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Leaving the kids to the village idiot

Want to try something counter-cultural, try avoiding the TV.
Erin Manning | 15 February 2009
"Um, Mom..." my oldest daughter said worriedly as we sat down.

The children had accompanied me on a recent visit to a doctor's office. The office was crowded, and the only place with enough seats for all of us was directly below a large screen TV, set to an all-news channel. Words like "assault," "stabbing death," and "arrested for possession of child pornography" blared out, repeating every so many minutes during our hour and a half wait.

My daughter plugged her ears, and eventually asked if she could listen to music on her small music player, a gift she'd received recently. Though our family rule regarding such things is that they're only for the car or for use at home, I said yes. It was better than the alternative.

This particular daughter of mine is especially sensitive to the news on TV. She was five years old on September 11, 2001, and we were on vacation with relatives at the time. All of the adults gathered, horror-stricken, around the TV in the vacation condo, watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over again. None of us, not even me, sadly, thought about the impact these violent images would have on a young child present among us.

I think about it now, though. And as flat screen technology has started to make television sets a common nuisance in stores, restaurants, doctor's offices, car repair shops, and many other places, more and more parents are having to deal with the consequences of this latest cultural intrusion.

When Hillary Clinton said that it took a village to raise a child, many conservatives howled at the notion. And rightly so, if by "village" is meant "increasingly socialist nanny-state," and if by "raise" is meant "usurp familial function and take over the role of the parents," which is what many were certain Mrs. Clinton did, indeed, mean by her words.

Parents know that it doesn't take a village to raise a child. But parents also know that it's impossible to raise a child without some reference to the prevailing culture of the village. And that's much more of a problem than it should be, in a nation where the culture seems to be hell-bound. Literally.

Examples of our culture's dysfunction are everywhere. We can see the magazine covers with their scantily-clad models and titillating article titles not tucked away in some windowless shop with triple X's over the door, but in the checkout lanes at the grocery store right at toddler--and early reader--eye level. We hear the ugly lyrics of songs full of cheap sexuality piped over the sound systems in stores that sell innocuous household goods. Now, to these things, we can add the newly-ubiquitous television sets, whose garish images and dark words team up to pose a relentless assault on the innocence of children.

It's hard enough for adults to block out the streams of ugliness that can radiate from a television screen. Children don't have that ability; they often find the television mesmerizing, and are captivated by it. At our favorite pizza place, at least, the TV sets are tuned to sports channels and the sound is turned off, so if you sit where the closed-captioned words can't easily be read, the children are relatively free from the intrusion.

But when we stopped in at a fast food chain restaurant the other day, I was annoyed to see that the televisions hanging high overhead on two different walls were tuned to a cable news channel, just like the doctor's office. It seemed terribly incongruous in a restaurant that features clown faces and a "play space" to hear serious and even gory headlines which would then segue inanely into celebrity puff pieces; it made me wonder if the chain shouldn't change the name of their famous children's menu offering to the "mildly depressed meal".

The solution would seem to be simple: parents can ask that the channel be turned to a children's program, or that the television be turned off altogether, right? But since these televisions are out of reach and must be controlled with remotes, making such a request means interrupting a busy employee and asking him to drop what he's doing to change the channel. And few employees are going to want to do this, when a room full of adults have fixed their attention on the TV; there's a growing sense that asking for any such thing is just a sign that you're the kind of parent who "shelters" your children, and deprives them of the unlimited access to television that is taken for granted as a cultural norm.

It's even worse when what is on the television is already supposed to be children's programming. Parents who show their dislike of vulgar cartoons or PG-rated films which feature violence and lewd innuendo are viewed with unfriendly surprise, as if they have just admitted to living without electricity, and are hiding Amish clothing somewhere. I've seen conservative Christian parents get into the online equivalent of a shouting match over the appropriateness of various Disney offerings or whether or not the antics of a certain rectangular yellow anthropomorphic sponge are suitable for their children; the world outside takes the position that we're crazy even to have the conversations, instead of simply allowing our children access to whatever their friends are watching. To the prevailing culture, any attempt to use parental judgment in deciding how much of the culture's entertainment offerings are suitable for one's children is just "being judgmental," which is our culture's only forbidden sin.

The family which decides to limit its cultural exposure is being judgmental, of course--but of the culture itself, not of any particular individuals. There are clear signs that ours is not a healthy culture: it has rejected a common morality, it increasingly distances itself from religion, and it seems to feature an endless and celebratory parade of irresponsible individualism with its accompanying immoral approach to human relationships and sexuality. Cultures which go down this road seldom end well; at the very least, our presently prevailing culture contains within many of its aspects an attack upon the increasingly counter-cultural lifestyle which puts God at its center, and which elevates the family and notions of self-sacrifice above individualism and pleasure-seeking. Parents who have embraced this counter-cultural life of God and family have to use their judgment in determining how much television is acceptable; to do otherwise is to hand the children over, not merely to the village, but to the village idiot.

But the more parents make the decision to withdraw their family from the culture, the more the culture intrudes. A simple family day of running errands and stopping for lunch becomes a test case in the cultural avoidance challenge, as children run an obstacle course involving iffy magazine covers, immoral music, and, increasingly, intrusive television sets, all featuring lurid examples of what Mom and Dad don't want them to see and hear and absorb and learn from the culture that surrounds them.

Parents who reject the casual immorality of the culture know that not every village can be trusted to be a partner in the moral upbringing of our children. From our perspective, the village doesn't want to raise our children; it wants to destroy them. And the television sets multiplying on the walls of public places are the latest threat to our counter-cultural notion that not everything on TV is worth watching.

Erin Manning is a writer from Fort Worth, Texas. She blogs at And Sometimes Tea.

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