Kids and Media: The Right to Be Rightly Disturbed

It wasn’t a proud moment. There I was in the Toys-R-Us checkout line pressing the face of “the thing” into my thigh, trying desperately to avoid eye contact with any of the other shoppers.

Villains Make Heroism Possible

As I slid the object onto the checkout counter, I deftly obscured it with a box of dominoes, just so anyone watching would be confused as to my moral caliber. There I was, plunking down $14.95 to buy for my little nephew John Thomas the hideous, snake-headed villain Hydra, dastardly nemesis of action figure Max Steele. The checkout lady picked up the toy and pronounced a guttural sentence on it: “Yehhhhck.” I was ready with the four-year-old wisdom that had prevailed on me to make the buy, “Auntie Barbara, you have to have a villain or there is nothing for Max Steele to do.”

You have to have a villain. Villains make heroism possible. Later on — I admit it, after a beer — I asked John Thomas why Hydra is so ugly. Again, the thinking came back clear and unambiguous, “Because,” he practically rolled his eyes at me, “he’s bad.”

There will be a time for John Thomas to find out about nuanced evil. Very soon, his own nature will teach him how to say one thing while feeling another. He’ll learn soon enough that evil can disguise itself as a very good and desirable thing. He’ll learn to associate evil choices with an interior ugliness. Right now, he is four and he is learning that there is such a thing as evil. There are good choices and bad choices, and that bad choices are ugly. Apprehending nuance is a gift of maturity. It is a later step in development, which, however, is dependent on these simpler truths.

The Story of Salvation Is Theirs, Too

There is so much smut and crassness raining down all around us in this culture that the impulse of Christian parents is to try to ward off all faces of evil from their kids. We have become victims of a reactionary pendulum, which has us resisting anything that might introduce darkness into our kid’s lives. This kind of parenting might actually cripple kids by rendering them completely inadequate to live in their own very perilous times. Kids need help to come to grips with the evil and darkness which are a constituent part of life in “this valley of tears.” The Wicked Witch, and Captain Hook and Darth Vader, and yes, Hydra, can all be means for kids to make sense of the evil in the world around them, and even do battle with it.

At a screening of The Prince of Egypt a few years ago, I remember a lady and critic for a Christian magazine agreeing with me that the film was an amazing work of art that had really moved her. But then she noted, “Of course, I probably won’t let my eight-year-old see it, because the images of the slaves early on were just too disturbing.” Indeed they were. The film opens with an extended sequence of the sufferings of the Hebrews at the hands of the Pharaohs. The Hebrew cry to God rises up out of the mud pits with a compelling desperation. I have only experienced that kind of prayer a few times in my life but I know it was real, and probably holy. The question is, do we have a right to keep these kinds of truths from children? The story of salvation belongs to them as much as to us. It’s like a doctor deciding not to tell the patient that the diagnosis is cancer. Is it really the best thing for the patient, or is it more the easiest thing for the doctor?

Being disturbed is not the same thing as being violated. When I was a kid, my mother used to “disturb” us kids awake by 9 AM during summer vacation. She’d walk in our bedroom, snap up the shades and loudly proclaim, “What a beautiful day! How can you lie in bed?!” It wasn’t really a question.

Disturbed Does Not Equal Violated

There is no easy way to parent today. Get over it. It’s unfair that Britney Spears has introduced sexiness to kids who should be more concerned with Elmo. It’s infuriating that Clinton’s Oval Office antics made unmentionable acts the stuff of Southpark parody. But this is the cultural hand that our kids have been dealt. These are challenging, complex times, and it is an evil to try to reduce a complex moment to a simple one, just because it is easier to handle things that way. The cumulative result of blocking out the culture is that in the end, we leave children defenseless to live in their own world. We also keep the Light that we carry from the midst of the hordes of people dwelling in darkness. But the fact is, trying to block out the culture is absurd and futile. It is like a mouse trapped in a white room with a starving lion, with the mouse saying, “I’m just going to ignore him.” Good luck with that.

Even if you could block out the culture, how is that a Christian response? I was at one of the small orthodox Catholic colleges a few years ago talking to the students about the work I do as a Christian in Hollywood. I started my speech with what I thought was a throw-away question, “How many of you want to change the world?” I was astonished when only two or three hands went up out of a crowd of over a hundred healthy, intelligent, Catholic young people. This wasn’t supposed to be what my talk was about. I asked a young lady in the front row who hadn’t raised her hand, “You don’t to change the world?” The reply came back with a shrug, “I am too busy just trying to save myself.” This is anti-heroism. “Even the pagans do the same.”

A better strategy is to parent with the media, not against it. The key is to introduce your child to a kind evil, before the world would introduce it to them. Parents need to get there just a few moments before Satan does with his tricks and disguises. Video games, music, television and movies need to be encountered, one at a time, in a family council. In this painstaking process of teaching essential skills for this generation, we want to ask: How is this production working on me intellectually? How did it make me feel about myself, my family, my country, my faith? What are the mistaken assumptions here? What is good here? What techniques make the message of this show so compelling?

We need to recall that our children were chosen for this time by God Himself. They could have been sent to bring the Gospel to the idyllic (and I suspect, non-existent) 1950s, but they weren’t. The kids God is creating today have the stuff to cope with the challenges of this time, and be the Gospel to it. Our job as the breeders of the next generation of apostles (and, somebody needs to say it, martyrs), is to nurture that stuff, not stifle it with fear masquerading as protectiveness. The emphasis should be on preparation, not protection.

Discussion: How do you help your kids deal with media challenges to the Catholic world view? Share your views with other parents at the CE Roundtable.

Barbara R. Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. You may email her at [email protected].

This article reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register © 2004

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage