When my son was about 3, I left him watching a Thomas the Tank Engine video on YouTube while I
pooped in peace, checked Facebook, finished off the doughnuts without having to share them with him, got things done around the house.
I returned to the living room to hear the words “anal bleaching” coming out of the laptop. On the screen was a video showing porn stars getting waxed, although most of the waxing was blurred out.
Somehow, my son had meandered his way through the suggested videos to come across one called Marcy’s Waxing Salon, a behind-the-scenes look at Pink Cheeks, the real-life salon that Californication’s Hot Lips was based on.
Ideal Parent Me would have used this as a teaching moment to discuss what he had seen based on his understanding of it and any questions he had. Real Parent Me could think only of him asking his grandparents if they waxed their cooters, so I quickly closed the laptop and distracted him with
Oreos and Yo Gabba Gabba a healthy snack and quantum physics flashcards while I began composing my Mother of the Year Award acceptance speech.
Later, I watched the video in its entirety. I wasn’t really bothered by what he saw (beyond his possibly wondering why his genitalia wasn’t pixelated). Although kids tend to understand more than we give them credit for, he didn’t have enough context (or a clear enough image) to really understand what he was watching, although I still wish I would have at least talked with him about it.
Had he been older, I might have been in for a conversation about sex and beauty standards and all the complicated sexism and racism intertwined with these, a conversation (or several) I do need to have with him and with his younger sister. For now, though, my biggest issue was having to rethink my stance on my son’s exposure to media and technology in light of this situation.
Since before having kids, my husband and I had always planned to let them watch, listen to, and play whatever they wanted, thinking it was better to participate with them and discuss what they were seeing and hearing than it was to block their access altogether. One reason is that if they had anything in common with us, they’d find the disallowed media and activities to be even more enticing.
Another is that at some point, they will encounter all kinds of media without us being there, so it’s our responsibility to guide them in understanding what they are seeing, hearing, and interacting with while we still can, to give them the tools they need to handle it on their own—mentally, emotionally, safely.
We’ve always had caveats, particularly with graphic violence. You can’t unsee graphic violence, and it’s difficult to handle as an adult, much less as a child without any context for it (not that context helps much in many violent situations).
Language is a gray area as well because I personally revel in the versatility and power of the word “fuck,” for example. Gratuitous overuse, not the word itself, is a potential problem with any word. But as a practical matter, neither of us wants our kids asking teachers or family members for some fucking applesauce. (Well, I kind of do, because it would be hilarious, but I don’t want to deal with the fallout.) Until they are at a stage where they understand how and when to use the language, we tend to censor that as well, at least in our own speech. Kind of. Sometimes.
So we weren’t exactly purists with the open-access media and tech policy to begin with. It’s more of a starting philosophy that we shape as we encounter new information, situations, and most frequently, as we make mistakes. In this situation, the media he could have encountered was more the issue, and that issue itself has more to do with questioning his access to technology, not media.
We are those parents who let their kids watch TV, play console games, use the computer unrestricted, and pretty much have access to whatever technology they are interested in. Part of this is for the reasons I mention above related to media access, and part of it is because we see technology as being increasingly integral to our lives, a language they will need to speak fluently in many of the possible paths they might take.
Technology is also a learning tool (and not just educational games and programs, but that’s another post), a way to learn how to build relationships with a wider range of people (not just those you happen to be geographically close to), and a potential aid in coping with various mental difficulties, if they inherit any of the acronyms I deal with daily (which my son unfortunately has).
This doesn’t mean that technology supersedes other forms of play and learning. They both love books. They play outside. They make robot apples. They enjoy dancing, listening to music, dressing up and acting out elaborate nonsensical plays, egging the living room, flooding the basement, tearing child-proofed cabinet doors off their hinges. The usual.
This also doesn’t mean I think this is the best way for all families. I think we all have myriad variables to consider that will differ widely from family to family. This post isn’t about the shoulds and should nots of technology so much as it’s about what you do when your parenting philosophy smashes into reality.
Our theories on technology access were predicated on the idea that one of us would always be there, watching their shows with them and talking about them, interacting with them while they played games (or playing with them), and being there when they were on the computer so that we could intervene before Marcy decided to show our son how to create the perfect landing strip.
In reality, we just can’t. Or, more accurately, we don’t. That’s the reality.
So where does that leave the principle?
We could have continued operating based on the ideal, that we shouldn’t try to shield him or censor the world, and given him unfettered access to YouTube, but what would that have served beyond our own egos? It’s irrational, a version of the just world fallacy that I avoid as much as possible in my politics, my skepticism, and other areas of my life. It doesn’t make any sense to embrace it in my parenting.
It also doesn’t make sense to do a complete 180 in reaction to one incident, at least not in this case. The principle still stands, for us, but with adjustments.
We now have a policy that my husband or I watch YouTube videos first, and yes, that includes kids’ videos. (You do not want to see what some people have done with Dora. Or the Smurfs.) In reality, this usually means YouTube doesn’t even get turned on because I’m too
lazy busy to monitor.
We try to pay attention to when we’re about to be distracted for a chunk of time, during which we might not notice where the kids are meandering, and we deliberately find something they’re excited to do that we won’t have to worry about–the TV is set to Netflix Kids, which they can turn on if they want, and their books and toys are accessible, including their favorite cardboard boxes and wigs.
In short, we try to do better, but we adjust our lives to where we actually are at the moment, not where we think we should be. Even if I think I should be a better parent, or wish our lives together as a family met some ideal, to operate as though this ideal situation exists or as though I’ll just magically change tomorrow is no different than basing my parenting on The Secret.
It’s not a perfect solution, because we’re not perfect people. We’re always adding caveats based on situations we never thought of as well as ongoing realizations of how our kids interact with the world in ways we never considered. My son, now 6, and daughter, now 3, will no doubt grow into new and exciting ways to test the rigor of our approach to technology, such as using it to seek out problematic media rather than innocently happening upon it.
And as much as I hope that I’ll be ready for it, I probably won’t be.
Featured image by Flickr user Coreycam; screenshot from “Marcy’s Waxing Salon”; gratuitous photo of my muddy daughter by Sweet Feet Photography; gratuitous photo of my son and his robot apple by me.