“Dad, do you like Taylor Swift?” Our oldest daughter has officially reached an age where she listens to pop music, watches “America’s Got Talent,” plays online video games, and follows her favorite celebrities. She frequently asks my opinion on this or that singer, song, or celebrity. As parents, we sometimes feel torn between encouraging our children to appreciate the best of our culture as a part of God’s good world and wanting to protect her from the messages in the media that can shape her worldview in ways that run counter to a Christian worldview. As I’ve reflected on how to encourage our children to engage media in a healthy way, Paul’s words to the Philippians church are instructive: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Three questions come to mind that are helpful in teaching our children – young or old – to think on such things.
Beginning at a young age, I want my kids to recognize and discern between actions and words that are appropriate and inappropriate. What constitutes appropriate changes as children grow older. A young child shouldn’t be exposed to any swearing, for example, while a pre-teen can usually hear a swear word without being tempted to repeat it. As soon as they are able to listen to music or watch TV, kids should be able to recognize words that are vulgar or crass, slang words that are used to insult others, or words that use God’s name as an expression or exclamation. Music, movies, or Internet content featuring excessive vulgarity or profanity is off-limits, especially if kids begin repeating them. Age-appropriateness is a good place to start because it instills a habit of discernment early on, and because discerning appropriate and inappropriate content is fairly easy at this stage, since the focus is on easily identifiable criteria.
Sometimes we make the mistake of going no further than the first question; we teach our children that as long as there is no excessive swearing, the content is acceptable for Christians. However, this would be simplistic – books or music can lack profanity, and yet be full of content that is inappropriate for Christians. Conversely, a movie may have language that isn’t appropriate, but still be worthy of our attention because it wrestles with themes that help us understand ourselves and our relationship with God better. The same is true for other adult concepts, situations, and struggles, including sexuality and nudity. The mere presence of adult material is not the issue as much as its age-appropriateness and consistency with Christian understandings.
The point of asking this question is to develop the skill of careful discernment of music, movies, TV shows, or video games. Rather than consuming the massive volumes of media content, kids need to learn to identify themes and messages behind this content. Is the song about relationships? Does the movie explore the place of work? Are the video games about conquest and warfare? This helps us recognize content containing themes that are worthy of our attention and content that is more like junk food – perhaps okay as an occasional treat, but not something that should comprise our daily diet.
Asking the second question leads into the third question. If a song is about relationships, what is the song saying about relationships? Is the message that relationships are disposable? Does the movie about racial differences explore our fallen human nature, or does it reinforce prejudices about race? Media can be powerful because it can shine a light on our human condition, highlighting our need for salvation, and offering solutions to our human problem. It’s at this point that I ask questions that encourage young men and women to compare the message of the media to the Christian message. How do the solutions offered compare and contrast with the biblical message? What is lacking? Media that runs counter to a Christian worldview should be challenged, and media that blatantly promotes actions that are contrary to a Christian ethic should be discarded.
As parents, it can be tempting to simply dismiss the place of media because we want to shield our children from negative influences. However, we are doing them a disservice if we do so; we cannot escape media. And, the various forms of media can be valuable elements of our culture, that God calls us to participate in. A better approach is to teach our children from a young age, how to discern the message and the content of the media from a Christian point of view.