Exerting Influence Over Your Family's Media Choices

With the clear influence of the media on our moods and emotions, it follows that there must be some carry-over to our choices and actions. It's interesting to note that most Americans believe a link exists between media and actual behavior. That's why 83 percent of Americans wish the entertainment industry would voluntarily excise some of the sex and violence from television, movies and music lyrics. 1 What's more, an even greater percentage of media insiders see the input-output link. According to a UCLA/U.S. News & World Report survey of 6,300 entertainment industry leaders, 87 percent feel violence in the mass media contributes to violence in society. 2 Two-faced? Yes. Likely to bring about content changes in the near future? Time will tell.

This admission, however, is good news for discerning families. Once parents acknowledge the power of the media — and the fact that teens are overwhelmingly willing to invite it into their lives — they are faced with the issue of what to do about it. How do we help young entertainment fans recognize the need for discernment? How do we equip our kids with the tools to make smart choices?

The following suggestions have been born out of years of interaction not only with the world of media, but also with teens who consume that media on a daily basis. We hope you'll be able to adapt and apply them in your own home.

  1. Know your kids' entertainment. Because the days of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Leave It to Beaver" are long gone, parents need to take an active role in finding out what entertainment picks are spinning inside their teenagers' heads. Do you know your teens' favorite musicians? Can you list the movies and TV shows they would say are the most exciting and engaging? Do you know where they surf on the Internet?

    Why not sit down with each of your teenagers and engage them in discussions about their favorite media? Don't just ask the above 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.

    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 show sincere praise and encouragement. Most likely, you'll find a mix of good and bad choices. Discussing your young person's entertainment picks can be a great way to address these and begin gently correcting and instructing. 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.

  2. Rely on credible sources for entertainment review. Recently, my (Waliszewski's) daughter wanted to ride her horse, B.J. But this presented a problem. You see, B.J. hadn't been ridden in a while and seemed a bit jittery. Rather than tell Kelsey she couldn't go, however, I saddled up and took the reins first. I did so for one simple reason — to make sure it was safe. The same goes for entertainment. Dads and moms need to check out the "ride" before our kids hop on.

    But who has the time when every movie, CD and televised program requires prescreening and discussion? Fortunately, there are inexpensive — sometimes free — trustworthy media-review resources that can put your mind at ease. Not only do these identify the bad apples in the barrel, they uncover the good. Focus on the Family's Plugged In magazine gives concise monthly reviews of what's hot in the media.

  3. Model wise choices. One of the surest ways to derail your young person's media discernment is to act hypocritically. We cannot stress enough how essential it is for parents to model wise choices. Nothing lasting can be accomplished if the sum total of "teaching" discernment is for a parent to say, "No MTV in this house," while viewing "The Sopranos."

    Becoming increasingly discerning should be a lifetime endeavor for all of us. Do you struggle with your own choices? Do you, too, want to go to that R-rated thriller because everyone at the office has seen it except you? Most of us can relate to that feeling at times. And it's okay to admit it to our children. But we must be very careful not to teach a principle and then violate that principle ourselves. Parents who have been guilty of this find credibility very hard to regain.

  4. When you can't tune it out, try teaching . Seeing an offensive commercial on an otherwise positive TV show, an obscene bumper sticker or an unsavory T-shirt makes you want to scream, "Close your ears, kids! Shut your eyes!" And usually those moments happen just too quickly to avoid. So what should we do?

    Not long ago, Leesa, Kelsey, Trevor and I got away for a few days of snow skiing. After an afternoon of schussing, falling and sunburning, we headed to a nearby pizza parlor. As our meal arrived, someone dropped a pocketful of quarters in the jukebox. The first song that blared through the establishment was one that would not be welcome in our home. I remember looking across the table at Leesa, who rolled her eyes as if to say, "What's this trash we're stuck listening to?" But what were we to do now that we were being "force-fed" these nihilistic ramblings? My instincts wanted to yell, "Okay, kids, grab the pizza and let's head to the car right now!" I resisted the urge. There had to be a better solution. Indeed, there was. I turned the incident into a "teachable moment" by pointing out why the evening's dinner music failed to meet our family standard. Now, I don't want you to think we have this down to a science. We don't. But we've begun using such moments to reinforce the principles of discernment we regularly talk about and model at home. And I know it's sinking in.

    I was keenly reminded of that just a few weeks later. Kelsey and I were in the car together. I'd been channel surfing, and was tuned in to a country station. I'm usually good about changing the dial when I need to, but I got distracted. "Daddy," Kelsey asked, "is that a good song?" It wasn't. I turned the radio off, a bit embarrassed, but well-pleased that Kelsey had recognized it on her own.

  5. Keep open communication lines. Talking about the media, sorting out the good from the bad, and encouraging wise decisions in this area is something we practice day in, day out. I've opened up the lines of communication in my home so that my kids can ask why when they feel they need to and point out Dad's weaknesses when they see them. I believe this openness and transparency is helping our home become a place where media discernment is being taught and caught.

1 USA Today, 8 June 1995.
2 The Associated Press, 30 April 1994.

Background Information

Journey of No Return
Sometimes as parents, we have a knee-jerk response to our kids as we're barraged by their numerous inquires and desires. Maybe it's time to stop being so negative.

When Not To Discipline
Parents should recognize when they should and shouldn't discipline their children.

When You Feel Like Calling in the SWAT Team
Are your children constantly testing you? This classic parenting advice will help you regain the upper hand.

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