No matter your family rules, no matter your family values, by age two or three, outside societal influences — which you may or may not approve of — will become part of your child's life. Friends, TV, movies, the Internet, magazines, popular music, video games, toys, and advertising all exercise enormous cultural influence on your child.
Some of that influence will be inconsistent with your rules and values and the discipline you want your child to learn. Your child will be confronted with:
Alluring images and messages you wish your child didn't see and hear.
Value positions that contradict what you are trying to teach.
Popular ways of believing and behaving that your child admires and you do not.
Marketing that tries to capture your child's attention and shape your child's taste.
There's no way to avoid it: These influences will find their way into your child's world. Like uninvited strangers, they will come into your home and arouse your child's curiosity and excite your child's interest. So what are you supposed to do?
First, you have to decide if there are some of these strangers you absolutely do not want to allow into your home — certain types of TV shows, video games, Internet content, movies, magazines, and music that you want to keep out.
But prohibition by itself has no educational value. What it usually provides is delay until the child is older. This is why, for example, some parents strike a bargain with a child wanting to watch an R-rated movie because friends have already seen it. “You can watch it at home with us on the condition that afterward we all discuss the examples the movie sets and the messages it sends.” Parents want to weigh in with their approach to this material to give the child some mature guidelines for evaluating the adult content that he's seeing in the movie.
Because the Internet opens up a world of information and online interaction for a child, you have to decide where in this infinite world of life exposure you want and do not want your child to go. Web sites that parents typically want their child to avoid include those trafficking in pornographic sex, recreational drug use, criminal violence, extreme physical risk-taking, credit card gambling, and intergroup hate.
Being curious and attracted to the forbidden, and left unsupervised with a world of temptation at their fingertips, your children may seek out or accidentally discover Internet sites they have been told to avoid. Now what?
Even if you restrict access after the fact, the information remains in the child's head. At this point, angry at disobedience and frightened by the unwelcome influence, your immediate response as a parent may be to come down hard with punishment to let your child know he or she has done wrong. As the first response, this is a mistake because your anger and sanctions only shut down the child's willingness to communicate about what happened.
If you plan to protect your child from certain things by prohibiting them, you should also start thinking about what kind of preparation you want to give your child for when he or she encounters that experience later on.
When your child has seen an Internet site you don't want him to, you need to immediately turn the experience into a talking point to discuss what he saw, what he thought, and what he learned. Discovering how your child interpreted the experience — was he appalled? was he fascinated? did it scare him? — allows you to assess the effect and determine what you might say to influence the ideas your child carried away from the experience.
To help draw this information out of your child, who is reluctant to talk after being caught, proceed with curiosity, not condemnation. “Although I would wish you hadn't seen this site, since you have, I'd like to know what you think of it. Tell me five things you think it is trying to communicate.” Then use the answer as the basis for discussion.
Now you can weigh in with an alternative way to evaluate and frame the child's Internet experience. And then you can also make a family policy decision: “The Internet is filled with these kinds of pictures, but for the good of our family, we don't want them coming into our home.”
Sometimes, a child will feel inclined to act out what he or she has seen on the Internet. At this point, you need to intervene. Seeing does not justify doing. You do not want what the child has seen to translate into what the child does. Suppose, for example, your daughter has accidentally visited a hate site. After you have discovered what she thought of it, and after you have responded with a perspective of your own, you may need to take a disciplinary stand against the use of harmful beliefs and hateful language if your child starts expressing them. “We don't want you spreading those beliefs or using that language because we believe that is wrong to do.” Give the reasons that cause you to believe it is wrong as well.
One final and obvious instruction for your child about the Internet is to never give any personal information such as name, address, or phone number to anyone with whom he or she is interacting.
Prohibition Plus Preparation
By itself, prohibition has no educational value. It just fosters ignorance, often increasing the allure of what's forbidden. In addition, once children enter adolescence, curiosity about the larger world dramatically increases, the forbidden side of life becoming even more tempting to discover.
Therefore, if you are going to prohibit your child from something, it is very important to fully explain your reasons for doing so, respecting his or her objections, listening when you disagree, learning from this disagreement more about your child's changing interests and point of view.
In addition, remember that your prohibition can affect your child's standing with friends. When you prohibit things that your child's friends are allowed, you are asking your child to pay a personal and social cost. It's not just that your child wanted to see that movie, it's that now all her friends will share that experience and knowledge and she will not. “I really feel out of it! Everyone knows the story except me!” She may feel she has less in common with her friends, making her feel less like she belongs. The more out of the cultural loop she becomes, the more important gaining acceptance from peers may seem to her.
How can parents respond to the common complaint, “I'm the only one of my friends not allowed to go”?
Parents can reply, “We will help create another way for you to be with your friends.”
Giving Your Opinion
When outside influences you are concerned about have entered your child's life, listen to your child's impression of what was seen or heard, and then communicate your own point of view. For example, you may decide to editorialize on entertainment that your child may unquestioningly accept. “I know that movie makes it sound normal and exciting for young people to drive fast and recklessly, but I want you to know that that endangers people's lives, and I never want you to do that when you get old enough to drive.”
Or with an older adolescent who is already beginning to hear stories from peers about adventures with substance abuse, you decide to weigh in with a different perspective. “I know you're laughing — as the writers of the TV show intended you to — because the drunk person fell down at a party and upended a table of food on other people. But I'd like you to know that although in one way that looked funny, in another way it was not. If that drunk person was me and you were there, would you be laughing at what happened, or might you feel embarrassed that I had lost control of myself in a public situation? And how would you like cleaning up the mess I had made? For me, getting drunk is not as funny as it seems.”
By giving your opinion, some bad examples that are communicated through the media can be used as the basis for some good instruction. You cannot alter your child's thinking, but you can definitely express your more mature, adult perspective. And you should. “We're not trying to change your mind. What you believe is for you to decide. We just want to give you an additional way to think about what you just saw.” Use your experience and values as a filter through which to help interpret unwelcome outside influences that enter your child's world.