When it comes to media exposure and my kids, I've made my decision—and I'm sticking to it.
We've heard it repeated so many times that it's become conventional parenting wisdom. It's one of the classic mantras that's carted out whenever we're lambasting the current state of American popular culture. Tell me if this sounds familiar: "Kids are allowed to see all the violence and explosions in the world, but show two naked people in bed and it suddenly becomes inappropriate". Yes, we're routinely called out in America for demonizing sex over violence when it comes to our kids' media consumption.
But as a parent, I'm here to say that there's a legitimate reason for this—and it's not hypocrisy. Conventional parenting wisdom is wrong: Depictions of sex are in fact more potentially harmful for your children to view than certain forms of violence. They are more harmful to healthy maturation, as well as moral development.
Over the years, I've gotten into trouble with other parents for holding this view. They call me old-fashioned, wrong-headed or just plain backwards for shielding my children from sex more than violence. But I have my reasons.
But first, allow me to get something straight: When I refer to movie violence, I'm not talking about brutal depictions of realistic violence. I would not show a small child films like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, or American History X. I'm talking about over-the-top, action-movie type of violence—the kind seen in superhero movies, science fiction epics, westerns and the like. The type that is largely detached from reality.
As a dedicated fan of horror movies, my children (now age 9 and 11) have seen everything from Night of the Living Dead to American Werewolf in London to Jaws. My daughter's favorite is Drag Me to Hell, and my son's is The Shining. We've had a lot of fun with movies like this over the years. My son also counts movies like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Predator among his favorites. As a connoisseur of pop culture, I've shepherded them along, showing them things I felt were appropriate for their age and enjoyable to them.
Yet I'm one of those people who, if showing my kids a Friday the 13th movie, would be less likely to cover their eyes while Jason chased after someone with a chainsaw as I would be when two young teens are shown getting it on in a tent. Specifically, while showing my son 300, I was far more concerned about letting him see the rather explicit sex scene between Gerard Butler and Lena Heady (I didn't) than I was with any amount of outrageous comic-book style sword-and-sandal bloodshed. Game of Thrones is now the hottest show on TV, and I routinely remind my kids that they are not allowed to watch it. This is not due to the battle scenes, but rather the gratuitous sex.
Why? To put it very simply, my son will most likely never find himself facing off, spear in hand, against an army of masked Persian barbarians. He will, however, find himself in bed with someone at some point. The former example has no bearing on his future adult life, on his real-life decision-making processes as they develop. The latter content, however, does have a very real connection to situations he will one day find himself in.
Outlandish whizbang-style movie violence is detached from any real-life ramifications. The violent movies I've shown my kids will not make them more violent adults. I know in my heart that watching Clint Eastwood ride through an old West town, guns blazing as bad guys fall on either side, will never persuade my son or daughter to one go on a rampant six-shooter horseback killing spree. However, I believe that showing them movies like Porky's, American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High will potentially affect future decision-making when it comes to sex.
Sex is a very real part of our life, and as children mature into adults, they base their attitudes toward sex on many things—one of them being depictions in mass media. This means that it potentially colors the way they view both the act of sex and the opposite sex as a whole. Media exposure could easily persuade young boys into thinking that devaluing women, or viewing them as sex objects, is "cool". It could just as easily convince young girls that sexuality should be a weapon wielded for power.
When consumed by immature, not-yet-developed minds, the nonchalant way in which sex is often depicted could very easily lead young people to take a nonchalant attitude toward sex as a whole.
I do not believe that watching Batman take out a gang of the Joker's thugs will cause young children to devalue human life. As a matter of fact, I find that many depictions of good vs. evil in popular culture, often violent by nature, have their origins in forms of entertainment that have been part and parcel of childhood since time immemorial—whether it be Grimm's fairy tales, Bible stories or what have you. In this way, these things become more than just entertainment, but passion plays that teach children right from wrong.
Is there such a thing as violence that is inappropriate for children? As I stated earlier, absolutely. There are many adult-oriented films and TV shows that encourage the devaluing of life and engender a generally cynical view due to their portrayal of brutal, random and very real violence. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-Indians, superheroes-and-villains type of violence that is a cartoon caricature by definition.
And when I say "sex", I do not mean nudity per se. I have shown my children films with nudity in it, as I do not believe they should be taught that the human form is something to be shunned or made sinful. However, in those cases it would a non-sexualized nudity—the human body presented in a neutral, non-prurient way. There is no reason a small child, who sees his or her own naked body on a daily basis, should be made to feel shame for it.
It's all about what small children are able to process, and what potential affect it will have on them. It's about common sense. It doesn't mean I'm repressed or think sex is an evil act. It also doesn't mean I believe violence in everyday society is more acceptable for children to be exposed to than human sexuality. Rather, what I am saying is that when it comes to entertainment aimed at an audience whose minds are not yet fully formed, certain forms of cartoonish violence are easier and less harmful for young people to digest than depictions of mature sexuality.
As parents, we must make these decisions for our children. I've made mine, and I believe it's the right one.