Parents Gone Wild!

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |

THESE ARE TOUGH TIMES to be a child in Massachusetts. Not satisfied with all but encasing children’s bodies in bubble wrap — banning sleds from Raynham’s best coasting hill, expelling tag from an Attleboro schoolyard, banishing birthday cupcakes from Mansfield schools — grownups around here are now trying to wrap their minds in cotton batting, too.

Mayor Menino recently exhibited the worst of this behavior when he turned a summer stroll down Boston’s most fashionable street into what might be the silliest censorship crusade since Jerry Falwell suggested that Tinky Winky’s purse and purple hue were a covert attempt by the Teletubbies to recruit preschoolers into homosexuality. The object of the mayor’s ire was a storefront display of Nike T-shirts urging snowboarders and skaters to “Get High” and “Ride Pipe.” The slogans are double entendres, of course, but then, so is Nike’s iconic corporate motto. Not for nothing did an author choose Just Do It as the title of a popular 2008 memoir of his 101 consecutive days of having sex with his wife. The culture, and the children, survived.

To claim, as Menino did in an overwrought letter to the apparel company, that the T-shirts were an affront to “the character of Boston’s Back Bay, our entire city, and our aspirations for our young people” suggests nothing so much as a work-weary five-term mayor trying to distract himself and his constituents from the failing schools, escalating gang violence, and chronic unemployment that constitute the real threat to young people in Boston.

[sidebar]Bemoaning cultural degeneracy, a perennial complaint of sanctimonious politicians since at least the Roman Empire, is finding an especially receptive audience now, when American parents have lost all sense of proportion about protecting their children. It is no wonder that sociologists have been tracking signs of delayed adulthood in twentysomethings for more than a decade: Suppressing exposure in the name of keeping children safe only infantilizes young people, leaving them ill prepared to cope with images and ideas they invariably will find on their own.

Thankfully, however, the Constitution is not on the side of smothering, no matter how well intentioned. The courts have blocked legislative attempts to control the content of everything children could conceivably be exposed to, from comic books and pulp paperbacks to movies and websites. This year, Massachusetts was forced to amend a law enacted last summer restricting access to Internet content that might be “harmful to minors.” U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel ruled the law a likely violation of the First Amendment. And this summer, the Supreme Court struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to anyone under 18, ruling that shielding children from depictions of violence did not justify an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are “grim indeed” and that graphic violence is depicted in such staples of high school English class as Dante’s Inferno and Lord of the Flies. Scalia wrote that “even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply.”

Yet the assaults on free expression keep coming.

The year began on a disturbing note when officials at Lexington High School canceled the production of a provocative play about the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School after parents objected to its violent content. It got worse this spring, when a band of culture warriors in Massachusetts targeted a public-health website for purportedly peddling smut to children (in the form of accurate and accessible medical information about sex and sexually transmitted diseases). It reached new lows in June, when a Westborough middle school teacher, Sarah Jordan, was forced to resign for showing a sanitized version of a rap video during a media-literacy class on sexist imagery.

Illustration by Shout