Why I'm Relaxed About Censoring What My Kids Watch and Listen To

Toby Hazlewood
Am I irresponsible? Do I really have a choice?
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Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

Asa child I remember my dad objecting to the amount of bad language in certain movies and TV shows. I never really understood why.

By my teenage reasoning, while he might be offended by bad language, why was it worse if a movie was littered with ‘F words’ or if there were just a couple of them? I presume my dad was doing what he felt was right in shielding his kids from excessive bad-language.

I’m now a parent myself with an adult child, two teenagers and a tween that I’m at least partially responsible for raising. I find myself wrestling with the same dilemmas as my parents did over censoring the content that my kids access.

Dare I say it, the challenge seems a little harder than it might have been back then?

When we used to watch a movie as a family it was selected from the four TV channels we had access to. Occasionally we’d rent a movie from the local library but it was difficult to reach consensus on a movie as a family of four.

These days we have a satellite TV service, streaming movies on demand, Netflix and everything that YouTube has to offer.

My music collection as a teenager was made up of whatever CDs and cassettes I could afford to buy, trade or bootleg from friends. Nowadays we have a family Spotify account with access to as much music as exists.

The challenges of restricting access to that lot, to weed out that which is suitable for general consumption, free of excessive swearing, violence and other indecency seem insurmountable.

I’m a embarrassed to admit that I’ve largely given up on trying. I realise it’s defeatist, but where do you even begin with policing access to that?

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The challenges of censoring and restricting access

The simple answer is that it’s impossible unless you’re willing to be SUPER vigilant to the extent that you cut your kids off from virtually every online service possible. Content filters, safe modes and the like are fine in principle. I’m certain though that each can be circumvented by a determined teen who wants to hear the latest song or watch the movie that their (less-restricted) friends are talking about.

We choose instead to rely on our kids upbringing and the strength of the values with which they’ve been raised, in the hope they’ll be self-regulating. We trust in their commitment to meet our expectations of behaviour, their decency and their inherent knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Maybe you think we’re misguided?

I assume my kids use bad language occasionally when they’re with their friends — I know that I did as a teen. It doesn’t mean I like or endorse it now I’m the parent. When my adult daughter occasionally swears, it makes me wince and I instinctively chastise her for it. It happens nonetheless.

My kids aren’t perfect or saintly, but they know right from wrong and I’ve yet to be called into school in response to any of them having any outbursts of swearing.

They know that we have high expectations of them and their conduct both in and out of our home. They understand that the freedoms we grant them come with a weight of expectation. If they mess up, privileges will be swiftly revoked (and are, often).

I’m occasionally prone to cursing, myself too — that doesn’t excuse anything but it’d be hypocritical if I adopted a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. I also think that societal standards have relaxed slightly in recent years and I’ve even heard my parents use the F word on very rare occasions.

Movie classification has undoubtedly relaxed too over the years. Films that in my youth would have been rated R (or suitable only for aged 18 and over here in the UK) are now deemed suitable for much younger audiences.

Perhaps that’s a sign of the times?

That we’re becoming desensitised to foul language, violence and sexual content in film and TV isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I’m not sure it’s as big a deal as some make out. I certainly don’t feel it’s the greatest ill in society today. If it’s our reality then as parents we need to prepare our kids to adapt to it.

In my day

As a teenager I usually found ways around censorship and restrictions to the things I watched and listened to if I was sufficiently determined. I borrowed video cassettes from friends so that I could watch movies like The Terminator that I might not otherwise have been allowed to watch.

I was a heavy metal fan and had no difficulty getting copies of albums by bands like Megadeth, Slayer, W.A.S.P. , Motley Crue and many others. The “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker was like a pre-requisite for any album having a place in my collection. I was a typical teenager doing what we all did, and I doubt things are much different today.

It’s interesting that such warning labels are directed at parents — as though it was assumed they have the ability to restrict what their kids listen to. It’s no easier now than it was then — virtually impossible.

I’m sure my parents knew much more about what I was up to than I care to admit. I’m sure they too relied upon my values and the upbringing they’d given me as a means of trusting I’d do the right thing and make the right choices most of the time.

I need only to look at the family playlist on Spotify, or the viewing profile on Netflix for each of my kids to see what they’re listening to and watching. Little has changed really, except that they have access to a vastly greater range of content as kids, and I have far greater access into what they’re consuming, as a parent.

Everyone else is doing it…

Most parents will be familiar with the argument presented by their kids, that because their peers are given certain privileges and freedoms that this should somehow justify them being given the same. I know that my response to such arguments is seldom to be persuaded — the case seems frail at best.

However, during my morning walk today I listened to an episode of the hilarious podcast ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life with Romesh Ranganathan’ and it served me a little bit of vindication that my approach to censorship may not be quite so outlandish. It featured an interview with journalist and documentary maker Louis Theroux who, it turns out is a fan of Hip Hop music.

During the conversation Theroux revealed that his kids musical choices now influence his listening. He shared that one of his current favourite tracks is "Kika" by Tekashi 6ix 9ine (hint: the audio is definitely NSFW!). You'll have to find out for yourself though as the video is no longer available on YouTube!

Putting aside my opinions of the track I’m reassured that someone as cerebral as Theroux has seemingly taken the same outlook as me towards what he allows his kids to listen to. I assume he’s as complicit as I am in providing access to such music. He’s presumably taken a similar view towards overlooking the offensive language within it.

This is certainly not to say it’s the right approach or the only approach, but it emphasises that we’re each as parents trying to find the best way of raising our kids, without having to rely solely on authority and edicts in order to help them navigate the modern world.

Principles for them to adopt

I want to foster an environment where they don’t feel a pressure to conceal what they’re doing from me. Equally I want to ensure that they’re respectful and self-regulating in how they go about it.

It’s not about giving unfettered freedom to watch and listen to whatever they want, when they want and to hell with the consequences. Instead, it’s about fostering an open and honest conversation with them about what they could access and what we as parents expect of them when they do so.

I’m not suggesting that ours is the right way, nor declaring apathy regarding the liberal use of questionable language littered throughout such music. I’m not here to vilify or endorse Hip Hop or any other genre of music for misogyny, racism, encouragement of drug usage or whatever else.

Perhaps by some parents’ standards I’m being a little too permissive in allowing my kids the freedoms that they have. In essence, I’m trying to raise them to take responsibility for regulating themselves and to be judicious about what they do and say in daily life, by first being judicious about the things that they take in.

The lasting effects

The approach that each parent adopts to giving their kids a childhood that is structured, happy, supportive and loving will vary from family-to-family. For every family that takes this approach towards controlling the content that their kids access, there will be those who are more strict and others who are even more liberal.

If it’s possible to draw out conclusions about the lasting effects of our approach for my own kids, as far as I can tell it has worked well. Certainly there have been no adverse effects that I can see — they are diligent, smart and accomplished in and out of school. They are regarded as polite and well-adjusted by all who they encounter.

I suspect this is because we endeavour as parents to do the best that we can by them in each and every aspect of their lives. We try and support them in their schooling, in spending their free time positively and productively, and in every positive way that we can. We try and guide them through the minefield of modern life, disciplining them where necessary and equipping them to deal with the challenges that come their way.

We don’t always get it right. We don’t always make the best decisions. But fundamentally, we do our best.

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