“Dad, literally no one else at school watches the kind of shows that I watch.”
I diverted my eyes from the road and glanced at my soon-to-be-12-year-old daughter and asked, “What do you mean?”
(I knew what she meant. I knew why she was asking.)
Ellie had just heard her mom talk about how all the children’s stories my wife writes end in some ironic tragedy or, at best, beauty laced with pain. It’s part intentionality and part innate weirdness, but she wants to teach our kids that this world is strange and twisted, and that the unwinding of it all is wonderful and difficult and bound to create the best kind of heartbreak.
“I mean, The X-Files?" my daughter went on. "The Twilight Zone? Smallville? I feel like none of my Christian friends watch those shows. No one at school has ever even heard of them.”
“Well babe, there’s a good reason for that…”
Allow me to offer the following disclaimer: this is not an article on how to parent your kids.
I have no idea how to parent your kids. I’m having a time of it just parenting my own kids. I have no clue what’s right for your family, and I wouldn’t pretend to make any claims on you. My own kids are 12, 10 and 7. I like them pretty well, and, by any reckoning, they're terrific. They are also very young, and it’s a long road from middle school to “happily established in their own healthy well-functioning adult lives”.
What I do have to share is a belief in intentionality when it comes to helping your children interact with culture, entertainment, and faith. In short, I care less about what you do with your kids when it comes to books, TV, movies, music, video games, and whatever devices the ghost of Steve Jobs dreams up; I very much care that you do something with them, and that you do it for clearly articulated reasons.
You can like my specific choices or hate them. You can find them scandalizing or inspiring, but please don’t get hung up on our “whats.” I think our "whys" are more important.
Here are five fundamental beliefs that inform my wife’s and my choices when it comes to helping our kids consume cultural products.
We focus on what is true.
When it comes to the movies and books we curate for our kids, at all times we're looking for things that have the ring of truth to them. Jesus tells us that he himself is the truth (John 14:6), so we focus on stories that deal with the God-shaped hole that is in our children’s hearts.
When our son was six, he remarked, “Isn’t it weird how Superman is a lot like Jesus?”
It’s not weird at all, actually. Superman IS a lot like Jesus. That’s not accidental. That’s our world grasping at a truth they can sense all around them, but can’t quite touch. They know they need a relationship with Christ, but can’t bring themselves to admit it, so they dress him up in tights and give him heat vision. But they know they need a savior from the skies to deliver them.
A true story hunts for things universally acknowledged to be good: sacrifice, heroism, suffering, righteousness, mercy, danger, risk. The realization that a broken and fallen world has real evil that must be opposed by women and men of courage, conviction, and faith. And that opposition always comes at great price.
A story does not need to be factual to be true. It does not need to be labeled “Christian” to be true. But it very much does need to shed light on life as it really is.
We focus on what is excellent.
Philippians 4:8 is an ever-present measuring rod for our family:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
A worthy corollary to whatever is true, excellence is not to be overlooked. There is a dizzying amount of ideas and expressions of art to consume in this world. There’s not time to get to all of it, so we pursue that which is made by skillful hands and brilliant minds.
We are trying to raise children who glorify God through what they create. Norm MacDonald had an old joke I’ve always loved: “Kenny G has a new Christmas album out. It’s called, 'Happy Birthday, Jesus. Hope You Like Crap!'” I don’t want my kids fooled into thinking that God approves of schlock. I want them to interact with excellent, high-quality art so they can be inspired to produce excellence themselves.
We focus on what is being taught.
All art teaches.
Even if the point only teaches us to appreciate beauty, that is in and of itself a moral lesson. I want my children to understand the messages the world is throwing at them. It’s not enough that they be savvy consumers of culture. They need the ability to deconstruct meaning, to grasp what is being said and to recreate it through their own set of lenses.
Mulder and Scully (FBI agents on The X-Files) wrestle with mysteries of both the natural and supernatural variety in a context that speaks directly to issues of faith and epistemology (questions of ‘how we know what we know’). When Mulder declares, “I want to believe!” because “the truth is out there,” it doesn’t matter if he’s chasing a little green man from outer space or trying to understand his partner’s awakening faith in God. What is important is that my daughter learns to evaluate the philosophies she is exposed to and then acquires the skills to test those ideas against God’s truth.
When Clark Kent enters Lex Luther’s psyche on Smallville and finds an inner child that represents the last remaining shred of goodness left in his burgeoning archnemesis, it’s not just a plot device or an entertaining new look at familiar characters. For my kids, it was a chance to unpack why goodness was represented as a child. We compared society’s belief that people “turn” evil (like Lex or Darth Vader) with the biblical truth that we are all evil from birth. My seven-year-old chimed in that Jesus said we must be like little children to know God; and by doing so suggested a different spin on what was happening in the scene.
We focus on what is appropriate.
It’s difficult to know at what age your child is mature enough to handle certain content. With my daughter, I had to heavily edit and carefully select which episodes of The X-Files she watched. Some have sexual elements with no redemptive value. Others were twisted and dark in a way that she didn’t need to be subjected to.
Training my kids to be discerning doesn’t mean that I want them exposed to everything the world’s sewer pipe spews at them. There are some topics that I want them to interact with while they are young. Drugs and alcohol are things we discuss openly, even in elementary school. It’s surprisingly uncomplicated to explain their uses and consequences. Likewise racism, violence and injustice, like in the amazing film The Mission, can lead to fruitful conversations.
When in doubt, we try to wait. If we're concerned that content may be too intense for our kids, we don’t show it to them. Often, we read it to them in book form first. For stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or the Narnia movies, taking the time to read the books with your kids first is a great way to gauge their preparedness. If they aren’t interested in the books, they probably don’t need to see the movie yet.
We focus on them.
We watch shows, read books, play games, and listen to music with our kids. Curation and editing take time. It means we sit and watch the show, paying attention with the remote in hand, just in case I forgot about “that one scene” from a movie I last watched two decades ago.
I try to keep my kids’ own interests and preferences in mind. My oldest girl loves monsters; she always has. At three years old, she would cheer when the 1930s King Kong stepped on fleeing villagers. So when I offered to spend a year letting her stay up later than the other kids to watch The X-Files with me, I knew I wasn’t boring her with something I loved, but was introducing her to something that would thrill her too.
My son loves The Flash. My youngest is obsessed with Supergirl. We watch those shows as a family, but it’s also a chance to learn about what makes my individual kids tick. Because that time is about them, it’s easier for me to hone in on shows that spark their imagination, and on characters that inspire them to ask the right questions.
When it comes to how we are raising our kids to interact with the world, I can’t swear to you that we are “doing it right." We're doing the best we can to be intentional and engaged with them. If all we accomplish is training our kids to be intentional and engaged with the world around them, I’d happily take that.
Is any of this working? It’s too early to know. That’s the tightrope, isn’t it? I can’t promise you that any of this will work for my own kids, let alone yours.
I can only tell you that while listening to “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the Hamilton soundtrack - a song about a woman forgiving her husband’s adultery and coming to grips with the murder of her son - my seven-year old piped up from the back seat, “That’s why we have to learn to forgive each other for little things, because someday we might have to forgive someone for something really big.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Image: "The Education of the Children of Clovis," by Laurence Alma-Tadema. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.