When the new neighbors' girl showed up at Jonathan and Amanda Witt's door asking if their 11-year-old daughter could play, Amanda thought nothing of it. Amanda called her daughter and one of her sons and sent them out to get acquainted. The kids played all morning, had lunch together at the Witts' house, then went back outside.
But Amanda's kids soon came running in with an announcement. "Her mother is a lesbian," her 7-year-old son declared.
Amanda grieved not only for the partial loss of her young children's innocence, but also for the girl who brought this unwelcome knowledge into their lives. The girl had cried when she told Amanda's children about her mother, fearing that they would no longer be allowed to play with her.
"Our kids are exposed to all sorts of things through the neighborhood children — including divorce, chronic lying and alcoholism," Amanda said. "On two separate occasions, my kids have come inside upset because a friend was surreptitiously crying after his mother left the family the night before."
That's the kind of situation more and more parents are finding themselves in, often earlier than they had anticipated. The Witts' story illustrates the difficulty of preserving children's innocence in a culture that seems eager to destroy it.
The media's assault on our kids' innocence has become increasingly explicit and intrusive. From TV to movies, from music to the Internet, popular culture saturates kids' lives. The messages are sometimes blatant (such as the celebration of premarital sex) and sometimes subtle (such as disrespect for parents and other authorities). And what kids don't get from the media, they hear at school, often in explicit sex-education courses.
As Michael and Diane Medved wrote in their book Saving Childhood, "The very idea of parental protectiveness has been overwhelmed by relentless pressure from a society that seems determined to expose its young to every perversion and peril in an effort to 'prepare' them for a harsh, dangerous future."
But the Witts' children don't watch TV, and they're home-schooled. Still, there's no way to protect them completely from the perversion of the world.
"Kids know that sin hurts people; they've seen it hurt them," Amanda said. "So when we talk with our children, we underline that: Sin hurts. We all sin, but we'd all be better off if we didn't. We'd be better off if we always listened to God, who knows best."
Amanda's approach offers a welcome guideline for parents trying to deal with the flood of information dumped on their kids too soon. While protective measures, such as carefully screening videos, are important, perhaps even more critical is teaching children how to deal with the world's harsh realities.
How can a parent do this? Not by avoiding the culture, but by teaching God's view of cultural messages. It sounds simple, but too many parents, even Christian parents, don't do it.
Amanda wrote in an essay for Touchstone magazine: "I've been . . . remembering a remark that the wife of one of our church elders made: 'My two girls were raised carefully. We taught them God's Word and took them to church, and they're good girls, going to Christian colleges, doing summer mission work. But when it comes to homosexuality, there was just too much pressure — at school and on TV — to think the Bible is old-fashioned. Just the sheer weight of opinion wore them down.' "
Parents can listen to the messages kids are hearing, then teach them to step back and ask themselves, What does God think about this, and what does that mean for me? This approach establishes a strong foundation for them to stand on as they make moral choices.
But it does even more than that. It also teaches them to take a God's-eye view of others — to understand that all people are created in God's image and are loved by God, which is the approach the Witts took with the new neighbors.
The Witts continued to show hospitality to the girl and let the children play with her — as long as she did not try to persuade them that her mother's behavior was acceptable. Thanks to their influence, the child learned to see Christians not as the judgmental people she had feared they were, but as loving friends.
"Children ideally need a time of innocence, a time when you're establishing in them and around them a healthy, God-governed life," Amanda said. "They need to experience that as the norm. They need to have friends for whom that's the norm. At the same time, it's better for a child to learn about other worldviews and lifestyles while still under close parental supervision, while we can cue them on how to respond."
Teach kids the value of guarding their hearts from the sinful culture and also demonstrating God's unconditional love for the perpetrators and victims of that culture. We can teach our kids not to fear the culture but to turn things around — to capture the culture for Christ.