I’ve never lived in any generation but my own, but I imagine it’s always been a challenge for Christian parents to help their sons and daughters be in the world but not of it, to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel while refusing to consent when enticed by sinners. I’m sure generations of Christian youth have tried to figure out how to “fit in” with worldling friends (and with “worldly” peers in the church) while maintaining their Christian principles. Jesus has not called us to live in a Christian ghetto (as if any space is purer because only Christians inhabit it), but He has told us firmly to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” – and how are we to do this while rubbing shoulders with real sinners every day? I’m sure it’s never been easy.
I think, however, that this challenge has become far more challenging since the invention of TV and the Internet, mostly because of how these media have changed social interaction. It used to be that youth related to their peers largely on the basis of shared experience. Bobby and Joe played on the same baseball team. Mary and Jane lived on the same block and went to the same school. Tom, Dick, and Harry shared a paper route or a fort in the woods. Sally and Betty entered the same contest in the local fair. And so forth.
Since the invention of TV and the Internet, North Americans have found themselves confronted with an array of entertainment options unheard of in the history of the world. These options are just a push of a button (or a voice command) away at all times, and one rarely meets a person who doesn’t indulge a huge weekly diet of TV shows, popular music, web surfing, movies, etc. It’s probably safe to say that most people spend most of their leisure hours consuming popular entertainment – and this means the common currency of social interactions is no longer (in most cases) shared life experiences but rather shared entertainment preferences. To “fit in” among their peers, your kids won’t be able to talk about stuff they’ve done and are doing with the other kids; they’ll have to be able to talk about the music the other kids are listening to, or the movies they’re watching, or whatever their new favorite TV show happens to be.
This has complicated Christian parenting. Whether your kids’ friends are mostly Christians or mostly non-Christians, the social dynamic is the same: either share the entertainment of other children, or be left out on the fringes.
What if a parent believes that the entertainment preferences of other children are objectionable? Or what if a parent believes that entertainment itself is a problem – that too much time sitting and being entertained is bad for children developmentally, morally, and spiritually? How do you talk this through with your 10-year-old son or your 16-year-old daughter? “No, you can’t watch that movie, even though it means you won’t be able to join in on any of your friends’ conversations for the next month. Just stand at the margins and listen, and hope they don’t ask you why your parents won’t let you see it.” (This is not, by the way, a social problem confined to children.)
I’d like to offer a few words of advice to Christian parents who find themselves and their kids in this awkward spot.
1. Be okay with being different, and talk about this a lot with your children. Followers of Jesus are going to be different, really different – some might even say weird. If you’re different for good reasons, remember that the smile of Christ is worth a million human frowns, and the worth of wisdom is more than all treasures (Prov 3:13–18). We do tend to forget or minimize this.
2. Be careful, though, not to give your kids the impression that Christian faithfulness requires a low view of culture. On the contrary, to love Christ is to love Him as Creator, and to love Him as Creator is to love culture as something He created. God made people to make things, including books, films, music, and machines; and because we love God and people made in His image, we should love both the process and the products of human making. We should not love the ways sin has distorted human making, and certainly some cultural products are morally repugnant in form and/or content; but we must always be careful to love the created goodness under the evils and distortions of sin.
3. If your kids come home and tell you that their friends have watched something or listened to something, consider watching it or listening to it with your kids, and then talking about it. Don’t just turn your children over to whatever the latest entertainment choice of their peers happens to be, but on the other hand don’t simply bar them (especially as they become older and more discerning) from seeing and hearing what their peers are seeing and hearing. Sit with them and teach them discernment. Help them develop critical filters. How does this cultural product show us that its creator is made in the image of the Creator? What sort of story is being told? What ideas are being communicated? Is it beautiful? Is it true? Is it good? Is it realistic? Does it show the brokenness of the world and the reality of human sin? Does it glorify sin? Does it gesture toward a hope of redemption? And many more talking points such as these.
4. Do real things with your kids and invite their friends along. This may be the most important way to push back against the entertainment glut in contemporary society. Give your kids and their friends something better to talk about than the latest top-40 hit or the most recent piece of drivel out of Hollywood. Take them camping, fishing, boating, or footballing. Send them out in the woods without their iPods. Sit them down, read them something (short!), and then discuss it. Make real-time memories.
The way to keep our children from being lemmings in the wake of the entertainment industry is to give them something better to love: a life of the spirit, mind, and body and a life in community that are better and more delightful than sitting mindlessly in front of the TV or Internet for hours on end. This will require a lot more work than using the electronic babysitter, and at times it will require great courage and determination from the whole family – but then, when has great value ever come without great effort?