We flicked on the television and inserted the DVD. We were all settled in, my family and I, around the screen for a movie night—remote at the ready. But before my son pushed the play button, he turned to me and asked, "You're sure this meets with your approval, Dad?"
The movie: Disney's G-rated The Great Mouse Detective. The audience: Colin, my 20-year-old son; Christy, his wife; and Emily, my 17-year-old daughter.
"Don't be snide," I told him with a roll of the eyes. He snickered and smiled as he started the disc, and for the next hour or so, the room was filled with sounds of laughter and stage-whispered asides as Basil of Baker Street tried again to bring Professor Ratigan to justice.
I'm glad to say that my family room is still a noisy place sometimes, and will be for just a little while longer: Colin and Christy are living with us while they finish college. Emily—sometimes with boyfriend in tow—hangs out with us more than my wife and I probably deserve. Even though our kids are older, they still—oddly enough—seem to like to spend time with family.
Maybe they feel sorry for us. Maybe they sense that we're already missing them a little, even though they're still right here. Maybe they know that, in barely a blink, barely a beat, they'll be on their own, leaving us with a house of empty rooms.
What it means to be a parent changes over time. From the day our kids are born, we train them to leave us. We teach them right and wrong in the hopes that when they have their own careers and families and rents to pay, they'll remember the lessons instilled into them.
We all must eventually trust our children with what we've taught them.
But when does the teaching end and the trust begin? Do either begin or end, really? And what happens if you taught your kids the wrong sorts of lessons?
Trials and Errors
Being a father has been perhaps the greatest joy of my life. But it was, quite frankly, an unexpected joy. My wife, Wendy, and I had Colin when we weren't much older than he is now. We were young and stupid and poor, needing help from my parents just to keep the kid in diapers. We learned how to be parents through rigorous on-the-job training, and we made plenty of mistakes along the way.
You can ask my kids for the details if you'd like. I'm sure they could give you a pretty good breakdown of all our parental failings. But from my perspective, nowhere were our child-rearing hits and misses so obvious as when it came to entertainment.
I had never even heard of Plugged In (or Parental Guidance, as it was called) back then, but even as a young, frightened father, I had an almost instinctive urge to keep my kids away from certain forms of entertainment. Movies were a rarity for us. And I wielded the television clicker with an iron fist, extinguishing any show that I deemed inappropriate for my young 'uns. No Seinfeld at our house, and the only friends we saw were of the Barney variety. Blue's Clues and Wishbone were family faves, and we watched a whole lotta VeggieTales videos.
So it's safe to say that we were pretty diligent with what our kids watched. How much they watched it … well, that's a different story.
At first we set down firm rules that no one in our house—not even Wendy and I—would watch more than an hour of television a day. And for a while we were able to keep to that. But parenting is messy business, and sometimes the best-intentioned rules don't stand up to day-to-day reality. Wendy was working. I was working. And by the time we all got home, there were days when nothing looked quite so appealing as a nice, quiet evening in front of the tube.
We started making exceptions, then finally let the rule dissolve. Of course, every few months guilt would overcome us and we'd make another hour-a-day commitment. Then we'd regress again.
And video games turned out to be even harder than TV. I enjoyed 'em—even some of the violent ones—and I didn't understand why, at the time, I should give them up. We had given up so much for our kids, after all … couldn't I have this one thing?
But Colin, he wanted to spend time with his dad. And so, on the occasional Saturday afternoon, Wendy would walk in on me engaged in a virtual shooting game, our 3-year-old watching it all while sitting on my lap.
Truth and Consequences
For those who don't believe that setting entertainment guidelines for your kids early is important, look to me as a cautionary tale. Because every single one of the lessons we taught—even the unintentional ones—took root in our children.
While I eventually gave up my violent video games, I didn't stop playing games altogether. And, for better or worse, it became a medium over which Colin and I bonded. We played a whole season of virtual baseball one winter, and by the time he turned 14 I couldn't beat him in anything anymore. But he almost liked watching me play more than he liked to play himself (keeping stats, for example, while I raced Gran Turismo cars). To this day he'd rather sit at my shoulder than grab the controller. And I can't help but wonder if I programmed that into his tiny noggin when he was 3.
Another problem area in our household: The television, in my estimation, is still on far too much. Because we didn't push it to the side, the tube (now a widescreen behemoth) flopped itself down into the middle of our family room and became almost one of us. And there's something a little disturbing about that.
But because we never got into the habit of watching the latest and not-so-greatest drama or sitcom, we still don't watch "must-see TV." And that's something, I guess. As a family, we've actually followed maybe four television series over the last 20 years. Instead, we gravitate toward tune-in-anytime TV—documentaries, cartoons and "educational" reality programming.
And for us, it really is a family activity. We watch it together, talk about it together. When we watch a movie, we chat about it afterwards, dissecting its strengths and weaknesses, its moral high points and ethical failings.
Well of course you do! you might be saying. Look at where you work! But the truth is, we've always engaged, as a family, with what we watched and listened to and played. It's become part of our DNA. In some ways, I think we're pretty lucky: Because we've been so involved with our kids' entertainment choices, they still want to share their favorite entertainment with us—even if it's not the sort of thing Wendy and I would like or appreciate or even heartily approve of.
Relinquishing the Remote. Slowly.
Hey, we still have entertainment rules at our house. We have a system in play now where, on a family movie night, we rotate who gets to pick the film: Colin gravitates toward weird little indie flicks, Wendy to summer blockbusters, me to old-fashioned classics. But I still have veto power. Emily's technically old enough to watch anything … but I'm still protective of her, and if Colin suggests a film that falls too far outside my comfort range, he knows we're not going to watch it—hence the little jab about The Great Mouse Detective.
But I don't get to tell Colin and Christy what they can watch when they're in their own little downstairs apartment. Though I do tell them, in my own way, what they should.
"That's a horrible show," I'll say with a smile if they tell me about the latest episode of fill-in-the-blank. "Why don't you watch some old VeggieTales videos instead?"
These encounters are not dramatic heart-to-hearts, not tearful sit-downs or serious guilt trips. Colin's an adult and married to boot, and it's not my role to tell him what he can or cannot do anymore. But he's still in my sphere of influence and still, in his own way, asking for my input. I still have a role in his life, and I hope that these light, jokey conversations will be remembered by him down the road, when he and Christy have their own children to watch out for.
Meanwhile, my interactions with Emily look completely different than with Colin. He's always enjoyed pushing the proverbial envelope; Emily's entertainment tastes are, if anything, even more conservative than mine. At the age of 12, she refused to watch a me-approved PG movie because she felt its morals were askew. And looking back, I think she was right. I don't monitor her entertainment choices as much these days because I trust her: She's earned it. Perhaps someday she could apply for a job at Plugged In.
I didn't do everything right as a father when it came to making wise entertainment choices for my kids. Much of what I did at 24 I'd tsk-tsk at 42. So even now, in this late stage of parenting, I'm trying to rectify past mistakes. I'm trying to cut down on the time we spend in front of the television, for one thing. Some nights I'm trying to ask if anyone wants to play a game or go for a walk. On others, we do flip on the telly, but we watch Wendy play a video game—and since she still hasn't mastered all the myriad buttons she needs to push, that can be a pretty entertaining diversion.
But I'm proud to say that I think my kids have learned not to merely absorb what they watch or listen to. And there's something to be said for that. Actually, there's quite a lot to be said for that.
It's good to place limits on your children's entertainment consumption. It's great to make sure that the messages they're getting, particularly early on, are solid and moral and, ideally, biblical. But we have to remember that we can't censor or even monitor the world for our children indefinitely—as much as we'd like to. We can't protect them from everything they're likely to encounter.
We can help them process it, though. We can help them talk about it.
So the answer to my first question about where the teaching ends and the trust begins is … 42. No, not my age. The idea that it's unanswerable. Every kid is different. Every family unique. But I can answer this question: When do you stop trying to teach lessons as a parent? Never.