parenting amid beauty (and beasts)

Recently I’ve been seeing some responses to Disney’s choice to include their first openly gay character (itself a debatable designation) in the new “Beauty and the Beast” live action film. Most of them find it sad, or too political (“don’t put your paradigm in my popcorn flick”), but the majority seem to be in a tizzy about Disney indoctrinating children through classic stories.

I have three kids under four, and several things have never been more evident to me:
1. Sleep will never happen. Ever again. I am convinced I will wake up in the middle of the night out of force of habit until I die. I slept through the night about a month ago when the kids were gone and my body was like “what the heck are you doing?”
2. Kids see everything from a vastly different perspective than I do. Kind of like most everyone I know.
3. Kids are very easily swayed by things that affect them deeply, and nothing affects us more deeply than well-told stories and beautiful images. So we’ve decided they shouldn’t read anything at all or look at anything beautiful so that they are never affected.

You might see where I’m going with this.

As a musician and a writer, I love art of all sorts. Art communicates powerfully and viscerally, saying what cannot be said and making us know things in our inner parts. My kids will experience art. It’s not an if, it’s a when.

But I’m exquisitely worried about how and what they experience. We’re not just dealing with the poorly-written children’s books that should never have been published, let alone made their way into the clutches of my pink-obsessed daughter. We’re talking about communicating things deeply, subtly, and memorably. What my kids experience now will stick. I’m nervous about what will stick.

But I’m not so nervous that I’m going to boycott Disney.

My reasons have to do with my goals for my children. Ultimately, I want them to know and love Christ. Then I want them to love others around them the way He does. And finally, I want them to have a robust sense of how to approach anything they encounter with a believer’s backbone.

So here’s why I’m not nervous about Beauty and the Beast:

Our expectations are wack.

We need to stop being so surprised by our broader culture’s take on life and happiness and just about everything else. We can see truth here and there in your average media stream, and sometimes very brightly, but everything coming from a place of unbelief in Jesus Christ and His kingdom rules must be viewed through a grid: It’s broken. My job as a parent is to show my kids why and how, and what God is still doing by His unmerited grace. I help them build that believer’s grid in their own hearts and minds.

But if I’m expecting our entertainment streams to be free of the brokenness, the tension I encounter is my own creation.

Disney’s got way bigger issues than any LGBTQ agenda.

Practically, there are many more insidious issues than LGBTQ agenda represented in Disney movies that I don’t want my kids to buy into. This is one reason we’re going to hold off a little on princess flicks (Nadia would never come up for air at this point). But perhaps the deepest problem in Disney films is the whole “make your own destiny, the truth is within you” thing. If our biggest problem is a minor character’s sexual orientation, we’re not thinking first cause. We’re only treating symptoms.

I don’t HAVE to take my child to anything.

I’ve read responses to this movie that opine the death of childhood because now their three-year-old cannot go to it. First off, nightmares, guys. I’m not bringing a tiny human with an overactive imagination to a movie featuring a terrifying man-buffalo and a torch-wielding crowd, for the simple reason that I value what little sleep I get.

Aside from that, though: As a parent, it’s my responsibility and honor to protect my daughter and her brothers from things they aren’t ready for. Besides this, I have trouble believing 1) that the movies and books I experienced as a child were actually any better and 2) that my children are missing something vital by not seeing a particular Disney movie. Our time as a family, undoubtedly, could be better spent.

How does avoiding this actually prepare my kids for life?

It’s much more authentic to encounter these cultural things with my children, and at some point I must do that in order to prepare them to encounter things alone.

This bites down to a particular philosophy of parenting, the idea that we are authorities and friends to our children. The word “parent” contains surprising nuance, because you are a a guardian, a counselor, an authority, and a friend all at once. To me that says: yes, offspring, I will attempt to prevent harm from touching you. But I also need to give you the building blocks to grow and learn, and let you fall sometimes. When this comes to stories, movies, songs, art – I can walk alongside my children as they grow instead of hiding things from them. Shine a light on a scary thing and it loses its power. We need to be shining the light of Christ on things for our kids, revealing the true nature of them, and letting them learn how to hold the flashlight.

We cannot abdicate our roles as parents to anyone else. Our kids will learn from the larger culture and we won’t be able to avoid that, however, so what should we do? I believe we must strive for a relationship of love and authority that is deeply human (because we need Jesus too) and serious about them and the Lord. This is an anchor for them as they grow, and one that will help them weather the waves of popular culture.

Relationship is what matters.

We tend to give our kids too little or too much credit, because we don’t take the time to get to really know them or to see things from their perspective.

The only way I’m going to know what my kid can or cannot handle is by knowing them really, really, really well. And you don’t know someone that well without spending a lot of time with them, asking them questions and listening to them, and letting them ask questions. This kind of trust-building doesn’t just reveal possible triggers for kids depending on their personality and experiences, it also lets them know that when they hit on something they don’t understand, they will always have someone to talk to who won’t dismiss them or call their honest questions silly. Sounds like Someone else I know.

Taking the moral high ground doesn’t guarantee anything.

The responsibility for my children’s spiritual and moral state doesn’t rest solely on me and how I manage their movie-watching. Christ is the author and finisher of faith, and so to think that my parenting is going to be the final say on my child’s success or failure in life misses a deeply encouraging point: it’s not. It will affect it, definitely, for better or worse, so it matters. But ultimately, my kids are entrusted to me for a time but created and sustained by God.

So if your kid can manage it, go watch “Beauty and the Beast” and talk about it afterward with them. You might be surprised at what they’re thinking. But they’ll be thinking at least one thing: that their parent cares about them.

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