The Lonely Parent

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In a recent letter to syndicated advice columnist Carolyn Hax, a mother wrote, “Growing up, there were zero boundaries about what movies and TV I could watch—content or amount. This was really, really not good for me. I have created lots of boundaries around these things [for my kids], but I always feel like I’m not finding the right spot.”

I think this mother speaks for a lot of us parents today. It’s not just how many hours of screen time our kids can have each week. It’s the content. Where do we draw the line? How can we find the right spot? Are we stricter than our parents? Looser? Will our children be outcasts if they don’t have enough access to popular culture?

I grew up not being allowed to watch anything besides The Brady Bunch and Nick at Nite (which then featured The Donna Reed Show, Mr. Ed, and My Three Sons). For the record, I’m 38, which means I have only seen Family Ties and The Cosby Show and Cheers in reruns. I certainly thought my parents were too strict at the time. But now, as the mother of three children, their parenting style seems like a luxury—the extent to which they could actually control what aspects of pop culture their children could consume. Sure, I’d play some Nintendo at friends’ houses, but a little Mario Brothers seems quaint compared to what many parents are fighting today.

Sheltering our children is not simply the domain of fundamentalist homeschoolers, as many in the media would have you believe. In the last three years that I have been writing a column for the New York Post about parenting, among other things, mothers and fathers across the country have told me the same thing over and over: It is us against the culture and we are losing.

Not sure what that means? The other night I turned on the premiere of a CBS sitcom at 8:30 and heard an extended conversation about masturbation. No euphemisms used. This is the first channel that comes on when you turn on the TV. And my kids now know how to turn on the TV. You do the math.

A couple of years ago my four-year-old son came home from Jewish day camp singing, “Hey Sexy Lady.” This wasn’t just some dumb thing he was repeating from an older boy. This was what his whole group sang in camp-wide talent show. Adorable, right?

I was sitting next to the father of an 8-year-old from Washington, DC. His daughter loves to play with a couple of twins in her class. They seem like nice enough kids, except, he says, “They swear like sailors.” Their mother, he says, “doesn’t want to stifle their creativity by controlling their language.”

A mother in suburban New Jersey, says she’s “shocked at how many of her [daughter’s] friends have iPhones and other devices that give them constant—and often unsupervised—access to the Internet. Should 10-year-olds be texting? Posting pictures on Instagram? Having Facebook and YouTube accounts? And what about when those other girls come to your house for a sleepover?”

Even if you restrict your own children’s access to television and the Internet, pop culture intrudes everywhere. Why is there a billboard at my commuter train station featuring a woman wearing a skin-tight dress hiked up to you-know-where? She’s crawling across a pool table, legs spread apart, holding a pool cue and looking intently for a place to stick it. Why are airplanes broadcasting scenes of violent kidnappings from prime-time dramas on communal video screens?

Instead of simply complaining, though, I am starting to collect stories of what parents are doing to fight back. Not in terms of public policy or launching the next culture war. It’s probably too little too late at this point. I want to know: How are they creating their own communities where the standards are a little bit higher for what kinds of media their children can consume? How are they talking to other parents, teachers, and community leaders about the problems with our coarsening culture? What are they telling their children about other families who have different standards? This may be one of the stickiest questions.

Aloise Buckley Heath, sister of William F. Buckley, once wrote an essay called “Will Mrs. Major Go to Hell?” Her son had inquired about the fate of their neighbor’s eternal soul after he heard his mother say something about the kind of people who voted for Lyndon Johnson. Well, needless to say, word got back to Mrs. Major.  Even back then, when a certain amount of judgment—even religious judgment—was acceptable, Mrs. Heath got into hot water. But the question today is much trickier. Suggesting that there is something wrong with the way other families operate is enough to get you a meeting in the principal’s office, perhaps even accused of bullying.

What parents need today—in addition to the courage of their convictions—is a critical mass. They need to know that they are not parenting alone. And that is where Acculturated in general and this new column in particular come in. Every couple of weeks I will be asking readers a question about their parenting styles, their media policies, their views of the culture, their interaction with other adults and children, etc. I will be gathering the responses (anonymous if you prefer) and giving readers a sense of where this community of readers stands. I hope that it will help all of us find “the right spot” when it comes to our own children.

So let’s start with this: On a scale of 1 to 10, how strict are you when it comes to media? How do you compare to your parents and how do you compare to the parents of your children’s friends? Feel free to provide examples. Send your responses to LonelyParent@acculturated.com

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  • atomicrobot

    For my family (19m girl and boy at t-minus 4 weeks), I see the problem as not just the content, but the VOLUME of popular culture. For now, my girl only gets to watch TV if she’s sick (or Mommy is), and then only something slow and semi-educational like Mr. Rogers. Not because we think all other shows are bad, but because we want her consuming as little pre-packaged information as possible from sources that are not us.

    When you think about TV and games and other mass-market phenomena, consider that each is produced from nothing and that each and every scene has been created and crafted carefully to deliver a specific message. Regardless of the message – be it humor, political, religious, etc. – consider that each has been PRODUCED. This means that the scene was considered and written (and rewritten) in order to achieve a specific outcome/feeling/reaction from you the viewer. If, upon viewing, the creator does not feel he/she has properly communicated, they can cut it and start from scratch to try again with no loss suffered in the conversation with the consumer. Only once the package achieves the desired effect does the creator release the message.

    This isn’t to say all creator’s motives are bad or antithetical to your own. But think about how often you yourself “produce” your own messages to your children. Are you dedicating time to honing and rewriting your messages? I hope so. Do you have the opportunity to cut and reshoot your communication? No. For the most part, we, as parents, do our bits live. We may rehearse and practice, but there are no takebacks and precious few do-overs once those little video cameras with legs start filming. And we are all to often so much less articulate in our message.

    TL;DR – 30 minutes of TV communication is the result of a lot more thought and intention than 30 minutes. It may take a lot longer than that to undo messages your children receive with which you don’t necessarily agree.

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