My husband and I talk with our kids in a frank and honest way. No subject is off limits — when they have questions, we try to answer them clearly at a level they can understand.
But we are cognizant of what, when, and how much we expose them to at any given age. And yes, we unapologetically shelter them from things we don’t think they’re ready for. Kids don’t need to be bombarded with everything they’re going to face and process as adults. They’re not adults. They’re kids. And they should stay kids while they can.
People often talk about sheltering kids like it’s a bad thing, but I believe innocence is valuable. It’s a safe harbor in which kids can learn to navigate in calm waters, to build up strength and endurance before braving the storms. Innocence doesn’t last forever, and it shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s expendable.
And considering how much more kids are exposed to than when I was a kid, preserving kids’ innocence when they’re young seems to be a dying goal. I don’t need to go into detail about what’s available at our fingertips. Even families I know who are diligent about protecting their kids have had run-ins with pornography, and I’m amazed at how many horror movies pop up during mid-day television. It’s a challenge to shield our kids from things they aren’t ready for — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
One day, I was at a friend’s house where a kids’ show was playing on Disney or Nickelodeon. The show was rated TV-Y7, meaning that it’s designed for children age 7 and above. In my 10 minutes of watching, here’s how a scene unfolded:
A teen boy is working at a soda shop. His teen friend is sitting at a booth making out with a teen girl. The first boy approaches the table, clears his throat, and waits for them to stop kissing. Finally, the girl gets up, smiles dreamily at the make-out boy, and leaves. The first boy asks, “Did you even know that girl?” to which make-out boy shrugs and replies, “What? I bought her a Coke first.” The audience laughs and the plot moves along to something else.
Really? This is what second, third, fourth graders are watching? Without an adult there to discuss all of the sexist, degrading implications of that scenario, what message are kids tucking away in the recesses of their minds? That that’s how teenagers behave? That it’s funny to be a sleazy womanizer? That girls are sex objects who can be bought with a Coke?
Perhaps there are parents who watch all of these shows with their kids and discuss what they’re seeing. But I doubt there are that many. And why would they? Most parents assume that since these shows are made for kids that they must be harmless.
I believe they’re far from harmless, and studies agree. What kids watch does affect them. Our kids are hammered with sexual messages practically everywhere they go, from movie theater previews to magazines at the checkout stand.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shelter my kids from sex in general. As they get old enough, we have open conversations about sex. But I do want to shelter them as much as I can from unhealthy messages about sex, from the over-sexualization of women and girls in particular, and from the constant barrage of sexual images that streams into our lives without most of us even noticing it.
Nothing puts the world under a microscope like having kids. I’m hyperaware of how my children are internalizing the sights, sounds, images, and messages around them. I’m not naïve enough to believe I can shield them from everything, and I wouldn’t even want to. But crap like that TV show? No thanks. There are so many great, inspiring, productive things for them to see and do. Things like art, music, reading, playing with friends, exploring nature — even watching movies that are real works of art can broaden the imagination and make you think.
So yes, I steer my children clear of most youth pop culture. Does that mean our kids won’t always fit in? Probably. Am I okay with that? Yes. Is always fitting in a prerequisite for making lasting, real friendships? Absolutely not. I love that our kids and their friends sit around talking about their favorite book series and made-up role-play games. I really don’t think they’re missing out on anything important.
People say that kids have to be exposed to things in order to learn. While that’s true, there’s a time and place for everything. Just like you start seeds indoors in the spring when the weather is too harsh for saplings to thrive, sheltering kids when they’re young can help them grow healthy roots so they can withstand the elements when the time comes. Gradually and purposefully exposing them seems a wiser course than sticking them straight out in the cold, hoping or expecting them to be tough enough to take it.
I believe exposing young kids to adult themes and unhealthy messages about relationships is harmful, so I do shelter my kids — not for as long as I can, but until they have the psycho-emotional tools to process those things.
Childhood innocence is fleeting enough as it is. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be grown-ups. I want my kids to be kids while they can.