One of the great things about being a parent is sharing the best of the massive pop-culture universe with our own children, vicariously re-experiencing the likes of Dorothy, Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker through the wide eyes of a child, basking in their first belly-laugh at a Saturday Night Live sketch on Hulu, and looking the other way so they can stay up late one Monday night to watch a little of the NCAA basketball final. But part of parenting is also the constant internal debate about the appropriate time and age to introduce such touchstones: Will Betsy be inconsolable after the opening moments of Finding Nemo? Is Johnny going to have nightmares when the faces melt at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Is Scotty going to be confused and then traumatized when Brian Williams discusses the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal?
See, it’s not just PG-13 movies and provocative pop lyrics — to say nothing of the vast untamed Internet — that present a daily parental dilemma. Sometimes, it’s something as seemingly benign as Brian Williams or one of the other evening-news anchors reporting the news. On one hand, it’s important to me that my 7-year-old be introduced and begin to understand the world he will inherit. On the other, those 22 minutes of reality at 6:30 p.m. every day are a two-way highway that transports a severe world with no absolutes into the protective cocoon of our family room. A parent spends every waking hour trying to shield his children from the ugliness of the outside world — for as long as you possible can — but the evening news can be as unsettling to a child as anything they might consume in popular culture.
By habit more than anything else, we’re an NBC News family, and my wife and I DVR the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams and typically speed-watch it after putting our two children — ages 7 and 5 — to bed each night. For a long time, we were extremely vigilant about not letting the children watch with us, but the day the new Pope was chosen, the whole family sat down together to witness the elaborate pageantry of the event. They were sincerely curious and had good questions, some of which I could actually answer. It caused my wife and I to reconsider our stance on restricting the evening news. Was now the time to hold their hand and offer them a brief glimpse at the good, the bad, and the ugly that occurs every day around the world, from their own neighborhood to faraway hot-spots like Syria? I want them to begin to understand that they are part of a larger world that doesn’t necessarily revolve around them. There’s some weird Dick Cheney voice in my head that wants to show them what’s really behind the curtain, warts and all, even if it’s initially terrifying for them. Because it’s real. It exists, whether they are aware or not, and the sooner they see how the world works — or doesn’t work — the better prepared they are to live in it.
So for a few weeks, we experimented — with our finger on the fast-forward button. But for every welcome question and comment from my eldest about gay marriage — “Manuel from school has two mommies!” — for every expressed anxiety about North Korea, which leads to wonderful conversations over giant maps, and for every plea for reassurance that we’re safe from the latest distant natural disaster, we concluded that the evening news will remain a mostly exclusive mommy-daddy viewing experience in our house at the present time. In addition to the drip-drip-drip of the Church sex scandal, there’s Newtown. It’s not Brian Williams’ job to explain to a 7-year-old why a man shot 27 people at school, including 20 first-graders. I’ve concluded it might be this parent’s responsibility not to let him. The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, said some writer with a beard. For now, my wife and I have decided the best way to encourage our children to truly believe that is to protect them awhile longer and postpone the inevitable. In all honesty, I can’t say for sure whether we decided so for their sake or ours.
If you watch the evening news, when did you decide your kids were old enough to watch with you? Do you watch with them now and fast-forward past the stories that seem unsuitable for them?