As kids grow older, it’s important to teach them the skills they need to evaluate their books, videos, and music for messages that might poison their minds and spirits. Here are three questions to guide them.
by Heidi Indahl
When my first child was young it was easy to monitor everything he read and watched on TV. If I didn’t like the content, I turned it off. It was rare that he would read a book before I read it first. I would carefully skip any “not nice” words when we read aloud and continue the story, with my son none the wiser.
This worked great when my children were younger, but what about bigger kids? How am I going to teach them to discern the moral worth of a book? What should they do when they come across questionable or outright offensive content?
The books, movies, television, and music that our kids consume are increasingly hostile to Catholic teaching about human dignity, the family, and social issues—not to mention the Church itself. Part of parenting in an intentionally Catholic way is having a plan for navigating this world with our kids. Over time, I’ve realized that, while it is tempting to simply close the door on media that reflect a non-Catholic perspective, it may not be the best way to go. As they grow more independent, my children will need to learn how to recognize and respond to media messages that are contrary to our faith.
Raising Kids Who Know What’s Good, True, and Beautiful
Anyone who doubts the power of the media to affect attitudes and behavior need only consider that advertisers were expected to spend $200 billion on advertising in the United States alone in 2016. Revolutionaries, too, have long recognized that the education and indoctrination of children is the fastest way to acceptance of previously unacceptable ideas.
Haley Stewart (Carrots for Michelmas) has written an insightful article about the importance of teaching kids critical thinking skills. In Why Voldemort Hates Homeschool, she writes: “This is the kind of strong foundation I want my children to have…so that they have the ability to recognize the dark wizards of their time and have the courage to fight for what’s good, true, and beautiful.”
Yes! I want my children to recognize dark wizards and to have the courage to fight for what is good, true, and beautiful, too! You don’t need to homeschool to provide that basic foundation, which comes more from engaged and intentional parenting practices in general.
The Parable of the Poop in the Brownies
Here is a little parable that an experienced mother shared with me; we have used it with our children to teach them about the importance of choosing the media they consume with care:
A baker in town bakes brownies that everyone just loves. Unfortunately, this baker is a bit of a sociopath. One day, she decides that it would be funny to add a little poop to the brownies to see what happens.
She waits for someone to notice, but no one does, so the next day she adds a little more . . . and a little more . . . and a little more. Finally, an irate customer comes into the shop horribly upset about the obvious poop in her brownies. She tells everyone in town that the baker is putting poop in the brownies. But while many people are upset, others defend the right of the baker to make brownies as she sees fit. In a gesture of solidarity, they declare that her doctored desserts are just as good as ordinary brownies, and continue to buy them. Anyone who objects to the new recipe is clearly nothing more than a prejudiced, narrow-minded brownie hater. Before long, poopy brownies are cool, and traditional brownies are frowned upon.
The clueless townspeople in this parable notwithstanding, poop in brownies is pretty easy to sniff out. Harmful media messages are another matter, because they can take many different forms. Obviously we think about sex and violence and language right away, but poisonous media messages can come in other forms, too. Parents need to teach kids to look more deeply at the fundamental assumptions of media messages: What is the ultimate good? What is the worldview of the story or main characters? What is the basic message about what it means to be human?
And while poop is never an appropriate pantry item, the same isn’t true for media messages. What is appropriate for an older teen may not be appropriate for younger kids. Even kids of the same age might not be affected in the same way by bad media messages because of differing levels of spiritual and emotional maturity.
As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” The saying is even more true when it comes to the media we consume. Over time, the books we read, the songs we sing, the stories we tell, and the images we watch shape who we become and how we think.
Just as it is our responsibility as parents to help our kids form healthy eating habits, so it is also our responsibility to teach our kids to form healthy media habits.
How Do We Respond?
Recognizing the “poop in the brownies” is just the first step. But once we recognize negative messages in the media our kids are consuming, what do we do? Here are three questions to add to your parenting toolbox, designed to help parents and kids reflect and take action after identifying questionable media content.
1. How does reading/watching/listening to this affect me?
In many ways, this is the most important question to ask, and you can start using it from a young age. Does watching Ninjago turn your five-year-old into a spinning, side-kicking crazy person who attacks everyone who walks by? Maybe they simply shouldn’t watch that show any longer, but instead of just taking it away without any explanation, you can point out how watching two hours of Ninjago on Netflix changed their attitude in a way that wasn’t friendly to your family.
Simply stating that the media product didn’t help your child to do and be their best or to make their best choices is a powerful step. For a young child, that is enough discussion on the matter—but it’s enough to get them thinking about how what goes into their mind affects their actions and attitudes.
My oldest son loves fantasy, which can be a fairly dark genre at times. His moral compass is solid and he knows that the stories are purely fiction. He’s always handled reading them with no ill effects. But recently, he was listening to a long series on audio books, and I noticed that his mood had become quite dark. After several days, we talked. I shared that I suspected his mind was spending a lot of time thinking about the dark parts of the story.
Being a young teen, he of course denied there was any correlation, but he humored me and switched to something more light and playful. First his calmer and more cheerful disposition returned, and second, he eventually admitted that the books had been affecting his behavior. This was the beginning of a great conversation that has continued with him about how we feed ourselves spiritually and mentally, not just physically. We also talked about how even something just “playing in the background” while he built with Legos or cleaned his room (ha ha) still affected him.
2. What is the purpose of continuing with this book/show/song?
In both of the above examples, the decision was made to stop or switch away from the root cause because the media was leading to an inclination towards sinful or inappropriate behavior. When anything causes such a reaction in a child (or an adult), I believe stepping away is exactly the correct response.
Stepping away may also be the correct response if the story causes scandal by introducing a child to something that is clearly beyond his or her sensibilities. Sometimes, however, even though the content is upsetting, there is a purpose (for older children and adults) in continuing the story. Think of movies such as Schindler’s List that portray great suffering and violence. These historical films can add to our compassion and understanding, but only when we are ready for them.
I believe teens and tweens need to be allowed to make the final decision on this question themselves, with mom and dad only intervening when they see evidence of negative effects.
3. How does this challenge or change me?
Once content has been flagged mentally and the decision to continue or discontinue watching or reading has been made, the most important thing is to come back to a safe place for conversation.
For tweens and teens, this safe place should be their family and faith community. There is such a thing as morally neutral media. Not everything needs to be rehashed, directed, and discussed. But kids should know that they can come to their family and faith community to safely talk about stories that raise issues for them.
They also need to know that they have a voice in responding to what they read. Maybe they make the decision to no longer read a particular author. Maybe they want to leave a review online making other parents and young readers aware of potential problems. Maybe they feel called to action as a result of some great suffering they read about. Whatever the response, asking this question helps children process and respond to their experience in a way that benefits their overall growth and development.
If we expose our children to what is good, true, and beautiful, and foster in them an appreciation for it, the landscape in the child’s imagination is developed in a way that makes recognizing unpalatable or biased content easier and more natural for them.
It is absolutely appropriate to protect the tender hearts and minds of young children from as much bad media as we can. We cannot entirely avoid our older children being exposed to negative media messages, however, any more than we can entirely avoid them ourselves. We can, however, train them to evaluate the moral worth of the media they are consuming. Sometimes we may need to put up our own roadblocks, but the older the child becomes, the more we need to teach them to recognize and obey the signs on their own and to respond appropriately.