For most of their lives, our children will not live with us. If they take the same path Bill and I did, they will fly the coop for college at 18, returning only for summer and winter breaks until they graduate and have their own places. For most of their lives, our children will see their roommates, friends, co-workers, and eventually, their own families, far more hours each week than they will see us. And while I hope that they will call their dad and me when they’re in a tight spot or need help working through a problem, I know that it’s more likely that first, they will turn to each other and their friends.
But we have them for now.
At 10, 6 and 1, our children still see Bill and me as the center of their universe. And we are by no means unique in our high status. Studies repeatedly show that without exception, children look first to their parents as role models.
Yet, looking around me, I am amazed at how willing many parents are to share the stage — to allow their young children’s values to be shaped and shifted by strangers who do not have their children’s best interest in mind. In pockets around me, I see parents too willing to share their precious time that center-of-the-universe spot with the TV, movie theater, computer, GameBoy and MP3 player.
Parents who wouldn’t think of skipping a babysitter’s reference check have no problem leaving their kids alone with The Bachelor. Parents who hope their children will wait until marriage — or at least adulthood — for sex, nevertheless allow their young children to see sexually suggestive movies and listen to explicit songs. Parents who downplay materialism themselves, yet invite clothes companies and car companies to come into their family room and make a pitch to their children.
It’s not that I think these parents are bad or purposefully abusive as they expose their children to a radically different value system than that of the Gospel. Instead, I think they have been swindled just as their children are being swindled. They have been convinced that if you can’t speak the language of pop culture, you’ll be left behind. These parents may even believe that media executives are looking out for their children — that a program or commercial can’t be that bad if it’s allowed to be shown during a time slot when kids are watching. Their gut may say not to let their 9-year-old see the PG-13 movie with her friends, but they override their conscience with an exception — just this once. And in doing so, they sell their children’s childhoods, bit by bit.
Maybe it’s the teacher in me that understands that consistency needs to drive all decisions we make with our children. As an adult, I can see the occasional raunchy movie or watch an eye-candy reality show without it shaping who I am, but that’s because my value system is already set. A child, repeatedly exposed to advertising, casual sex, materialism and back-talk in the media will need to try some of them on for size. Parents and teachers’ values are suddenly weighed against the glossy and glamorous world of primetime.
I know I can’t protect my kids forever, but they’re all mine right now. And it’s my responsibility to keep them true to their chronological age. Limiting TV and media exposure is one of the easiest things I can do to make sure they stay young. Six-year-olds and ten-year-olds have no need to be repeatedly told by anyone what brand of shoes to buy. They have no need to see sit-coms where everyone sleeps together by the third date or reality shows with little basis in reality. They don’t even need to hear the flippant back-talk and sassiness of the average cartoon. What they need is for Bill and me to stand guard of our home — to monitor the words and images they are exposed to through the media.
Our children need for Bill and me to protect our place at the center of their universe, for in protecting that place, we protect them.
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