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.