Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Setting a Good Example--the TV Edition

Earlier today, I was visiting another blog, reading about the writer's dilemma with a popular TV show: was it good for her family, or not? She was leaning toward "not," and commenters seemed to be agreeing.

I don't want to link straight to the conversation, because I don't want to single out any specific people who were over there discussing this topic in an honest, heartfelt way. But a lot of good issues were brought up, and I'd like to touch on a few of those.

It's quite true that there really isn't a lot of television available for what used to be called (and maybe still is) "family viewing." TV programs tend to be written for and aimed at specific market segments, from the youngest children to the older male or older female demographics. While some shows may have "crossover" appeal, the vast majority of television simply isn't appropriate for children; some may argue (and with some justice) that most of it isn't all that appropriate for adults who are trying to follow Christ, either.

But there's no harm in the notion that now and again mom and dad might like to sit down with the children and watch something together. No harm in the notion--but sometimes all too much harm in the practice. It's bad enough when mom and dad must park their brains on the couch (along with some other portions of the anatomy) in order to sit through slickly-produced children's fare which is innocuous and inoffensive enough, but mind-numbingly dull, cheesy, repetitive, derivative, cutely moralistic about problems too vague and general to cause controversy (e.g., the perpetual "My friend and I are having a--gasp--disagreement!" story line), and barely even entertaining enough to hold the attention of the youngest member of the family, who would rather be sorting block-shapes into a bucket or playing with a bead race instead.

But bad as that might be, it's at least not openly harmful to the children. Should mom and dad think that some slightly more adult fare might be nice, though, there is the very real chance that chancy images, sexual content, bad language, gratuitous violence, and mindless materialistic greed might be seen by the kiddies--and that's just the commercials.

Steering through the shallow waters of the popular culture's entertainment offerings requires constant vigilance. There are all sorts of hazards, and it can be hard to recognize some of the dangers until you're nearly on top of them. And the powerful marketing messages sent out by the medium work very hard to lull your discriminating powers into submission--everybody's watching this, everybody's kids are too, and if you don't keep up you'll become one of those people who never gets the office lunchroom jokes, or misses the cultural references that even your parish priest puts into his homily from time to time (albeit with a somewhat charming inaccuracy, and a decade or so of cultural delay on occasion). Your kids will be those mousy wide-eyed little people in prairie dresses or three-piece infant suits at the homeschooling conference, and other homeschooling moms will ask if you aren't worried that you're sheltering them!

Thus do the marketers behind television shows play on our fears, and try to get us to rationalize making more and more choices in favor of what television and movies have to offer. There's so little out there, we think. We don't want this sort of thing to become forbidden fruit. This show or movie has good values (mostly) and hardly any bad things (and the bad stuff is over the kids' heads, anyway). We don't want to raise children who are going to go crazy when they go off to college, and either spend the first six weeks doing nothing but watching reruns of "Carnal Knowledge and the Borough" or becoming wild-eyed campus street preachers denouncing their classmates for watching old episodes of "Full House." We really owe it to our kids to watch some iffy shows with them, so we can have a lengthy family discussion afterward about which aspects of the show conflict with our values, play a rousing game of "Where's That in the Catechism?" as we challenge them to find all the sins committed in the half-hour episode, and end with a prayer intervention for the actors, the writers, the director, the producer, and the network executives. Surely that's better than...just not watching this stuff in the first place, right?

It can be difficult to know whether or not a TV show is worth watching, even as adults. Adding our responsibilities to our children into the mix makes the question even more challenging--but even more imperative to answer well. As adults, we've encountered the world, and will not find most of it shocking or disturbing, even when some shady elements are dressed up as entertainment. But our children's consciences are still developing, and the things we almost don't even notice can draw them in, excite unhealthy curiosity, disturb their peace, or desensitize them to evils they're too young even to know about.

As parents who are trying to follow Christ, it's important that we try to be aware of the influence the entertainment we allow into our home is having on our children. If a program started out seeming like good clean family fun, but started to sneak in more and more dysfunctional or disturbing cultural elements (as so often happens--the "bait and switch" of TV programming), we should accept this as an opportunity to set a good example for our children by explaining to them why we won't be watching anymore, and finding something else to do together. This example will stay with them, and they will have the discernment someday to make good entertainment choices themselves, and the courage to turn off and tune out when something stops being entertainment and starts trying to be a near occasion of sin, instead.


Marianne said...

Love your description of the typical kid's fare on T.V. What strikes me about kid's TV is that whilst there is a bountiful choice of seemingly innocuous stuff for the 8 and under crowd there is awfully little for that slightly older age group. I've often wondered if this intentional. Get them hooked. Then let them move on to the adult/inappropriate stuff like 'the show' that you have been referring to, to satisfy the addiction

Catharina de Bononia said...

Thank you for your honesty. We don't have a t.v. at all--it just sort of happened that way (not as a specific, conscious choice) when my husband & I got married--but we are relieved now (with three little girls) not to have to waste time and energy trying to decide what's acceptable fare!

Another upswing is that since my kids (2.5-year-old twins and a 1-year-old) haven't ever watched t.v., it isn't a battleground of "I want to watch!" that I see in some other families. Instead of missing it--or feeling like they need it--my kids are used to entertaining themselves with dolls, blocks, books, play-dough, crayons, etc.

I'll easily grant that they're young and bound to be introduced to it at some point, and we do have semi-vague plans about wanting them to see some of our favorite movies (Mary Poppins, Swiss Family Robinson) at some point... but not now; not yet.

Anyway, I think that no t.v. is much easier to handle than some t.v.

Rebecca said...

I agree Red...that stuff is a waste. The only TV my kids watch is Mr. Rogers on occasion...even the 8-year-old loves him. Movies are a rarity for us, but now it's easy to get good old stuff (not that all old stuff is good) and really good documentaries. A couple of weeks ago we watched "Third Man on the Mountain" which was great for all ages.

What's that passage from St. Paul about "whatever is good, whatever is beautiful, whatever is edifying...think upon these things"--there is so much in the way of very excellent and edifying literature and even movies that I don't see any need ever to muck around in things that are questionable or confusing. Enough questions come up in real life that we don't need to stage anything, and if morally confusing stuff is presented early enough, instead of it being a question it just becomes part of the moral fabric of a child's soul.

Jeannette said...

We just...don't have time. We have a lot of real life going on, we have quite a few movies, and now we've picked up some good TV series on DVD that we missed out on over the past decade, sans commercials. We've never forbade the kids from watching things at their friends' houses, so they know what goes on, but then we discuss why it can't be shown in front of the younger ones of course, and then we...go live real lives.
The oldest (18) is now hooked on House, but that's about it. (Not counting husband and sports; he has to dvr them so he can skip over the racy commercials though)