When it comes to media, we should be more worried about parents than we are about children


I’m just going to come out and say it – I don’t think parents should prevent kids from having smartphones.

There, I said it. I’m going to get pushback, but hear me out. When it comes to media, it’s not kids we need to worry so much about. No, I’m convinced that we haven’t lost a generation of children due to media, as many “experts” would suggest. No, what we’ve lost is a generation of parents.

As I sit here writing this today I have an actual sick feeling in my stomach. It could be from the mountains of Christmas goodies I’ve eaten lately. But I think it’s really because I feel like I’m the only one who sees how backwards our view of parenting has become. It’s lonely where I sit, and here’s why.

For some reason, parents and “experts” (I use both terms loosely) believe that setting more rules about media is the solution to helping kids avoid negative media effects, in all their nefarious forms. Yes, rules are needed. But here’s where I differ and where I think we have it all backwards. Rules don’t change kids. Rules are simply an attempt to change behavior. We have become so focused on changing our kids’ behavior and on protecting them from the “world” that we have forgotten that helping our kids ‘become’ is far more empowering than altering behavior. In other words, we use media rules as a crutch. We think we’re parenting when we set rules. But relying solely upon rules to protect our kids from all the nasty stuff “out there” is akin to abdicating our responsibility to be a parent.

Rules do not parent. People parent. That’s the fundamental shift that needs to occur in American homes today. In recent days an article made the rounds on social media begging parents to not let their children have a smartphone. The smartphone, the “expert” said, is the root cause of a long list of evils. To take away smartphones is to take away our children’s access to these evils, the article said. In some cases, I think this is absolutely the right thing to do. If a child is addicted to pornography, please take away their smartphone. But an across-the-board call for the elimination of smartphones does nothing to empower the next generation. In fact, I think the way to empower the next generation is to raise a generation of media literate parents who will put in the effort to have tough conversations with their kids.

Both of my teenagers have smartphones. And I’m okay with it because I believe that rules don’t parent, people do. Look, our kids, my kids, are going to be exposed to things we don’t want them to see. Some of it is nasty, disgusting, soul-crushing stuff. Simply because media is so pervasive, they’re going to see pornography. Violent pornography. They’re going to be involved with, either as an observer, a victim, or participant, in cyberbullying. They’re going to see murders, assaults, rapes, people passed out drunk, and every imaginable body part. And I’m convinced that no amount of rules can prevent all of these things. Rules do not parent.

People parent. I believe it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “You can’t keep a bird from landing on your head, but you can keep it from building a nest.” In other words, parenting—real parenting—is not so much the setting of rules as it is giving our kids the tools to deal with the smut that they will undoubtedly, for sure, without a doubt, see. Are rules helpful? Yes. But conversations are critical. My 6-year-old knows what pornography is because we’ve told her what it is and what to do when she sees it. We know she’s going to see it. So we want her to have no doubt it her mind what mom and dad want her to do and think when she sees it.

How much better would our children be if we started having these empowering conversations early in life, and not simply after we catch them viewing something that we don’t like. Is it possible to quit smoking once you’ve started? Yes, of course. But from what I hear, it’s so much easier to not start in the first place. So, yes, in some cases, we need to throw out the smartphone once the media effect has taken root. But wouldn’t it be so much more effective to help our kids know what to do when they encounter bad content in the first place?

Just the other night I got the hankering to watch Back to the Future again. After 20 or so years, it was still a great movie. What surprised me most after all these years, however, was the language in the movie. I didn’t remember it being so bad. So when my daughter also wanted to watch it I warned her about the language. She said, “Dad, I go to high school. I hear it all the time.” I said “True, but that doesn’t mean you should go seeking out things just because you hear it all the time.” And that was that. We watched the movie together and we loved it. Hopefully this conversation helped her know where we stand on profanity, thus reducing the effect of the media on her own use of foul language.

When it comes to media, what this country needs more than anything is not to throw away smartphones. No, what we need is to raise a generation of media literate parents. Parents who will have the hard conversations. Parents who communicate with their children in ways that complement and explain media rules. Parents who will, well, parent. It’s an uphill battle, for sure, but I won’t stop saying this same thing over and over and over until we begin to fulfill our responsibility as parents to empower our kids to deal with life for themselves.

Are you in?

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