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Tag Archive: Parenting

Wait, it’s my kids

Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 (8:36 pm), by John W Gillis


A few days before Christmas, I was coming home late after being out attending to some delicate family matters, and I stopped at my favorite local Chinese restaurant for some food to bring home for supper. After placing my order with the manager, I decided to sit at the bar and wait for my order.

There were two young professional women, perhaps into their early thirties, sitting in conversation near the south end of the small bar, so I walked to the north end, sat down on the corner where I’d have a view of the door leading to the kitchen, and ordered myself a beer.

After several minutes, a cell phone began to go off raucously, and one of the women turned, reached into her bag, and eyeballed the noisy phone. She glanced at her friend, and said: “Wait, it’s my kids…”

“Hi buddy… uh-huh… I’ll be home at like 9:40. I know… I know… Is Dad home? Probably not, huh… OK…Listen, it’s only 40 minutes… it’s really only 37 minutes… Is Sarah in bed yet? Good. You be in bed by 9:30, OK? I know… I know… look, it’s only 36 minutes now. You be a good boy now; I gotta go. See you soon.”

As they refreshed their cocktails, the women rekindled their conversation, now loudly enough that I couldn’t but hear them in the otherwise quiet room. The second woman, who had had her back to me, turned toward the bar to stir her drink, so I could now see her in profile. She was heavily made-up, wearing silly and ostentatious jewelry, and an expensive-looking blouse that fit like a nice driving glove should. She held her drink between both hands on the bar, and delved back into a saga already half-told:

“He was telling me about all the things I used to do to piss him off, like ‘All those things I  did in my room’… and I’m like ‘What things?’ He goes, ‘Like how it was all black, and how I was doing that witchcraft and stuff’…”

The first woman – the one with the attention-seeking cell phone and interrupting children – snorted, and quipped:

“So, did you like tell him that this is the 2010s? Get real…”

“Can I brag for a minute? That was my son Toby, you know? The big fella brought home his first real report card yesterday. He had two A’s, 4 or 5 B’s, and 2 C’s. And the C’s were, like, not even fair. I was so proud of him. He works unbelievably hard, especially for a little guy. And his father is, like, No. Help. At. All!”

I spotted the manager coming out of the kitchen holding my dinner, so I quickly drained what was left of my beer, pushed a tip toward the bartender and thanked him, and intercepted the manager as he came around the corner of the front desk.

As I took the food and turned toward the door, I glanced back at the women at the bar, shook my head slightly in sorrow, and counted my blessings. And then I said a prayer for Toby and Sarah. I suppose I also should have said a prayer for those two young women, and the one’s husband, and the other’s father. But at the time, I just couldn’t see past the kids. Thank God for his grace in my life…

Interiorizing Pop Brands

Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2008 (11:12 pm), by John W Gillis


Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts related to the challenge of introducing growing children to the ubiquitous pop culture while minimizing the negative effects of the encounter on their moral and spiritual well-being. Given that ubiquitousness of pop culture, and that my primary responsibility toward my children is for their moral and spiritual formation, this is a big deal to me. I suspect this is also a big deal to many others, even to many who think that the moral and spiritual formation of their children is a secondary responsibility after that of their material well-being.

This stream of thought began when I learned that my daughter Abby wanted an iPod for her 10th birthday (which passed a couple weeks ago, with no iPod). I was reluctant to go along with the idea, because I was concerned that giving it to her would quickly become tantamount to throwing her into the pop music cesspool, without having first taught her to swim (and hold her nose), so to speak.

In the last couple posts in this stream, I’ve tried to show that everything we encounter in the world, including pop music, is imbued with embedded ideas, for better or for worse. This is simply to say that everything has an agenda.

Primarily, this agenda is driven by the ideas or messages intended by the authors (or other, behind-the-scenes, producers of the “product”). These messages can be both direct, and/or read between the lines. Although not something I addressed previously, I would add here that these messages are not only lyrical, but also take many other aesthetic forms – the type of clothing the artists wear, for example, often being an important factor in the message sent to young pop consumers about the meaning of the artists’ product, or brand; part of the statement of “what we’re about,” into which the acts (and their corporate puppeteers) try to lure the children.

The embracing of a pop brand (forgive me if I resort occasionally to calling it a shtick), a process which we usually refer to as becoming a fan, entails some degree of identification of the fan with the brand. The “what I’m about” of the artist/brand becomes part of the fan’s “what I’m about,” or even “who I am.” When the degree of identification goes radical (fanatical), we say that the fan has become obsessive, and we get concerned, as we should. But it’s important to understand that the very same process of identification, involving what’s essentially the establishment of an imaginary relationship between the fan and the artist/brand, goes on in lesser degrees the rest of the time. This is simply how pop culture works. It is part of consumer society, and works just like it – except that pop art has more moral baggage than perfume, or multivitamins, or mid-sized cars.

This identification with the brand by the fan is what I call the interiorizing of the product. That sounds like just an overblown way of referring to being influenced by the product, but I think the psychic consequences of pop interiorization goes deeper than influence, in that influencing seems to me to refer to a constructive or additive process, whereas becoming a “fan” of a pop brand strikes me as something that only diminishes the true personality of the afflicted individual. The artist/brand is used as a kind of flag to be waved by the fan/consumer, saying – at least to herself, if not to the world – “this is (part of) what I’m about.” Although always a bit pathetic, this can be a fairly harmless way of making a statement about yourself in simple circumstances, but much of pop culture is not nearly as simple as it might appear.

When young girls embrace tawdry pop stars because they admire the prettiness, or popularity, or alleged “grown-up-ness” of the stars, they end up with the rest of the package as well. They embrace the brand, they identify with the brand, and if there are undesirable elements of that brand, well, they are just part of the package, and they will be interiorized. They may eventually be rejected, but they are packaged compellingly as part of the desirable brand – and I think we can be sure that if the young consumer were inclined to reject those undesirable elements from the outset, they would never have become a fan in the first place. In saying that, I’m not suggesting that these negatives are necessarily positively embraced by the young fan. Rather, they will be largely unnoticed and unexamined, bubbling to the surface only later on.

Consuming music -and other media- through the senses is not very different from consuming items through the digestive system. Some things are good, some things are bad (e.g. poison), and some things qualify as junk. I think there is some good music that falls under the pop umbrella (at least broadly understood); I think much of it is junk, and some of it downright poison. That being said, it’s hard for me to know how to really classify junk beyond saying it’s not good, and leaving it at that. Maybe, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that there is music with one foot planted in the good, and the other in junk, and that I sometimes enjoy listening to it.

Nonetheless, pop music does form an ubiquitous presence in our culture, and our kids will almost certainly end up swimming in it sooner or later. I’ve mentioned previously that I think it is important for parents to both understand why and how certain messages are unhealthy for their kids, and to be able to find a way to convey that knowledge to them. It can be hard enough for a parent to understand the significance of complicated messages or ideas well enough to be able to articulate them, but to be able to translate that into something that can be comprehended by a youngster is doubly difficult. If kids begin listening to music that carries unhealthy messages at an age when they are not yet old enough to understand criticism of those messages, they will simply interiorize those offensive attitudes, like someone learning bigotry on his mother’s knee.

It’s clear that a critical attitude toward pop culture is an essential element in anybody’s toolbox, but it’s also clear that pop culture works very hard to resist criticality, to marginalize it, to suffocate it with the banality of seductive appeasement. It also goes without saying that critical thinking is not a native characteristic of childhood. So, in the light of all I’ve considered so far, it seems to me the next question to consider is the very practical one: How do I keep my daughter from embracing unhealthy messages in her music listening?

The Heart of the Matter

Posted: Friday, May 9, 2008 (1:30 am), by John W Gillis


Expanding only slightly on the maxim that you are what you eat, I would propose that you are what you consume. People argue over whether or not violent movies or video games promote violence in society, whether pornography has similar effects, etc. I think it is a silly argument, and see no need for anyone to have to empirically prove what is readily discernible by common sense.

You are what you consume, and if this were not true in some meaningful way, there would be no propaganda, no advertising, no equal air time demands, and certainly nobody concerned about the deleterious effects of such childhood trauma as prayer in school. We rightly concern ourselves over the ideas our children are exposed to, because we intuitively understand that they will be, in some manner, formed by what they are exposed to (and I think “ideas” is the proper term to use in this context, rather than focusing on “things”).

Of course, there comes a time when we no longer censor the ideas our children are exposed to, but if we have any clue at all as parents, we will have used the period when we did practice censorship to help our children understand the existence of healthy and unhealthy ideas, and will have guided them to make decisions of their own that reflect the values we believe are most important for them to protect.

Although common practice often belies this, the point, in raising a child, is not to keep them away from deleterious ideas until they reach some magic age threshold, when it somehow becomes OK to adopt such ideas. The point, rather, is to keep error away from them while they are tender enough to be vulnerable to it, and to make sure they become wise enough to not be vulnerable to it, as it becomes more difficult to shield them from it over time. This, I’m afraid, is easier said than done, but it is unquestionably the goal of responsible parenting.

Now, it is true that not all parents have such a clue, at least not all the time, and I won’t pretend otherwise. Very often, what’s obvious on the one hand is, for some reason, ambiguous on the other. I don’t know if this is because some parents fail to consistently apprehend the danger across all genuinely dangerous circumstances, or if they fail to adequately discern the danger out of a lack of understanding the actual nature of the danger, or if they simply lack the fortitude to confront certain dangers (perhaps especially those for which they have their own proclivities). It’s probably a combination of all these things.

I don’t point this out to be uncharitable toward my neighbors (nor do I fancy myself immune to any of these forms of imprudence), but there is simply no mistaking that too many children in our society are exposed to too much harmful trash. Nor can we help but come to the conclusion that parents are failing their children in this respect.

Let’s take pornography as an example. No parents in their right minds would permit their primary school-aged children to be exposed to porn. Anyone that did permit it would be judged by the other 99% of parents to be grossly irresponsible, and quite possibly a pervert. Everyone agrees that exposing seven year-old children to porn is bad for seven year-old children. We believe that there are ideas conveyed in pornography about the human person, about human life, that would be damaging in some way to children exposed to it. However, I think unanimity of opinion would cease right about there.

The first reason opinion would soon divide is because there would not be agreement on what constitutes pornography. This is essentially the question that always gets publicly contested about pornography: what really constitutes porn? In the context of discussing what is healthy vs. unhealthy for seven year-olds, this question is pretty well exposed for the sham that it is – who really has the patience for such pharisaic hairsplitting, when the answer clearly points to whatever it is that a parent feels the need to protect his or her children from? – but an honest assessment of the prevailing situation reveals that, even when it comes to first or second graders, there really is no common understanding regarding what level of commodified sexualization crosses the line into inappropriateness.

Many kids that age are routinely immersed in messages that treat human sexuality in ways that some of us would identify as what’s called soft-core porn. Modesty – especially sexual modesty – has fallen so far off our cultural radar that I fear it will return as a vice (perhaps it already has, in our popular denigration of Muslim traditionalism).

But the question of what constitutes pornography is really a secondary question, which is the biggest reason it is such a waste of time to focus public discussion on it. More important is to understand why porn is bad; how it does its damage.

Again, everyone agrees that exposing seven year-old children to porn is bad for seven year-old children, but does anyone know why? Our answer to this question will establish the grounds for our judgment on related matters in many other circumstances – as well as answering for us the question of what constitutes porn.

If our answer is that a seven year-old is too young to learn anything about sex or sexual behavior, we’re saying absolutely nothing about pornography.

If our answer is that pornography cheapens human sexuality by making it a public spectacle, devours its intimacy, divorces it from its humanizing context of marital love, mocks its creative glory with violent lust, objectifies its actors as means to others’ impure ends, corrupts it viewers with myriad disordered passions, etc., well… we haven’t said much about seven year-olds – which may be astute (there’s little doubt in my mind that porn is at least as damaging to 17 year-olds, or 47 year-olds for that matter, than it is to seven year-olds – even if in different ways), but it still needs to be translated into practical parenting decisions.

Again, if you are opposed to pornography because it is a form of brutal and oppressive subjugation of women by men, where does that leave you vis-a-vis the porn being produced by self-proclaimed emancipated feminists? Would you show it to your seven year-old? Or, are you opposed to porn because, like prostitution, it commercializes sex? OK, would you show your seven year-old free porn? It’s not that either of these reasons are not good reasons to despise porn, they’re just not enough – they don’t get to the heart of the matter.

And what is it about introducing a young child into the equation that can seem to make possibly ambiguous moral questions suddenly so clear? Is it a parental instinct to protect that rises to the occasion? A fear of having to explain the uncomfortable? A little of both? Or, God forbid, is it nothing more than a yucky feeling? A false nostalgia for a romantic idea of innocence? Such groundless sentiments can be easily subverted, as is witnessed to by the clothing and entertainment successfully marketed to so many adolescents and even prepubescents (girls, in particular).

It seems to me there is little more critical for a parent than to work to understand exactly why and how things – and the ideas they convey – are dangerous for our children, so that we can make decisions and set guidelines that are based on sound principles, so they can be applied consistently, and eventually understood rationally by the children, which will allow them to likewise make principled decisions based on a sound understanding of the nature of the threats the world presents to them.

Part of the difficulty is that principled decisions often come across as severe or scrupulous. In that light, it’s true that you have to choose your battles, but there’s little that’s more important for a parent to do, it seems to me, than teaching his children – by example – how to get to the heart of the matter.

Celebrity Gossip and Moral Reasoning (part 2)

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008 (11:45 pm), by John W Gillis


Subjective Objectivity is the nonsense name I give to the nonsensical, widespread phenomenon in contemporary society of viewing the world through the narrow lens of one’s own experience, and assuming that such personal experience defines the norm for reality. This view is cut straight from the cloth of what Pope Benedict XVI has famously called a dictatorship of relativism.

Typically, when pressed to defend the personalized opinions that emerge from such self-centered thinking, most believers of the doctrine will retreat into relativism, claiming that such personal experience only represents “my reality,” not reality on the whole. But the end result can only be essentially the same: It is, for all intents and purposes, the belief that I am the center of the universe (or at least “my universe,” whatever that means), and that my experience is the measure by which reality should be measured. The careful thinker will note that this reducing of reality to experience is actually nothing but the repudiation of the very notion of reality, per se.

The most typical form I see this logic take can be captured in the image of a parent rationalizing his acceptance of boorish behavior in his children by telling himself: “I did the same thing, and I turned out OK – therefore it must not be that bad.” Here we see the self declared the measure of morality. There’s no room to admit that there may actually be some objective reality of morality, against which behavior – mine or my children’s – should be measured. And even more importantly, there’s certainly no room for self-criticism. No right, no wrong; only: I’m OK with it, or I’m not OK with it – judgments which are considered in the light of the potential for cognitive dissonance between an aspiring moralism and the platitudes of an ethic of self-esteem run amuck.

On March 30th, Ty Burr published a piece in the Boston Globe arguing that immorally behaving pop stars can be positive “anti-role models” for children. I thought the piece was so misguided that I decided to write a three-part refutation of it, of which this is the second part.

The first and third parts both deal with what I see as errors in Mr. Burr’s presentation of the nature and character of morality (part one argues that Mr. Burr is mistaking cynical judgmentalism for morality, which it decidedly is not; in part three I will attempt to show that genuine morality must be rooted in virtue – something utterly lacking from the landscape of Mr. Burr’s presentation). This second part presents what I believe is the ethic at the root of his misunderstanding of morality; the facilitating principle that led him down the path to his conclusion: Subjective Objectivism. Below is quoted what I believe to be the key paragraph in understanding the source of Mr. Burr’s moral confusion:

In part, that pit you feel in your stomach is generational business as usual. Mothers and fathers wonder where have all the good examples gone, forgetting that our own parents tore their hair out over the music and movies we loved. I recently gave my 11-year-old daughter grief over the bawdy lyrics to Flo Rida’s “Low” just as Led Zeppelin came on the oldies station promising to “give ya every inch of my love.” Game, set, match.

I barely know where to begin unpacking the naivety in this short paragraph. Game, set, match? The implication there is that, since the father is as guilty as the daughter, which leaves the father without the leverage of a moral high ground, the situation of the daughter must not be so bad after all – because God forbid the father admit the obvious. I guess conspiracy is better than hypocrisy.

Mr. Burr’s moral (and aesthetic) sensibility, it would seem, was forged in the pop culture of recent decades, and he has apparently not moved beyond that woeful inception. So his conscience is, predictably, as dull as that of the culture that shaped it. Vulgar trash is just normal fare, and so when his nascent moral sensibility is startled by a new kind of vulgarity, it can be easily assuaged by associating it with the good ‘old familiar vulgarity that enjoys the privileged status of “normal.”

What is conspicuous by its absence is any sense that Mr. Burr’s parents, in tearing out their hair, may have been right. That possibility just doesn’t seem to be on the table. Generational business a usual, he calls it. But that’s a sham. First of all, this particular generational dynamic has only been around for as long as pop culture has been around, and that’s only a handful of generations. Human civilization goes back a bit further than that.

Secondly, what we are actually seeing as this generational dynamic plays itself out in contemporary history is not simply a repeating pattern, as “generational business as usual” attempts to imply, but a cyclic shift toward ever more debased forms of popular art, combined with quickly retreating resolve to oppose it. More and more so, the parents (even grandparents) are simmering in the same stew as the children, and as is apparently the case in Mr. Burr’s household, they are increasingly unequipped to even attempt to provide a moral alternative to pop vulgarity.

The end result of this is that we leave our culture’s children in the pernicious stew of degrading entertainment that is pornographic, violent, and dehumanizing in many, many ways. No, it has not “always” been this way, and the fact that today’s parents have been soaked in an earlier version of the same slumgullion not only doesn’t excuse the negligence, it should provide us with a knowing sympathy of just how devastating this trash can be to the growth of a young human person. But we can only understand that if we can get past this idiotic notion that our personal experience is the standard the rest of the world should live up to, and embrace the truth that we need to get over ourselves; to submit ourselves to being open to being transformed by beauty, truth, and goodness.

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