A few years ago, I decided to introduce my teenagers to one of my favorite 1980s television shows, “Family Ties.” I remembered it being a funny but touching take on family life with some lighthearted political and social commentary woven in.
Yet just one episode left me cringing. In “Summer of ’82,” from the series’ first season, 17-year-old Alex P. Keaton loses his virginity to a college woman he happens to meet while delivering groceries to her apartment. Alex falls head over heels on their first-and-only date, but in the mind of his paramour, the encounter is nothing more than a casual hookup.
Crushed, Alex discusses the matter with his father, who reacts, in predictable sitcom-parent style, not like a dad but like a bud. The elder Keaton doesn’t question the wisdom or morality of Alex’s decision. Instead, Steven Keaton asks Alex how he feels and what he has “learned” from the experience.
He tells his son that “love and commitment don’t materialize because two people spend a night together.” Alex is encouraged not to let disappointment keep him from opening himself up to another opportunity to experience the “exhilaration and joy of loving another person.”
Not So ‘Family’ Ties
Watching the episode with my children, I was mortified. Not only did the storyline casually affirm a sexual relationship outside of marriage, something directly opposed to my children’s Christian upbringing, but it seemed to have no qualms showing an adult woman offer wine to and then seduce a male she knows is a minor.
I profusely apologized to my children for my poor judgment in so enthusiastically recommending the show and resolved to be more careful in the future. As someone who has always tried to carefully monitor what my children see and hear, I felt like a failure.
It wasn’t merely the program’s sexual content, it was the message being sent about that content. Having been raised in a Christian household, my children know well the reality of sin. But they also know that sin has consequences, both for one’s earthly existence and one’s eternal soul. To sit and laugh at a program that makes light of what are extremely serious issues would have been dishonest and hypocritical.
Unfortunately, that disappointing episode of “Family Ties” isn’t the only one of my past entertainment choices that I have come to see differently. That experience has become more the norm than the exception.
The ‘Wholesome’ Pop Culture of Your Youth Probably Isn’t
I must have seen “Grease” 25 or 30 times in junior high. Now, I detest the message of completely remaking oneself to win others’ approval and acceptance (not to mention that the celebrated transformation is of a “good girl” to a “bad girl”).
There’s nothing like a good dancing movie, and I enjoyed watching Baby learn as much as the next person, but now I can’t get past how “Dirty Dancing” (PG-13) depicts abortion as a problem only insofar as its illegality is detrimental to a woman’s health.
“The Breakfast Club” (R) has at least some things going for it. It does encourage young people to see past stereotypes. But parents need to remind themselves of the movie’s pot-smoking, sexual references, and nonstop cursing before taking their children on that particular trip down memory lane.
Recall that the movie ends with the blossoming of a romantic relationship between a girl and the boy who is shown to have repeatedly verbally and sexually harassed her throughout the film. Molly Ringwald has had second thoughts about the messages of several movies that made her into an international film sensation in the ‘80s.
Even the PG-rated “WarGames”—which, unlike a lot of teen movies, has no drugs, drinking, or sexual content—nevertheless has quite a bit of foul language, including more than one instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Moreover, the movie’s hero regularly breaks into the school mainframe to change his grades.
It’s Easier Than Ever to Preview Before Sharing
What’s to be done? Conscientious parents might wonder whether it’s possible to ever turn on the radio or go see a movie in the 21st century when, at every turn, we run up against something that subverts what we hold most dear. Do we live in a bubble and fearfully shield our children from the reality of the world around them?
No. That’s impossible. What we can do is carefully weigh and choose not only what we allow our children to consume from the culture but also what we take in.
A couple of days ago I was in the car with my 15-year-old son when Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” came on the radio. Now, he’s heard a fair amount of Billy Joel music. His parents are huge Billy Joel fans.
However, “Only the Good Die Young” is a terrible song (“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait / Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t / I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / The sinners are much more fun”). I changed the station, told my son why, and we had a good conversation about the song’s harmful message.
The good news? Today, we’re surrounded by more entertainment choices than ever before and numerous ways to conveniently access those options. There’s also no shortage of resources for reviewing the content of a television program, song, movie, video game, or book before “green-lighting” it to a child.
One of my favorite websites for doing so is the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which doesn’t come from a Christian or particular worldview but simply aims to shine a light on media content so parents can be informed. There are not only descriptions, reviews, and age recommendations from the team behind the site but from other parents and children.
I really wish that I’d read the following Common Sense Media review of “Summer of ‘82” before showing it to my kids:
Good, but not as kid-friendly as I remembered
Surprised at the not-subtle sex content in the second episode! I loved this show as a kid, but maybe I was already a teenager when I watched it. I recently borrowed it from the library thinking it would be appropriate for my three elementary school kids. … I was really surprised that in the second episode of the first season 17-year old Alex goes out with a college senior and loses his virginity to her! Luckily the words ‘sex’ and ‘virginity’ weren’t spoken, and because my kids don’t know about all these things it also kind of went over their heads, but I had to have annoyingly loud side-conversations to keep them from hearing all of the words and wondering what was happening. Ultimately they didn’t like the show much anyway. Maybe I’ll pull it out again in about 10 years, when we can have mature conversations about this kind of thing!
Whether or not it’s true that “teenagers hate nothing more than hypocrisy,” they are certainly affected by it. When parents tell their kids not to drink, smoke, do drugs, or engage in premarital sex and then freely enjoy entertainment that minimizes the seriousness of such things, the message relayed is confusing at best.
Parents need to carefully mind what we listen to, read and watch. As children watch us, they’re learning what we consider worthwhile and appropriate and what we don’t.
Living In the World, Not Consumed By It
In an article directed at Christian authors but useful for anyone, writer Katie Schuermann says the Christian author “should be careful never to leave [a] Christian character unaffected by … sin, for the baptized Christian has been given the Spirit of God.” Thus, the point of view “must reflect the spiritual conflict (Romans 7:19-25) that inevitably arises when encountering sin, whether it be through revulsion or a stricken conscience or actual repentance or, tragically, a hardened heart.”
The same holds true for conscientious parents making entertainment choices for their children. Parents don’t have to limit exposure exclusively to content that is morally pure. Care should be taken, however, that material given to children doesn’t esteem unwholesome or destructive behavior as unimportant, harmless, or desirable.
There are plenty of books and movies that reflect real life in all its messiness without excusing or glorifying the sinful and stupid choices by which humans make those messes. There is no excuse for mindlessly wolfing down whatever the prevailing culture sets before us. It’s just a matter of caring enough to find out what’s being served before we bring our children to the table.