Carla Barnhill is former editor of Christian Parenting Today and author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother (Baker, 2004).
Before I rail about morality on television, let me be completely clear: I love television, always have, always will. But when I watch most television shows with my mommy goggles on, well, it's quite a horrific view.
I am an easygoing parent, but media is the one place I tend to skew toward the restrictive end of the permissiveness spectrum. There's something about a visual image that sticks with us in a more lasting way than a conversation or even words on a page. You can't unsee something, so my husband and I tend to be very protective about what our kids watch.
But here's where I tend to differ from many Christian parents I know: I'm not protective because I fear the moral damage television might do to my children. I'm protective because I want my children to stay children and not have to watch people being killed or hurt or harassed. I don't want them to see how awful people can be to each other—not yet. I'm protecting their outlook on humanity.
For us, the deal breakers are things like violence and sexual overtones. I have put the kibosh on Glee unless my teenager watches it with me so we can talk through the more suggestive storylines. But Wizards of Waverly Place? Dinosaur Train? The kids love them, they're sweet, and someone always learns a good life lesson—and that's enough for me. I'm not all that concerned about my kids finding an overtly Christian worldview on a TV show.
I find that so many evangelical parents tend to treat things like tv—and music and the Internet—as though the people creating material for those media somehow owe it to Christians to produce morally sound content.
They don't. They are businesses trying to make money. Now, many have become savvy enough to know that they make more money when they make both kids and parents happy, so many of them are trying to offer a product that entertains and teaches some moral value, like friendship, respect, and self-esteem.
But parents are naéve to expect their children's television viewing to be good for anything except entertainment. That's what television is for, nothing more, nothing less.
It's my job as a parent to develop my child's moral center. Television is not my parenting partner. I firmly believe that if I do my job well, then no TV show can strip away the core of who my children are and who they will become. But when a show—whether it's from Disney or Veggie-Tales—gives my kids a good laugh or a glimpse of how to build healthy friendships or a taste of what life is like in other families, then that's just gravy.
Phil Vischer is the creator of VeggieTales, the voice of Bob the Tomato, and producer of the What's in the Bible? video series.
Over the last 30 years, children's television has gotten a tremendous amount of attention. What are the programs teaching? Nonviolence? Gender and race sensitivity? Great strides have been made since the days most kids' shows were either afterthoughts, or worse, half-hour commercials underwritten by toy manufacturers.
Today, most new kids' shows are created with advice from Ivy League educators and consultants. Every episode of key shows like Sesame Street, Blue's Clues, and Dora the Explorer is tested with kids to ensure they meet educational objectives.
But for all the educational strides being made and all the pro-social "vitamins" cleverly inserted into our kids' media diets, there is one ingredient sorely missing. There is no God on Sesame Street. No clue will ever point Blue toward his Creator. No matter how far Dora explores, she will never bump into the divine. The world of children's media, to put it bluntly, is as atheistic as a Richard Dawkins book club. And that missing ingredient will cripple our children if we let it.
Admittedly, this is nothing new. Howdy Doody never bowed his head in prayer. Captain Kangaroo looked heavenward only to escape his daily deluge of ping-pong balls. Even Mr. Rogers, an ordained minister, kept God out of the conversation once the cameras began rolling. And look at us! We turned out fine, even without God in our TV shows. So what's the problem?
The problem is we didn't grow up with nearly as much media as our kids face today. As a pre-schooler in the late 1960s, I had a choice of no more than three or four kids' shows each day. My only splurge was Saturday morning, when I could dig into a bowlful of sugared cereal and three solid hours of Hollywood's finest. I quickly went back to the real world of school, church, and my own backyard after those brief television forays. God was everywhere. Kids' TV was a blip in the formation of my view of the world.
By contrast, according to a recent Princeton University/Brookings Institution study, the average 11-year-old in America today consumes eight hours of electronic media per day. That's eight hours of viewing the world through some sort of screen. Fifty-six hours each week. And the world they view is as empty of the divine as it has ever been. There are 350,000 churches in America, but not one is on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. No one prays or turns to God. Characters help each other and care for the environment, the poor, and the needy, but never from a religious motive or as a response to God. That much godless media exposure is downright harmful for our kids, as it teaches them to be comfortably familiar with a world where there is no God.
In most American homes, television has become a live-in nanny—a nanny who shows our kids a world that simply has no need for God.
The questions worth asking are: Which world do our kids believe is real? The one they hear about for an hour Sunday morning, or the one that captures their hearts eight hours every day?
They Can Be Positive
Vincent Bacote is director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics and associate professor of theology at Wheaton College.
Secular shows with moral messages can be good for children. This is an opportunity for growth in discernment as well as appreciation for positive contributions to the culture from those outside of Christian circles.
In my favorite childhood shows, some programs always had a message at the end, while some were exercises in comedy or adventure created with a premium on entertainment value. Like many people, I had a special fondness for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and looked forward to it every day.
In the midst of the various characters and stories I encountered, I was not only experiencing excellent programming but also learning an array of lessons in how to become a good person. Did I know this at the time? Not really, and perhaps this is where there can be some trepidation about the "influence" wielded by the media.
As a parent myself, I think this trepidation is a reminder of the opportunity at hand when children view television shows, films, and other video presentations.
I see two important aspects of this opportunity: First, there is the opportunity to develop an eye for excellence in non-Christian sources. The doctrine of common grace teaches us that positive things can emerge from God's creation, and this includes great storytelling, acting, and beauty. We should teach our children to give God glory for all of the ways his creation gives praise, even if unintended.
Second, this is a tremendous opportunity to develop our children's moral discernment, especially as they live in a world where there is a constant stream of media, often with conflicting messages about what is (for example) good, true, loving, and just. It is important that Christian parents help their children learn about the Bible (as Deuteronomy 6:6-9 commands). It is also important to help children identify moral lessons that resonate with God's truth, even if there is nothing explicitly Christian in the show they are watching.
In every era of history there has been some kind of moral crisis (even in the most "civilized" places). Much has been written about the unique dangers of our time because of the proliferation of media.
We can do more than sound the alarm. Helping children develop the ability to identify positive moral messages and interact with morally ambiguous ones will serve them well as they grow into adulthood. Children's shows are not worldview-neutral. Those programs may become a helpful resource when they help children learn about virtues such as compassion, patience, and justice. While not every show need be an exercise in moral formation, it is a positive contribution to culture when even secular shows reveal moral truth to children.
We need Christians to do their part to produce excellent programming that educates our children, but I happily affirm the intersection between creativity and moral formation from other Zip Codes in God's creation.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Village Green sections have discussed being pro-life and pro-death penalty, sports and violence, virtual fellowship, online dating, Muslim-Christian relations, military drones, terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, giving to street people, the best Christmas stories, laws that ban Islamic veils, the Tea Party, Afghanistan, Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, and preaching.
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