If my memory holds and my body lasts into old age, I’m pretty sure I’ll still be able to sing all the words to Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit, “Stairway to Heaven.” My kids, on the other hand, may have the lyrics from the CDs of Rebecca St. James and Delirious? tattooed into their long-term recall.
My husband and I both grew up in non-Christian families and wanted to give our three children a different upbringing, so we home-schooled them. We watched Disney movies—which made us too liberal for some of our homeschool peers—but we listened to Christian radio and banned some secular music (like Prince), which made us too conservative for most of the non-churched parents in our neighborhood. We were parenting by the seat of our pants.
As our kids moved into early adolescence, we found ourselves debating the sexually charged videos of Britney Spears and the subversive humor of The Simpsons. At times, it felt as if we were trying to staunch a flood of sex and violence with a kitchen sponge. Although the entertainment was different back then, we faced the same perennial problem faced by parents today: How do we protect our kids from toxic stuff while not overprotecting them in a way that’s harmful in the long run?
Plenty of young adults have publically lamented the isolation and social marginalization that often comes with growing up in a cloistered environment. Sarah McCammon wrote a poignant essay for NPR’s Code Switch blog, in which she describes her sheltered evangelical upbringing and how she’s never able to fully enter into key pop culture moments shared by her age peers. The recent death of Prince was one of these moments. She writes,
After a decade-plus of adult life on my own, I've learned to blend in, to laugh off the references I don't get, to shake off the embarrassment about not really knowing much about evolution or falling silent when friends swap prom stories (no dancing at my high school). But [Prince’s death] brought back some of the old feelings of isolation that I first felt in the workplace and around peers from outside my evangelical cocoon — a sense of being out of place and maybe not quite right.
As a mother, I read these stories differently and feel sympathetic to the plight of parents who are doing the best they can. During the 1980s and early 2000s when my husband and I were raising our children, we had a relationship with pop culture that was probably similar to that of McCammon’s parents. We heard from a variety of Christian parenting experts that our guiding principle should be Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” The challenge came in sorting out the true, pure, and lovely in each age stage of our parenting journey.
We didn’t do it perfectly by a long shot. There were times we overreacted to offensive song lyrics or changed the channel on a TV show that might have been beneficial had we elected to watch and discuss it with our kids. Sometimes, when it seemed that “Philippians 4:8 goodness” was in short supply in our culture, we felt afraid for our kids and made media decisions that reflected our fear. Though we worked hard to teach our children wise principles for engagement with popular culture, our young adult children are marked by the same experience as McCammon.
Our son Ben, now 31, has a master’s degree in communications, media, and theater and wrote about his childhood in an essay for The Guardian titled “How Did I Stay Normal When I Was Homeschooled? I Watched TV.” He writes:
Though I didn’t have language for it at the time, I knew it wasn’t public school that made the kids on the block normal. Rather, by virtue of being in a populated and social setting, they had easier access to the ordinary, compared to us Midwestern homeschoolers in the ’90s, who, by our outsider nature, were excluded from that conversation. I realized that TV was a shared “ordinary.” I couldn’t be in class eight hours per day with the kids on the block, but as we patrolled the streets on our BMXs, at least we could talk about which Power Ranger was best.
We didn’t say “no” to everything our kids wanted to watch or listen to, nor did we want to. Our hope was that, if we could land somewhere between the extremes—of passive, uncritical consumption, or blocking all pop culture with ironclad filters—our kids would learn to think critically with music and media.
Now, just as then, parents are being presented with music and media choices at a dizzying pace. Though few otherwise-responsible parents would sit their toddler in front of an episode, say, of Game Of Thrones or teach them all the words to whatever this summer’s version of “Blurred Lines” might be, we’re all dealing with the monumental mission of filtering for our young kids and then equipping our older kids to navigate pop culture for themselves.
Thoughtful parents are finding guidance from researchers and reviewers who are committed to equipping parents for the task. In the Christian community, especially, there are many who promise to do all the sorting for us, which is a tempting shortcut. However each family is different and there is no one-size-fits-all set of rules that will simplify the evaluation and discernment process.
As I’ve reflected on our parenting journey, I’ve realized that my husband and I sometimes leaned a little too hard on the dichotomous categories of “sacred” versus “secular.” Some of the things branded “sacred” in the Christian marketplace are woefully short of real truth, wisdom, and beauty. Slapping a Bible verse or two on something shallow and derivative doesn’t infuse it with virtue or give it the power to keep our kids safe from harm. A better posture for parents is the slow, daily (and imperfect) process of differentiating what is true from what is profane. This kind of filtering can defend and sustain families through their children’s growing years.
There is a time to shelter, a time to expose, and it takes supernatural wisdom to know the difference. This wisdom is at the heart of Philippians 4:8 and makes outsiders of each one of us who follows Jesus, whether we know all the words to Purple Rain or not.