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Parenting: Take the Offensive Against Popular Culture

Can you protect your kids from popular culture?

Popular culture may be the most powerful (and destructive) force in our society today. Whether through the media of television, movies, music, the Internet, radio, or magazines, popular culture is omnipresent, intense, and unrelenting. So who can protect your children from its Sirens' call? Though schools, houses of worship, and our government can help to varying degrees, the onus is on parents. It is, no doubt, an uphill battle, but you don't have the luxury of sitting back and playing defense against popular culture; it will inevitably overwhelm you and your children. You need to take the offensive against popular culture to protect your children from its unhealthy messages.

Deconstruct Popular Culture

Popular culture is sophisticated in the ways of deception and manipulation. If you just look at the surface of popular culture's messages, they can appear quite benign, filled with entertaining characters, fun music, and eye-catching images. If you look no deeper, you may conclude that those messages are harmless, but then you put your children at risk to the real dangers that lurch below the surface. Popular culture spends billions of dollars each year finding ways to lie, control, and push your children to the "dark side" without you even realizing it. To avoid this "grand seduction," deconstruct popular culture by looking beneath the surface of the fun and entertainment and see the real messages it's communicating to your children.

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A great exercise is to watch a television show, play a video game, or listen to music in which your children are involved:

  • Recognize what attracts your children to it (e.g., television commercials for junk food present attractive and cool children having a great time while eating the advertised product).
  • Identify how the ad is manipulating your children (i.e., children want to be popular and have fun).
  • Identify the messages that lie below the surface (e.g., junk food is good, being cool is more important than your health).
  • Compare these messages to those that you want to convey (e.g., are they consistent with or contrary to your messages? 
  • If the messages from popular culture are incompatible with yours, make a deliberate decision to limit your children's exposure (e.g., limit the television shows they are allowed to watch).

Be aware that you don't have to openly endorse popular culture's messages for your children to be influenced by them. When you allow your children to play violent video games, listen to explicit music lyrics, or eat junk food, you are conveying your tacit approval. Because you typically express displeasure with your children when you don't like something they're doing, when you don't express it, they will assume that what they're doing is okay. The lesson here is that when you ignore something your children are doing, that is as good as encouraging it.

Pick Your Battles

Decide how harmful different aspects of popular culture are to your children and realize that, given the power of popular culture, you can not fight and win every battle. So pick your battles carefully. It may be, for example, that you judge movies that have no commercial merchandising tie-ins to be okay for your children, but you don't permit them to watch any television (because of the seemingly endless stream of commercials) or you limit their video-game play to nonviolent, educational games. You may decide that you can live with sometimes explicit music lyrics, but draw the line at provocative clothing. You might even accept an earring for your son or navel ring for your daughter knowing that children tend to outgrow them at some point.

Whatever you decide, I would encourage you to give your children some "victories" in these battles. When you allow your children to win a few small skirmishes, they won't feel the need to seek out bigger wins that may be more destructive, for example, the use of drugs or alcohol. At the same time, whichever battles you do decide to fight, commit yourself 100 percent, and don't relent no matter how difficult it gets.

Be a Gatekeeper

One way to take the offensive is to become your children's gatekeeper to popular culture. Do your research and educate yourself about popular culture's role in your children's lives. What are they watching, playing, listening to, and surfing? What messages are being communicated? Identify what is unhealthy and what is healthy. The fact is that you can't prevent your children from using popular culture. What you can do is encourage popular culture that is both healthy, for example, educational television shows, video games, and websites, and entertaining-if it's not engaging, your children will discard it quickly. You may need to assume some responsibility in which you spend more time actively sharing these healthier forms of popular culture to ensure that your children connect with them. You can also get them away from popular culture altogether by having them spend their time reading, exercising, or playing a sport or musical instrument.

As the gatekeeper, establish limits on how much time your children are allowed to spend and what they're allowed to watch, play, listen to, and surf. For example, you may decide not to allow your children to watch more than one hour of television each day, play video games during the week, or use the telephone or texting during dinner or homework.

If you introduce limits when there were few limits previously, your children will likely resist your efforts. For example, if your children are addicted to video games and you limit or remove them, they will be very unhappy. In this situation, you have to be firm and consistent in establishing limits, expectations, and consequences-follow-through is everything! When parents have followed my advice and thrown out their children's video-game consoles or turned off their televisions, they have told me that their children complain-loudly and persistently!-for two to three months trying to wear them down. But when the parents stick to their principles, their children, in every case, finally gave up, accepted the change, and find other, healthier ways of entertaining themselves.

Raise Healthy Skeptics

Today's children are often passive recipients of the messages from popular culture. You can help protect your children from this brainwashing by raising healthy skeptics. I want your children to find a healthy middle ground between naiveté (where they will believe everything) and cynicism (where they won't believe anything). I want your children to be discerning observers and critical thinkers who don't accept popular culture's messages at face value. Healthy skepticism means that they (and you) ask tough questions about those messages:

  • Why is the message so attractive?
  • What is the real message?
  • What does the messenger get out of it?
  • Will the message help or hurt me?
  • Do I want to accept this message?

You can foster this healthy skepticism by teaching your children to engage, rather than simply absorb, popular culture. Teach your children how to be skeptical consumers of popular culture. If, for example, there is a television show that your children like to watch-and that you're not thrilled about, but you decide that this battle isn't worth fighting-you should sit down and watch the show with them and explore with them the answers to the above questions.

This discussion will help your children gain a better understanding of what they're really watching. They then can decide for themselves whether to accept the messages. At worst, your children may still watch the show because it's entertaining, but now, because they're healthy skeptics, they'll recognize and reject the unhealthy messages it's conveying. At best, your children will reject it all together by choosing to no longer watch the show.

Expand Your Army

It can be exhausting and discouraging when faced with having to battle an enemy the size and power of popular culture; imagine what it was like for Frodo and his friends to constantly confront the Orcs in the Lord of the Rings. It's especially frustrating if you're working so hard to convey healthy messages to your children, yet so many other influences in your children's lives are working against you. One of the best things you can do is to build an army against popular culture so that the immediate influences in your children's lives are your allies rather than your enemies.

This army should be an extension of your values because it shares your most fundamental beliefs, enveloping your children in a sort of value-powered force field that can repel much of popular culture when your children are outside your home. This shield acts to protect your children by keeping their immediate surroundings and interactions healthy even when the larger messages raining down on them from billboards, stores, television, movies, and the Internet are unhealthy.

Building such a community means making deliberate choices about the world your children live in outside of your home. Ask the following questions:

  • Do your children's friends and their parents share and extend your values?
  • Does the community in which you live support your values?
  • Do the schools your children attend reinforce your values?
  • Do the activities-cultural, athletic, religious, entertainment-in which they participate encourage your values?
  • Simply put, do the people and activities in your children's world foster the healthy, life-affirming values that you want your children to develop?

If you answer "yes" to these questions, then you can feel confident that your children will have allies by their side when they leave the house. If you answer "no" to these questions, consider ways in which you can surround your children with healthier influences. Small changes can include finding a new sports league that emphasizes fun and participation over winning, a new piano teacher who is less demanding, or making the local mall off-limits to your children. Large-scale changes can include enrollment in a new school, attending a different house of worship, or not allowing your children to see friends who you believe are bad influences on them.

Actively creating a supportive community has significant benefits for both you and your children. You'll feel more supported as you face the behemoth of popular culture. Your children will be surrounded by a community that helps you resist popular culture's messages. When they leave your home, you and your children will know they are entering a world that is populated by like-minded people who will assist them in their daily battles with popular culture.

 

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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