Parents Gone Wild!

From suburbanites raging about crude rap lyrics to our censorious mayor simmering over sophomoric T-shirts—all in the name of protecting kids—adults in Massachusetts are hurting the very people they claim to be looking out for.

parents gone wild

Illustration by Shout

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.

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.

These adult assaults on intellectual inquiry demonstrate an absence of the same critical-thinking skills Jordan was trying to teach her seventh graders.

It was not enough that she muted the sound and showed an edited version that blurred and deleted the most sexually explicit scenes in Eminem’s “Superman” video. Seeking an explanation, an unhinged parent went not to the teacher or to the principal or to the superintendent of schools. He went straight to the local police, demanding a criminal investigation.

Which party here lost all perspective?

Jordan was a real-life victim of the same sort of hysteria directed at a cartoon character featured on the website Maria Talks (mariatalks.com), which is maintained by the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and funded by the state Department of Public Health. In frank and colloquial language, “Maria” provides user-friendly answers to common adolescent questions about sexual health. State Representative Elizabeth Poirier, a North Attleboro Republican, found the language “disgusting,” which says less about the website’s word choices than about the lawmaker’s unfamiliarity with common teenage slang. And Massachusetts Citizens for Life getting outraged about the site’s acknowledgment of abortion as a legal option in the event of an unplanned pregnancy says less about the accuracy of the information provided than about the anti-abortion movement’s refusal to accept the constitutionality of a woman’s full range of reproductive choices. To his credit, Governor Deval Patrick resisted calls by critics, including the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, to shut down the site.

All of these cases reflect a degree of denial about the number and variety of media images young people see and hear every day. Children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours consuming media in a typical day, according to a recent national survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Because they so often use more than one electronic device at a time, they can fit almost 11 hours of content into that time period. And yet the same survey found that only about a third of children say there are any household rules governing their use of the TV, video games, or the computer.

Our children’s laptops, cell phones, digital music devices, video-gaming systems, and TV screens indiscriminately serve up the profane alongside the profound. The rapper Nelly swiping a credit card along a nearly naked woman’s backside on MTV. The New York Philharmonic on PBS. The Gap advertising string bikinis for toddlers online. The “It Gets Better” antisuicide campaign supporting gay teenagers on YouTube. It is sheer hypocrisy for parents to castigate teachers for examining controversial cultural images in an educational setting while exercising so little supervision at home. It is rank negligence not to teach children how to negotiate their way through so vast a media minefield.

Shielding them assumes they cannot learn to distinguish between a moral directive to “get high” and a cynical marketing campaign by a sports apparel company, to recognize the difference between pornography and sex education, to differentiate between gratuitous video-game violence and a stage play that explores the grim realities of one of the nation’s worst school shootings.

If children never learn to make those distinctions it will be precisely because the misguided adults in their lives have chased teachers like Sarah Jordan from their classrooms, plays like Columbinus from their high school auditoriums, and harmless T-shirts from their favorite stores.

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