My twelve-year-old daughter is a huge Marvel fan. She can’t wait for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But we have a problem in our own universe: The upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness has been billed as the MCU’s first horror film. My wife has said my daughter won’t go to see it. My take, however, is to wait and see what the trailers and reviews say before deciding.
We have a year to figure this out.
This is a challenge because my wife and I come from different backgrounds. My wife grew up knowing only a small black-and-white television until her high school years. She never watched much science fiction or fantasy. However, I grew up with very few boundaries, and definitely watched things I shouldn’t have as a child. I was also always enamored with Star Wars, superheroes, and other fantastical stories.
If you’re married, what do you do if your partner comes from a different viewpoint?
What if one marriage partner enjoys a variety of stories, while the other was taught that some stories are to be avoided?
As Christian parents, we must especially face the question: how do we handle our family’s pursuit of popular culture and entertainment as our kids grow?
We might hope that a couple will have strong communication skills, a shared interest or background in speculative stories, and a commitment to using discernment regarding pop culture.
However, this isn’t always the case.
For example, consider the Harry Potter universe. Were you taught that the books and movies encouraged witchcraft and should be shunned. Or did you grow up as a fan of this series as enjoyable stories set in an imaginative world? How should a Christian couple navigate these issues?
I propose we first look at Biblical principles, and only then consider practical applications.
Agreeing on mutual respect
As you’re responding as parents to your family’s pop culture pursuits, keep in mind Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This verse sets the context for the rest of chapter 5 about wives and husbands. It’s is the key verse of how to respond to each other in marriage.
If you and your spouse disagree about, say, whether a show or game is appropriate for their kids, sometimes you must make a split decision. But if you have mutual submission and respect for each other, as Paul commands, that’s a solid foundation you can build upon.
If my wife has concerns, I need to hear her out and seriously consider them, and she needs to do the same with my concerns.
For example, one day my boys, between ages six and eight, were playing the video game Spider-Man 2 on our Xbox. My wife pulled me aside and shared her concerns. She didn’t like the game’s violence.
We talked about how they had also played Star Wars games. Why hadn’t she said anything then? It turned out she was uncomfortable with the sights of Spider-Man beating up normal-looking people. To her, this encouraged violence toward others. However, the Star Wars game battles took place between faceless stormtroopers, random battle droids, or nonhuman aliens. We were able to compromise with that distinction. Star Wars games were okay, and for the time, Spider-Man 2 was out.
We had different perspectives, but we listened to each other’s concerns. I could continue to share my love of video games and Star Wars with my boys, while she felt validated after I considered her viewpoint. I didn’t fully agree with her point. But this was a time to find compromise instead of finding points of contention.
As our marriage has progressed, I’ve learned a few things. My wife had seen real violence and it impacts her. Meanwhile, I’ve had to help her understand being male, since she only had sisters. With deeper understanding, we’ve discussed boundaries with our kids and evolved as they grew older and we understood each other better.
Finding ways to work together, not against each other
After you as a parent commit to mutual respect, you can find practical ways to disciple children in media discernment.
First, consider not just a story’s age-appropriateness, but your kids’ temperament.
For instance, three-year-old kids probably shouldn’t be watching The Lord of the Rings films. These are rated PG-13 in the United States, and movie ratings can be a tool to guide when kids are ready for certain forms of popular culture. Yet a child old enough for certain movies or stories may still not have the temperament to handle these. For example, in 2008, we took our older boys to see The Spiderwick Chronicles, a PG-rated fantasy film. In theory, this would have been age-appropriate for them, but the story about a struggling family besieged by forest goblins proved too spooky for our kids! I ended up leaving the theater early with my boys crying.
Second, communicate your discernment reasons as clearly as possible to your kids.
For instance, if parents don’t want their kids partaking in Harry Potter stories, this is a teaching moment. When your kids ask why, don’t just reply “Because I said so,” or “Because it’s witchcraft.” Kids will hear much more about popular culture from their friends, the internet, and other sources. If later in life they learn more about a story, they could conclude the reason wasn’t reasonable, and lose trust in their parents.
Stay sympathetic to your children’s needs
It’s an important principle to be consistent. I polled some friends about this topic in a Christian speculative fiction writing group. Some replied with repeated frustration about their own parents’ lack of consistency. They’d grown up with rules that seemed arbitrary, harsh, or unexplained. A few people longed for guidance so they could learn to make good decisions for themselves, but felt that failures in their parents’ communication along with the inconsistency created confusion.
What do you do when your kids are with friends, or are otherwise out from under your umbrella? In the same writers’ group, some people shared how they had attended a party and sat by themselves while all their friends watched a movie that was off limits. That was a hard place to be as a young teen.
One woman, however, shared how she called home from a sleepover when the kids began watching a forbidden movie. The father, instead of putting his daughter in an awkward position, said she could watch it and they would discuss things when she got home. This response shows a lovely aspect of grace. If kids know they can go to their parents in challenging situations, it strengthens relationships and builds trust.
Kids will be exposed to popular culture through friends, the internet, and the world in general. We don’t do things as parents just because the world does them. Instead, we must teach our kids about such cultural works because our kids will encounter them at some point. You can even engage pop culture and find inspiration to build relationships with your neighbors, as I argue in this previous article about seeing spiritual themes in superhero stories.
Any parent knows to expect innumerable minefields in popular culture. Hopefully, if you’re a fan of fantastic stories and want to guide your children in discernment and wisdom, you’ll have a spouse who shares your perspectives—if not in your exact background with popular culture, then in the gospel of our own Hero.