Setting Media Standards

Illustration of a boy's head with the top flipping open and musical notes dropping into his head
Young-Min Yoon

"Bob, call me back as soon as possible."

When I returned the call, my friend John said he needed my advice in a family media matter. His 15-year-old daughter had been watching a Disney Channel program he didn't recognize. The show's "boy-girl thing" made him uncomfortable, and he ordered her to turn off the television. The incident soon escalated into a serious family conflict, with John's wife not agreeing with the snap decision and his daughter bursting into tears as she grudgingly turned off the television. John wanted to know what I thought about the show and whether he had overreacted.

As it turns out, the program in question wasn't perfect, but I didn't think it justified John's response. I told my friend that I saw a bigger problem developing: He risked alienating his daughter by barking orders, without showing fatherly affection and without communicating how a love for Christ was his underlying motivation.

The incident reminded me that while training our kids to be savvy about entertainment is important, any attempt to achieve that with stern, unexplained boundaries is counterproductive and can lead to conflict and rebellion. Done properly, teaching discernment helps kids make better choices for a lifetime, not just while they live under our roof.

As you guide your family through the murky waters of modern entertainment, aim to do so without outbursts, arguments and slammed doors:

Follow Christ's lead

While factors such as age appropriateness and spiritual maturity should also be considered, I believe the lion's share of media choices can be made by asking the question popularized by those old WWJD bracelets: What would Jesus do? If Jesus were walking the planet today, how would He respond if His disciples asked questions like "Should we watch this film?" or "Can we play this video game?"

Help your kids understand that Christ's answers to these questions would be based upon His love for His disciples, not on a desire to squelch their fun. We don't know what Jesus would do or say in every situation, but we can help our kids prayerfully seek what He likely would do based on His holiness and character.

Model it

Nothing spoils the effectiveness of a media discernment message like a parent who doesn't practice what he or she preaches. If your children know you're not applying those principles to your own entertainment choices, you're asking for a fight. Most kids — especially teenagers — know hypocrisy when they see it, and they don't respect it.

For parents of younger children, this doesn't mean you shouldn't watch anything you wouldn't let your kids watch. But ask yourself: Would I want my children watching this when they are older?

Enter your kids' world

There's no need to view your children's media consumption as some secret place with a large "No Parents Allowed" sign above the entrance. Give yourself permission to enter — gently and lovingly. Become familiar with their favorites and those of their friends, and try to understand why these are high on the list. Children give more respect to informed decisions than to knee-jerk reactions.

Promote positive alternatives

Our Creator is not anti-entertainment, and parents shouldn't be either. As you face tough media conversations with your kids, work to find constructive alternatives. I don't mean that entertainment has to be explicitly Christian to get a thumbs-up, but we should strive for entertainment that is positive. It might be a song that promotes forgiveness or gives a boost to volunteerism. It might be a television program that highlights the joy of remodeling someone's dilapidated home or a "David and Goliath" film about working to achieve the near impossible.

Encourage compatible community

When your kids hear other people — pastors, other parents, teachers, friends — echoing your advice on media, they will be more inclined to listen. Talk with other parents. Ask your church leaders to consider including this subject in their ministry plans. Encourage friendships with other kids who make wise entertainment choices. When your children hear from a peer that discernment has value, you may feel less conflict when these difficult media moments occur.

Avoid extremes

As parents make entertainment decisions for their families, many tend to swing between the extremes of permissiveness and legalism. Neither extreme works. A discerning middle ground — one that tests entertainment against biblical standards on a case-by-case basis — is the most reasonable plan of action. Teaching discernment encourages balance, leads to critical thinking, bonds families and gives teens life skills they'll carry throughout adulthood.

This article first appeared in the August/September, 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Adapted from Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids with Love, Not War.  If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2011 by Bob Waliszewski. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.