In an average day our kids are exposed to hundreds of messages, and a great number of them come from our popular culture; song lyrics, tabloid gossip, semi-adult cartoons, movies, and music videos. I don’t believe in putting severe limits on what they watch and hear, and I don’t think consuming violent and sexual messaging causes bad behavior alone. I do strongly believe we’re missing a bet as parents if we don’t weigh in with our kids. We need to look for chances to let them know what we value and when our values are not embodied in the media we’re consuming together. During their younger years our kids are deeply impressionable and they care a lot about what we think, which is why this is the perfect time to start an ongoing conversation about the strange and damaging messages our pop culture stories so often contain.
The difficult thing about dissecting these dysfunctional pop culture messages with our kids is that they’re often so innappropriate for young children that we feel like we can’t acknowledge the subject of the material, even when it’s right in our faces. For example, the lyrical stylings of Lady Gaga and her parade of songs that glorify casual sex and lust based relationships. I dig the beat, and I could sing Gaga karaoke all night, but I used to pray my little girl was too young to understand the words to the songs. Alas, she isn’t, and as a responsible parent I have to step in and let my daughter know that the story her songs tell is a series of senseless, dangerous choices. If we lose our keys and our phone and we’re so drunk we don’t know how we turned our shirt inside out, we are NOT OK – and we can’t make it ok by “just dancing”. We’re in danger, and we need to get help, get home safely, and take steps to make sure we never repeat those mistakes.
Here’s the steps to communicating with your kids about pop messages and how to be smart in the face of amazingly stupid influences:
1 Seize the Moment
Like all the best communication, this takes place in the moment. In our busy daily schedule the best chance I get to chat with my kids is usually in the car listening to the radio. Consider playing the stations your kids choose, because it gives you a chance to listen to what they’re hearing and get your influence in whenever possible. When a pop song is playing and you realize the story of the song is advocating for all the wrong thoughts and actions, jump in and point it out. The best tone to take is one of mild curiosity. This can actually be kind of fun if you keep it lighthearted.
2 Ask Pointed Questions
After your kid sings along to a distasteful lyric you can ask things like: “What do you think she just said there? Do you think that’s really going to happen? Do you suppose he’s really going to love her forever after seeing her dance? Does that make sense to you?” If you ask the right questions, the answers they give will make it glaringly obvious that the thoughts behind the words make no sense whatsoever. Don’t ask too many all at once, though, just one or two. Let them answer and see if they make a judgement themselves about the story.
3 Make Your Judgment
The word judgement has a bad reputation, but it’s a critical skill in a human adult. We judge the safety and merit of our actions every day, and we judge the relative advantages of our choices and the character of others to make our life decisions. The sum total of our judgements and their “goodness” or “badness” is highly correlated with the success we make of our lives. When it comes to dangerous and unacceptable behavior portrayed in the media, let’s not mince words for the sake of sounding broadminded. If the cartoon character is lying, that’s bad – no matter how funny. If the music video shows gunplay, that’s violent behavior, it’s wrong, and there’s no need to dress it up. If people are hateful, ungrateful, selfish toward each other, call them out. Don’t get too emotional about it, just stay factual. You might be surprised at how calm authoritative judgement can lead your kids toward the right path without too much effort or intensity.
4 Insert Your Positive Message Here
While it’s relevant to be a critic of what the kids are consuming, it’s even better if you cultivate and share a pallette of pop media that presents some of life’s more valuable and uplifting insights; replace endless replays of Asher Roth’s “I Love College” with a thousand thoughtful cuts from Diggable Planets, Arrested Development, and Common and you’ve made serious progress in connecting pop art with real street smarts.
5 Repeat and Adapt as Needed
As your kids get older – and the media gets crazier every year – your tactics will have to evolve. Now that my daughter is a little older I has adopted a nuke policy on certain songs. It’s very rare, but every great once in a while I run across a song that is so offensive that I change the station or skip the track whenever it comes on. Certain shows are banned forever in our house (while the kids are up). We all have our own values, and I’m not saying you should turn off the same things I do – I’m saying that we should each listen to our inner voice of outrage and disgust and honor it. Whatever makes you say “OMG that is so WRONG!” – well, that becomes the song or show you nuke on sight. It’s important for this be an unusual phenomenon; rarity makes it very influential. Save it for the very worst of messages, whatever that is for you. It may not seem like a big deal, but I’ve seen this have a definite effect on my daughter, where she’ll remember months later the first time I ever “nuked” a particular song and why. Even better, she is now noticing and pointing out on her own the sexist portrayal of women in pop music – and calling it dumb!
Be cool – don’t go overboard in bashing all pop media everywhere, or marking out your child’s favorite show, genre or artist for being especially vile. In fact, better not to bash their absolute favorite, because that makes the excersice no fun at all for your kid, therefore diminishing the influence and future opportunities. The goal here is to be a fellow pop culture explorer and intellectual commentator, encouraging them to think about and judge this stuff instead of subconsciously absorbing it without question. We’re never going to convinve them to act like 40 year old cultural afficionados, we just want to start them off with some pop culture awareness and critical thinking skills.
Be ready to discuss the difficult issues that may come up in the pop media world. You may feel unprepared for specific questions that come up about drugs, sex, babies, one-night stands, cheating, but just be factual, direct, honest, and as brief as possible. Even if the most embarrassing topics come up, it’s better they ask you than speculate about it with the neighbor kids.