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Setting a Family Standard for Entertainment

Why not sit down with each of your children and engage them in discussions about their favorite media? Don’t just ask the aforementioned questions, but go a step further and find out why. If you’re doing this for the first time (especially with older children) refrain from jumping in and playing judge and jury. Listen, listen and listen some more. There will be a time to offer your views, but not during this exploratory stage.

Aside from being a starting point for establishing media standards in your home, this exercise in discovery can offer a window to your teen’s soul that you otherwise might have missed. Perhaps you’ll find that your teen is mature beyond his or her years and has already established some good media habits. In that case, take the opportunity to shower sincere praise and encouragement. Most likely, you’ll find a mix of good choices and varying instances of spiritual confusion or immaturity. Discussing your young person’s entertainment picks can be a great way to address these and begin gently correcting and instructing in areas of weakness. If you find that your teen is choosing very dark entertainment, take it as a warning sign that he or she may be harboring deep pain. Often, teens like this need to have their concept of Jesus revolutionized—to know that He, more than anyone, understands suffering. That He’s loving, approachable, and able to heal. And that He’s already reaching out to them—all they have to do is reach back.

Once you’ve got a handle on your teens’ entertainment preferences, it’s time to set healthy boundaries. Of course, there will be gray areas. We don’t find verses reading, "Thou shalt not watch slasher films" or "Thou shalt not listen to music that glamorizes substance abuse." Instead, each family must decide where to draw the line based on a study of Scripture, fervent prayer and an understanding of each child’s maturity, critical thinking skills and commitment to holiness. We’ve worked with enough parents over the years to know that thoughtful Christian adults differ substantially on this issue. Some have zealously outlawed secular entertainment in their homes, confident that God has led them to that decision. Others let their children view and listen to almost anything, provided they talk about it first. Between those extremes lies a broad range of possibilities, one of which will be the right fit for your family.

Once you’ve prayerfully settled on an appropriate balance between shielding your teens from mainstream entertainment and discussing it with them, articulate that decision in writing. Develop the equivalent of a "family constitution" as it relates to entertainment habits in your home. Take your time. Ponder the specifics for several days and give the Lord a chance to speak to you about the matter. It will help you work through those "gray areas." It’s also important that you and your spouse be of like mind as you lovingly lay down the law (after all, it will be up to both of you to enforce it). Stick to your guns. Make it clear that all members of the family are subject to the newly established boundaries. (Note: This can be an especially daunting task if your spouse doesn’t share your vision for entertainment purity, or you are a single parent whose child spends time with a permissive ex-spouse. In such cases, ask that your rules be respected, pray for everyone involved, and when necessary seek out a neutral third party as mediator.)

If you have small children yet to request their first CD or home video, consider yourself blessed. Your job will be easier. They can develop their entertainment habits in accordance with your constitution. On the other hand, if your teenagers have already become fans of questionable media content, you face an entirely different challenge. You can start operating under the new standard "from this day forward," but you and your spouse must determine how to deal with the garbage already holed up in your child’s entertainment collection. Here are some possible scenarios:

• After discovering the need for discernment, your teen may feel supernaturally convicted and voluntarily purge the junk from his CD and movie library and change his own TV viewing habits

• You can humbly accept responsibility for taking too long to "set the boundaries," and agree to replace the offenders with ones that meet the family standard. Since you’re picking up the tab, you may even want to limit "substitutes" to edifying projects by popular Christian artists, or movies you’ve prescreened.

• A local pawn shop might pay two or three bucks apiece for the discs, videos and video games you’re eager to get rid of. You can also sell them on Ebay, then apply the proceeds toward something more appropriate. Of course, you may not want to put these products back into circulation. If that’s the case, you can agree to purchase them from your child at the same rate and then break out the sledge hammer and the Hefty bag. (Hey, they’re yours now. You can do anything you want with them!)

• If you have one or two "out-of-bounds" products still in nearly-new condition, you can try returning them to the store that sold them to your child. Some retailers will refund the purchase price—or offer store credit—to a parent who makes a return because of offensive content.

After the family has waded through everyone’s entertainment choices, measured them against the family standard and weeded out everything that flunked the test, you’re ready to start fresh. Be diligent. Hold firm to the new guidelines. From now on, if your teen asks to purchase a certain media product, you can confidently say, "Sure, but when you bring it home, we’ll review it together, and if it doesn’t meet the family standard, I take it and you’re out the money." No more excuses. The constitution is in writing and they can read it for themselves. Rest assured, if your teenagers know it’s their money on the line, they’ll be much more selective about which entertainers they invite home. Now, there are just two more hints left to share about setting your family standard:

1) Avoid the Extremes. A family entertainment standard is a valuable tool, but like any other tool, using it requires work. For that reason, many parents opt for an "all or nothing" approach, rather than teaching and reinforcing biblical principles on a case-by-case basis.

At one extreme, some moms and dads choose to lay down the law: no movies, no television, no secular music—period. While this legalistic approach may simplify entertainment purchasing decisions, it also breeds rebellion. Youngsters bide their time, waiting for the day they can sample the entertainment industry’s forbidden fruit: "Just wait till I move out someday—I’ll watch and listen to whatever I want." And when they head off to college (or wherever), this attitude plays out in various unwise choices.

Other parents go to the opposite extreme, adopting an anything-goes philosophy. No boundaries. Everything is okay. Do what you want. This permissive approach leads to indecent exposure as children wander, aimlessly and wide-eyed, through the culture’s enticements.

Neither of these extremes works. One fashions rebels, the other lays the foundation for destructive habits. A discerning middle ground—one that tests entertainment against biblical standards—is the only reasonable and protective plan of action. Teaching discernment encourages balance, leads to critical thinking, bonds families and gives teens life skills they’ll carry with them throughout adulthood.

2) Don’t judge on style or ratings. Let us be blunt here: rating systems may provide a helpful starting point, but they’re frequently unreliable. (Also read "Who Rates the Movies … and How?") For motion pictures, the PG-13, PG—or even G—says almost nothing about whether a film will uplift the human spirit and avoid glamorizing evil. The same is true with television and video games ratings. Trusting a rating system is like buying a used car solely on the basis of a classified ad that boasts, "Great car." For whom? Who decided? Based on what criteria? Though it takes a little more research, it’s worth your time and effort to go beyond the rating and find out about a film or a program’s content.

Likewise, in the area of music, style can be very deceptive. In this area more than any other, we parents are tempted to be swayed by personal preference. Resist the temptation. A better evaluation tool is to check out the messages being conveyed, not the style or the look of the messenger.

Adapted from the booklet What’s Up With Today’s Entertainment?: Raising Media-Wise Teens by Bob Smithouser and Bob Waliszewski, copyright 2003