"I really believe that we do damage children by the messages we show them when they're too young."- Marshall Herskovitz, co-executive producer of Thirtysomething
"My mom wouldn't even let me sing 'Strawberry Wine' because it said 'wine' in it and I was this little kid. She protected my image. And that's not the only reason why I don't dance around like a hoe onstage, but it definitely has something to do with being brought up with tons of morals. And I'm not saying I'll never write a song with a curse word, because there's definitely been times when it's like, 'Aww, man, "f---" would sound so good there!' But then I think about my mom, and how it would probably hurt her. So I just say 'frig' instead." - Avril Lavigne, Rolling Stone, 3/20/03
I get asked how I feel about sex and the media often. I am asked this by co-workers, parents, friends, and sometimes even strangers. Before I became a mother, I would give my “churchy” answers of how if it doesn’t edify anything, especially a relationship with God, then it really wasn’t needed. It served no purpose but destruction. Honestly, I was a judgmental, hypocritical, and self-righteous brat. (Ask me how well I was able to share the love of Jesus being like that…)
Then I had my daughter, Irene. She’s now three-years-old. Being a mom has made me a lot more gracious and merciful and gentle.
How do I feel about it now, honestly? It truly terrifies me. The things little kids are exposed to on a daily basis offend and shock me. I teach in the urban core and I see the living embodiment of sex and media daily. It shows up in how the parents and children dress, to how they interact with one another, to even the music pouring out of vehicles in the parking lot.
Just the other day I was walking into work and I saw a car pull up with several kids. Out of the car, a song was blaring something about bending a girl in at least eight positions. Not long after that I got to hear from another car something that sounded a lot like pardoning one’s daughter as she’s seasoned due to all that ‘he’ taught her. I walked inside and told my co-teacher that I had been violated in more ways than one in only the time it took me to walk from my car to the front door. My next comment was along the lines of “Oh my goodness…those poor babies…if I am so greatly offended at nearly 30, what is this doing to them?!?”
I can’t say that sex in the media was not present when I was a child, but it wasn’t as easy to see from a child's point of view. My parents were always very open about what was out in the world, so I know I was exposed to the conversation, at least. One conversation with my dad about sex went something like, “Look, sex is fun and it feels really good, but there is a time and place for everything. You have a lot of things you really want to do and right now is not the time or place to be having sex. And, if you choose to have sex, remember that there are consequences for your actions – always.” Logic and reason. Dad is always good for a conversation based in logic and reason. Sex in the media is definitely more present for young children than it was when I was growing up. The conversations that I hear children having now do not reflect what they were when I was growing up. I hear conversations from preschoolers now that are sexually charged and very graphic. To put it in perspective, when my friends and I were like 12-years-old, we were still playing with Barbie dolls, going to the pool, and staying up all night reading Stephen King books out loud.
I am a truly blessed individual to be invited into the world of children on a daily basis – with my students and even my own daughter. That is a gift that not everyone is given and I do not take it lightly. I believe it is my right and responsibility to protect and preserve the innocence of Irene’s childhood. I have an idea of what this looks like, and as each moment passes it evolves. Right now, it looks a little like this:
• Being proactive vs reactive. Much like the conversation my dad had with me about sex, I get to create myself to be someone who is a space for open communication about what is so about sex and media (and anything really) and that the choices we make really do have consequences – big or small, and laying a foundation for what is expected rather than reacting to her choices and acting completely blindsided.
• “Monkey see, monkey do”. I grew up in two households – one lived by “monkey see, monkey do” and the other “do as I say, not as I do”. “Monkey see, monkey do” is social learning. If everyone, adults and children, are talking about sex or having it, and there is nothing bad that comes out of it (especially when shown on TV) then kids are going to think that everyone is doing it and they should also. Irene can count on me as someone who remembers that her little eyes are watching and acts as though I’d expect her to act.
• Monitor her dress. There is a difference between flattering and flaunting. Anyone who knows me has heard this many times. I am vigilant that she dresses like a little girl. My co-worker and I were talking the other day about how shopping for little girl clothes is bizarre. You go from infant/early toddler clothes being sweet and precious to preschooler and up clothing at times looking like they are dressing for the baby prostitute awards. Even something as simple as a swimsuit has limits in our house. Only one pieces are allowed. I figure if I set the expectation young then there will be little to no discussion as she gets older. (Oh teen years…I’m ready…)
• Limit her choices. I limit her choices on everything. We do not have cable TV because I do not want her easily exposed to a lot of what is on it. I limit her music choices. She does not even get to listen to anything with the title Kidz Bop in it. Just because little kids are singing it does not mean it is appropriate for how I am raising my child. Even my friends and family join me on this and are respectful enough to alter what they listen to or watch when she is around. (I will throw it out there that I am not perfect at this – one of her favorite songs is "Moves Like Jagger".)
• Being cautious of her environment. While I pray Irene is compassionate and empathetic to people of all backgrounds and provide her experiences to practice that, I am still cautious of the environments I put her in at the tender age of three. I work in an environment where children are exposed to a lot more of life than I am ready for my child to experience right now, so I limit her exposure to that. I am also cautious of who I leave her with. There are only a handful of people I allow her to be around without me. Really what it boils down to is that I am confident that these few people will care for her in the same manner I will and also share in my commitment to protect and preserve the innocence of her childhood.
Maybe parenting would have been easier if I had a boy. I do pray God knows what he was doing trusting me with this beautiful, wonderful, and vivid little girl. I know that in the end, I get to answer for everything I do and don’t teach her.