of those parents unwilling to abolish TV forever, but I am willing to take some of these steps toward teaching my teenager to think on her own. As for Caetlin, well, she doesn?t watch "Friends" or "Buffy" anymore and that was her decision. We sat down one evening and I asked her what kind of woman she wanted to grow up to be. When she answered, I asked if Monica from "Friends" or Buffy modeled her dream.
At first Caetlin resisted my challenge, but after a while she understood. I was proud of her decision and feel confident knowing that my daughter is developing the tools she will need to become the woman God wants her to be.
Jennifer Mangan has written about children and media for the last ten years. She and her family live in Illinois.
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