My friend Patty has a son, Keefer, whom she describes as "13 going on 20." Patty and her husband realize many PG-13 rated movies are questionable in content, but they've found several to be acceptable and have allowed Keefer to see them. But they still have questions and concerns. Should a Christian 13-year-old see PG-13 rated movies? Or even an R-rated movie with high educational value, such as Schindler's List? And at what age should a child make his or her own entertainment choices?
Patty and her husband are like many parents. They care about the media choices their children make, but aren't sure how to guide their kids to choose wisely. With television, movies, music, video games, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, and more, the world of entertainment can seem so overwhelming that parents simply don't know where to begin. To keep our children away from media influences, we'd literally have to lock them in their bedrooms with the electricity shut off. (Of course, if you lived in my neighborhood, you still might hear the stereo of the kid down the street!)
After all, not everything about the media is bad. When my son, Tony, now 12, was a preschooler, we both learned all kinds of fun science facts through Bill Nye's science program on public television. As we tried several of the experiments Nye demonstrated, Tony developed a love for science that continues to this day. The media helped communicate something educational to my son in an entertaining manner.
When Tony was young, it was simple to monitor his entertainment intake. We didn't get a television until he was three, and we purchased a VCR within the month. Back then, boundaries were easy; he could watch parent-approved videos such as Barney and a few Disney classics. But he didn't stay three forever. Now that Tony is 12, he wants to read comic books, watch action-packed movies, and listen to loud rap music. As a parent, I'm often like Patty, constantly worrying about the negative messages my son receives from the media. Is he going to start cursing after hearing swear words in a song? Should I keep him from seeing the Harry Potter video because he might become interested in witchcraft? Will he become violent because he reads Batman comic books? Will seeing an unmarried couple in bed together lead him toward premarital sex? How do I know which things to let him see, hear, or read, and which things to keep out of our home? And how do I help him handle situations that might arise when he's over at someone else's home, such as when a friend pops in a video we'd deem inappropriate, and expects him to watch it?
Like every other child I know, Tony's growing up and has to begin making his own media choices. I want to guide Tony in making these decisions, knowing that eventually he'll have to make all these choices himself. I believe it's never too early or too late to teach our children to become critical thinkers who wisely evaluate the media. Here's how:
Be media-savvy. The first step for parents is to be aware of what's going on in the world of entertainment and media. There are numerous watchdog groups, rating services, and family-product reviewers who inform us about what songs have objectionable content, what's happening in the movies (down to exactly how many profanities are uttered), and what video games are the bloodiest. (See the sidebar for a few of the best of these resources.) Be aware of how the ratings systems work, and use this information in making decisions.
Several years ago, our teenage nephew spent a few weeks with us. During that time he often wore headphones connected to a tape player. He lost the tape player during his visit, and we found it after he left. As my husband and I listened to the tape, we were shocked at the profanities that comprised the "lyrics" of the songs. We hadn't been aware of the content he was consuming through this music. Even if we'd known and had banned this music while he was in our house, certainly he could pick it up again when he went to his home. Yet being aware and talking with our nephew about his choices in music would have been a good first step. While he may not have agreed with our concerns, our talking to him about the issues would have made him aware of why we objected to the music, and would have given him a chance to tell us why he'd chosen it in the first place.
Give your children the right tools. The second step in guiding your kids to make wise media choices is to teach them to use the Bible as their yardstick. This is especially helpful for pre-teens and teenagers. In our family, we like to use Philippians 4:8 to help us. This verse says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirableif anything is excellent or praiseworthythink about such things."
We each take a sheet of paper and list the qualities of this verse down the left sidetrue, noble, right, pure, and so on. Then we each pick a favorite movie, television show, book, or music group to rate on the right-hand side. Is the television show my son watches offering noble thoughts? Is the music group my husband likes presenting truth? Is the book I'm reading filling my mind with pure thoughts? And so on.
After we've each rated our media choices, we share our thoughts and discuss them. My husband, Mike, might defend a secular group he enjoys because of the quality of their music. But he'll also admit the lyrics aren't of such high quality. Tony may share that the show he rated presents many truths, but it also promotes actions that aren't admirable. We don't require that every form of entertainment meet every qualification on this list, but we use the list as a starting point. At the end of our discussion, we decide together if our chosen media product is something we should enjoy, limit, or cut out of our lives.
Trying an activity such as this even once a year can help kids think more carefully about the books they're reading, music they're hearing, and shows they're watching. Parents might be surprised to see that even fairy tales wouldn't "pass" this test, as they're not truebut they often can help us understand a truth or moral lesson. When you're working from the same sourcethe Bibleyou'll have clearer communication and understanding with your kids.
Stay connected. The last step for us as parents is to become a part of our children's media world. Find out what they're being exposed to and what they like. Then find ways to connect with your children's interests and guide them toward good media influences.
I don't exactly love rap music, but my son does. And since there's plenty of great Christian rap music, I often turn up the volume and sing along with him in the car. At this point in his life we're letting him make a choice about what music he listens toas long as it's within the contemporary Christian music industry. In other areas we don't have this same criteria, but we still make every effort to connect with what's going on in Tony's media world.
We often read books aloud as a family so we can discuss them as we go. We talk about movies, sometimes pausing videos to discuss what's going on and what we all think of it. Whenever it's possible, my husband and I watch movies ahead of time to see if the content is acceptable instead of trying to cover Tony's eyes at the last minute. Overall, we try to be as much a part of his 12-year-old world as possible without being overbearing and invasive.
The older our son gets, the less he's going to want us involved in the choices he makes. It's likely he'll see, hear, read, and listen to things we find objectionable. Yet I believe that by guiding him along and releasing him into the entertainment world a little at a time, he'll make better choices as he matures.
The media certainly isn't our best friend, but it doesn't have to be our enemy, either. These steps will help you find the balance as you help your child learn to make wise entertainment choices. It also might help you re-evaluate your own media intake as well!
Amy Nappa, a TCW
regular contributor, best-selling author, and associate publisher of Nappaland.com, lives in Colorado with her family.
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