Thursday, August 26, 2010

Framing and Foundation Building, Not Sheltering


I have reached the point in my parenting journey where I cannot shield my kids by having them live in a bubble. Actually I seemed to have reached this point perhaps eighteen months or two years ago but have not yet shared this on my blog. I figured it was about time I share these thoughts.


When my children were younger I tried very hard to fill their lives with quality experiences and media (books and movies). I tried to not introduce them to pure garbage. And of course I didn’t expose them to information or media or life experiences that would rob them of their innocence and corrupt them.

Due to negative influences in the larger American culture and actually anyone outside our immediate family, keeping kids sheltered and protected is nearly impossible, the older a child gets, the harder this becomes.

My kids have learned a fair share of inappropriate information from their same-aged or younger cousins for example, so in the spirit of trying to have close relations with extended family my kids have been “enlightened”.

Things have gotten to a point where animated movies marketed to toddlers are rated PG and contain sexual innuendo or concepts like cross-dressing and homosexuality, conversations I neer imagined anyone would have to have with a three year old. (That movie was Shrek 2.)

Just driving down the highway is a challenge due to the bulletin boards for adult “toy stores”. I’ve been asked about those by my kids before they even knew the facts of human reproduction, talk about stumbling for words!

While I don’t necessarily intentionally and knowingly expose my kids to things I don’t like or think are inappropriate, when they see or learn things I handle it by sharing our family values and our morals in relation to the new information. I had read about this parenting approach before I actually needed it, in a book by Rebecca Hagelin called Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad.

Despite my hardest efforts at being informed before doing something like taking my kids to a movie, it seems impossible to get fully accurate information or enough details. Even when other parents give a movie the green light I have been horrified when I saw what was in it. A close friend of mine once insisted a scene that I thought was too sexually mature never happened in the movie (the masturbation scene in Transformers. I was so disgusted by a Christmas movie marketed to preschoolers based on a children’s picture book that I wrote a detailed negative review of the VHS home movie version, Olive the Other Reindeer (which I owned) and one Amazon customer accused me of being insane and insisted those scenes did not happen (when they did). The movie I hated, the picture book I loved. This is what we are up against when we try to inform ourselves, criticism and being accused of lying, by other parents, the ones who we think would be our allies!

You reach a point as a parent when time or money is just not available to pre-watch every movie or book before your children do then try to censor them from being exposed to them. Just censoring them from the media is not always possible as sometimes other parents, relatives or even loving grandparents expose young kids to inappropriate material. And once a teen knows about an Internet search engine or YouTube they can access these even at public libraries to find information they want to know or are curious to see (like watching a controversial music video another kid told them about, so what does it matter if MTV is locked by parental controls on the family’s TV?).

Total censorship is futile at some point. Honestly I’m at a point where censorship seems wrong anyway as sometimes through discussions of the topic the child is enlightened and informed about good things the family really should be teaching them anyway. Consider the discussions of cringe-worthy topics a teachable moment, maybe even a gift.

In spite of my efforts to protect my sons from learning something there have been multiple times that other kids, even religious homeschooled kids talked with my kids about things like detailed sexual information. I cannot and should not prevent my children from talking to other kids. However I honestly never imagined having to discuss oral sex with my nine year old after a ten year old homeschooled boy told a group at a drop-off paid class for homeschoolers all about it. I have even heard from my kids of some conversations had at church at Sunday School!

Last year my then-nine year old son came home asking about a pop song that he said his teacher talked to them about with lots of sexual references in it (I’d never even heard of the song and had to Google the lyrics to see what he was asking about). Another time other nine year olds were discussing specific sexual lyrics in pop songs at Sunday School when one boy said his parents won’t let him have that song on his iPod. It was a song neither I nor my son had ever heard of (so I'd never actively censored it from him anyway!). My son asked about the song, asked what they meant by the lyrics, and asked to hear the song and watch the video on YouTube.

My view now is also influenced by the fact that as a parent I may focus on the negative parts that I am annoyed were in the movie or song --- but the kids often disregard those and toss them aside but instead focus on the other things. For example my son may not like a popular country song as the singer is a girl and she is singing about love and romance and he has no interest in those topics, while I’m annoyed that she is singing about being drunk and phoning the ex-boyfriend begging to see him in the middle of the night. (That song is “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum which is also a cross-over hit in the pop music genre.) My son doesn’t like the song and he tunes it out when it is on the radio, while I’m sitting there wondering if I should change the station due to the content. Or we could discuss the topic but for me to lecture on the topic every time that top hit comes on the radio would be ridiculous and counter-productive as it would teach my kids to not listen when I talked.

The last challenge with the inappropriate content and friends is the social issue. It gets to be a problem when kids can’t talk to each other about things they do or see or listen to. To constantly say, “No I didn’t see the movie my parents won’t let me” creates a social issue. To decline attending a birthday party for a teen as they will see a PG-13 movie (and they are 13 or older) because the mother says there is a drug scene will create a social isolation problem. Kids need ways to connect to each other. (Before you get angry with me please read the next paragraph!)

Sometimes the kids talk about how they can’t stand a certain song that is on the radio constantly. Any shared experience that they can talk about helps kids and teens bond and form friendships. Not everything they are exposed to does corrupt them (especially if the parents know what the content is and if they talked about it at least once). You may be surprised to know sometimes the kids talk to each other about why something is not good such as saying the song does have a catchy tune but they don’t like the sound of rap singing (thus hearing a hip hop or rap song will not mean a child will love that music with some of its associated horrible language such as referring to a female as a ‘ho’ and views like being a pimp is cool).

I’m with my kids a lot, especially due to homeschooling. I know the parents of my children’s friends, or at least I’m getting to know them and have no reason to feel there is an issue. I am around my kids when they are with their friends and the other kids talk to me. I hear most of their conversations too. I can avoid having my kids see the kids who wind up being a bad influence (some of these are homeschoolers, both very religious and non-practicing). No parent should assume that just because a family is very religious that their children are innocent, na├»ve, and all sweetness and light.

In the end this is about knowing who you are as a person, and your spouse, and defining your family’s values. I recommend talking with your spouse about various topics and seeing if you are in agreement. Sometimes you can discuss how you will handle discussing certain topics with your kids and other times things come up before you ever thought you’d need to be prepared for such a discussion and you’ll be blindsided.

Parents should know their children and have an open line of communication. Kids should be safe to share information with their parents and know they can ask questions and get truthful answers. These answers can be both fact discussion and also moral and value related. A question about a fact can be answered then the parent can discuss the values or other things the child didn’t necessarily ask about.

Don’t just answer the question if the child needs to know something more important, such as if they ask what “ice” is to tell them but add in something about how dangerous it is and what it does to the body, how far you take that discussion will depend on the age of the child and their maturity level and why they may be asking.

Parents should take caution to not load these discussions with emotion or shame as if the child somehow gets the idea that talking about these issues is “bad” they will shut down and will not ask you in the future. That could be the first step to them closing the door on communications with you.

One friend of mine tells her kids, “I don’t know” when she doesn’t want to answer a sex question. Another mother just told me while watching an educational documentary on Ancient Greece they mentioned orgies and her child asked about it and she said she’d answer it in one year when they were slated to study Ancient Greece as a homeschool lesson. Perhaps a simple, very short answer, or something dumbed down to be age appropriate would have sufficed and not be closing the door to communication. (The topic of parents answering these questions when they are asked was a major theme in the very good book What’s Love Got To Do With It: Talking With Your Kids About Sex).

In summary I recommend that parents are aware of what is in the media and in our culture and at young ages children should be protected from intentional exposure to too-mature content. However sex, drugs, and any number of other issues are all around us, even on bulletin boards, on magazine covers seen at the grocery store and overhead on the news. No matter how hard a parent tries to protect and shelter their child they will learn and see things that will make the parent cringe or become angry.

However once something has been learned or seen it cannot be undone. The only thing a parent can really do is be sure that the family’s morals and values are known to the child so the child can frame the information learned from the wider culture within the family’s lens or perspective. This starts with something like a five year old telling their parent to shut up and you telling your child that in our family we don’t talk to each other that way, later the discussions are about a story heard told by the radio station DJ about Lindsay Lohan’s arrests for drunk driving and a child asking what the line in the comedy movie meant about homeless people having an orgy in a car parked on a city street (a scene from The Other Guys).

Parents, on the one hand we’re powerless to shield our children from the culture but on the other hand we’re the ones with the power to raise them with our own family’s values. How they act when they are young adults and living away from us is not in our control but what happens for those first eighteen years when they’re living under our roof is our responsibility. It takes years to build a strong foundation and it is our parental obligation to help build it. It starts at birth, really. Please take your role as parent seriously.

Parenting is a verb. Parenting is not to be taken lightly and it’s not always easy but if you put in the effort and remain persistent over the long haul I’m confident that you will have good rewards along the way and in the end.