ANOTHER VIEW: Parents must reinforce messages_gushee_63003

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Posted: 6/27/03

Parents must reinforce messages

By David Gushee

Imagine you are trying to get into the mind of someone. Your goal is to communicate some kind of message to that person so that he or she will not forget it. What will your strategy be?

The answer is repetition.

You will put your message in front of your target as many times as possible, in as many venues as possible, in as attractive and unforgettable a manner as possible.

You will “flood the zone,” so your target will encounter your message everywhere.

David Gushee

Now, imagine that you are someone attempting to block the transmission of this message. You have more limited resources, but you do exert some control over the activities of the target. What will your strategy be?

As parents of a teenager and two pre-teens, this is our life. My wife and I are trying to block the transmission of messages that are being sent to our three children by the mass media. What an uphill struggle!

Take an average day: When my oldest daughter gets up in the morning, she is awakened by a clock radio tuned to her favorite radio station. There are two main stations that are popular with most teenagers we know. They offer two primary messages. One says, “I am a hormone-crazed young person who wants to party and have sex.” The other says, “I am a depressed young person who wants to jump off a bridge.” About 20 minutes an hour, both say, “Come to this or that club and party with other hormone-crazed and depressed young people.”

Let's say I employ my message-blocking role to demand that these two radio stations be turned off, as at times I have. This might reduce the message-sender's target penetration by some small percentage.

But my daughter has other options.

To shape their children's moral perspectives, parents must be more than message-blockers. They must be message-senders as well.

She can always go down the hall and listen to the same music on the Internet or through file-swapping programs. Or if we tell her there are certain songs or “artists” she cannot listen to, she can turn on the TV and see them featured on various programs and commercials there–even if she isn't looking for them.

If we tell her she cannot watch the TV, or at least certain shows on the TV, she can then go out with her friends and listen to the same music in the car or over at a friend's house.

For that matter, if she goes to the mall, she will hear some of the same music in various stores. If she goes to a restaurant, she often will receive the message piped in through the sound system. If she goes to a movie, she will receive similar messages, often accompanied by the same music and the same artists.

Our nation's children have been and will continue to be masterfully inundated by the messages being sent by the mass media.

One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive strategy for teaching someone something.

On the other hand, only so many strategies are available to parents seeking to be message-blockers in this culture.

Some parents opt for an attempt at total prevention. They remove all radios, televisions, video cassette recorders, compact disk players and Internet providers from the home. Even this radical strategy cannot prevent out-of-home transmission of unwanted messages.

While such a total home media blackout has its benefits, it is not the path we have chosen in our household.

We have believed there are valuable resources available through the mass media if it is used selectively and supervised carefully. Thus we embark on the screening process: There are television stations we do not watch, types of movies we ban, songs we refuse to hear, Internet sites we block and so on.

It is a war, and it sometimes feels like we are on the losing side. The struggle itself is just plain wearisome. But it is one we cannot abandon.

One final dimension impacts this struggle. Parents must be more than message-blockers. We must be message-senders as well.

A merely defensive strategy never will be adequate. We must have our own message to send, and we must send it with just as much energy as we can.

For our family, it is a message about the good, the true and the beautiful. And the God who is the author of all three.

This is a message we send repeatedly, with our involvement in church, with our moral teaching, with the books we read, and–we pray–with our lives. It is a message we hope our children will make their own as they leave us and make their way in the world.

What are you doing to win the battle for your child's mind?

David Gushee is the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. His column is distributed by Religion News Service

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