Can Parents Counteract Mass Culture?

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Television is so powerful that we’re all afraid of it. When my son was small I didn’t want him to watch “He-Man” cartoons. I thought they taught violence as a means of solving problems, were sexist, and were more than a little scary — much the way parents today think about “Power Rangers,” or whatever the latest is now. For a while I held out, but all Michael’s friends at school watched “He-Man” every day. It was the major theme of their play. Michael begged, and I relented.

When they were adolescents, I wished my children wouldn’t watch MTV, or listen to much of the music they seemed to like. The values are so unhealthy: Buy this, and be cool. Adolescent sex is perfectly fine. Intimidation and violence are how people get what they want. sex is raunchy. The world is divided between winners and losers. Parents know nothing. School is boring. Work is boring. Life is boring. Alcohol and drugs are a constant subtext.

Fifty percent of children age six to sixteen now have a TV in their rooms, watching programs specifically marketed for them — and designed to turn parents off. Now, instead of watching one program together, we have “his” show, “her” show, the teens’ show, the preteens’ show, ad infinitum. If we want to have any relationship with our children today, we must take on the television monster. One suggestion is to watch television with our kids – watch “Beavis and Butt-Head,” or “Yo! MTV Raps!” You may not even have to say very much. Children will be embarrassed at what’s on the screen merely because you’re present — you are their chief arbiter of values, their external conscience. Because you’re there with them, they see the screen partly through your eyes, and they can’t get sucked so far into the tube. If you do say something, don’t make it an obvious put-down. They will feel obligated to defend their culture, and you won’t win the argument. Instead, ask questions: What does it mean that that rapper has five girls in his bed? Or go back to the subject later, when the television is off — tell your kid what you found disturbing, and why, and ask him how he feels about it.

The painful truth is that MTV is just an extension of the values of adult culture. Our society defines us as consumers; we are marketed and manipulated twenty-four hours a day; our leaders don’t lead but instead follow the ratings. Older ideas of the dignity of labor seem quaint. Anyone who works hard today is a fool; the smartest person makes the most money with the least effort. Since parenting and making a marriage are also hard work, those who keep at it are also fools. It’s easy to walk away from a marriage. When was the last time you heard anyone criticized for divorce.

This is indeed a depressing picture. The popular culture of our time is shallow and narcissistic; those who are immersed in it will become depressed when their sources of narcissistic supplies dry up — when they grow old, when their money or drugs run out, when they wake up alone. Those families who stick together, who make time for each other, who teach communicating and caring, will be in much better shape for the future.

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