Friday 24 July 2009

Children and Innocence

The following is a guest post from Greg Thiele who attends Petersham Baptist Church and is an Associate of CASE

A (Christian) friend of ours recently told us that for his son’s upcoming eleventh birthday, he is planning to take the boy and some friends to see an M-rated movie. We were surprised, to say the least: it is not so very long ago that we cautiously started allowing our children (ten and eight) to watch selected PG films.

What is wrong, one might ask, with an eleven-year-old (or an eight-year-old, for that matter) watching an M-rated movie? Are my wife and I too conservative? If most parents allow their children to do it, can there be anything wrong with it?

The first part of my answer lies in the guidelines for movie classifications themselves. According to advice from the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department (here), films classified “M” are “not recommended for persons under 15 years of age”. Certainly, films with a given rating can vary greatly in their content and potential impact: but this rubs both ways. PG films, for instance, which apparently are regarded as innocuous by the great majority of parents (judging by the ages at which many children start watching them) can range from very mild, with perhaps one or two moments that, say, a six-year might find frightening ('The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is a good example of this), right through to films that are aimed principally at an adult audience and contain commensurately adult themes, and are therefore fundamentally unsuitable for children (this is going back a bit, but 'Drop Dead Fred' is an example of this latter kind that I am familiar with).

One of the concerns with PG films is that the term “Parental Guidance” is probably not clearly understood by some parents. The idea is not that all PG films are OK for children to watch as long as their parents watch along with them, and explain any confronting bits. Rather, it is that parents should exercise good judgement in deciding whether the film is suitable for their children in the first place (if necessary, by watching it first themselves, or at least having a very clear idea of the content). Perhaps “PD” (Parental Discretion) might be a more helpful term. Whatever the ages of their children, this is an area where parents need to exercise considerable care and wisdom.

The main concern is that children might be confronted with images or concepts which they do not have the ability to process or understand; and having a parent sitting alongside them will not necessarily have an ameliorating effect: my wife tells of a shocking image from a film she saw as a young child, in the company of her parents, which has stayed with her all her life. The effects of being exposed to such images might not be immediately apparent.

The tendency for children to be allowed (or even encouraged!) to watch films containing material they might not be mature enough to comprehend or otherwise process constitutes an aspect of the trend in contemporary society for children to be “pushed on” to the next age level in their thinking and habits. This is particularly evident in the case of young girls (so-called “pre-teens”) – a matter about which there has already been considerable debate. As parents of a ten-year-old girl, we experience the resisting of this trend as a constant battle: so often, it seems, children are encouraged to act/think/look in ways which, a couple of generations ago, would have been appropriate for children at least a couple of years older.

What is driving these changes? To suggest that the agenda is purely commercial seems simplistic; yet there is probably some truth in it: the more aware, savvy and (ostensibly) mature a child is, the more sophisticated (and expensive) will be the “toys” they will be in the market for, and the greater will be the gains for those manufacturing and selling (not to mention advertising and marketing) those commodities. Role models in the entertainment industries also probably play a part in encouraging children to look and act older than their age: and the kind of access today’s children have to images of celebrities via computers, DVDs and mobile phones was not yet even in the realm of fantasy when I was growing up 40-odd years ago.

Why, as a society, do we seem to find it difficult to let children be children: to grow up at their own pace, as it were? There is no easy answer. Perhaps it boils down to a question of innocence, and how we are to understand it. The bible does not have a sentimental attitude towards children: they are clearly represented as being implicated in the essential loss of human innocence that occurred at the Fall: “Surely I was sinful at birth”, writes the psalmist, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Yet it is possible to set alongside that truth a sense in which children are innocent – unversed in the ways of the world – and therefore in need of our protection.

Scripture clearly points out that children are a blessing from God, to be welcomed, as Jesus commanded us (Mark 9:36-37). We are to love our children - with compassion and tenderness (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11,12; Psalm 103:13) - and provide them with the good things of God’s good creation (Luke 11:13).

Part of our duty of love and care towards our children consists in protecting them from influences that have power to harm them: whether from commercial interests that would see children as just another commodity to be exploited; or from societal influences that are less easy to define or understand, but no less dangerous for that.

Photo credit - Google Images


Timaahy said...

"The main concern [with PG films] is that children might be confronted with images or concepts which they do not have the ability to process or understand."

I think this "concern" is a little hypocritical. The religious expose their children to a multitude of concepts that they do not have the ability to process or understand. To cite just some Christian examples: the origin of the universe, the trinity, god made man, resurrection, heaven, hell and transubstantiation. These are concepts that are still being debated by theologians, so how on earth is a child meant to understand.

You also mention a scene from a movie that your wife saw as a child, that still affects her to this day. How many young children do you think have been terrified by promises of eternal damnation from trusted authority figures?

At least movies admit that they're fictitious.

gregt said...

Hi Timaahy,
Thanks for your response. It’s possible I didn’t make myself clear in my original post, so I’ll endeavour to do so now.
By “images or concepts (children) do not have the ability to process or understand”, I was referring to matter that might have the potential to do them emotional or psychological harm (such as the image my wife was exposed to, which, as it happens, involved explicit and erotically-charged full-frontal nudity). Most of the subjects you mention as being potentially inappropriate for children do not, as far as I can see, have the potential to do harm – or at least not inherently.
The one exception, of course, is hell. As it happens, my wife and I aren’t given to regaling our children with lurid depictions of the torments of the damned, for the simple reason that to do so would probably be frightening and unhelpful (and while I can’t speak for all Christian parents, I suspect most view this matter similarly). As a Christian, I believe that children ought to be made aware of matters such as sin, redemption and the consequences of rejecting God’s kingship – but only in a manner that is loving, sensitive and age-appropriate. I would add that the problem with young children being frightened by “promises of eternal damnation” is that it is not appropriate – not that it isn’t true. As a Christian, I believe that hell is real, and to pretend that it isn’t real would be the very opposite of loving.
It’s really about allowing children to be exposed to more sophisticated, or “difficult”, concepts in an age- and stage-appropriate manner…which is where I came in with this post.
Hope this helps.


Timaahy said...

Thanks for your response. I have a few further comments.
My point was that exposing children to complex theological issues is just as inappropriate as exposing children to violent or sexually explicit movies. The effects of the former may not be as immediately obvious (children are unlikely to have nightmares about transubstantiation), but the ultimate cost has the potential to be far greater.
You present a Christian world-view to your children because you are Christian. And, in turn, there is a high probability that you are Christian because your parents are. Very few people choose their religion based on an unbiased appraisal of all the available options. Almost everyone just follows the religion of their parents.
You will obviously not believe this, but there is a chance that Christianity is simply false. It may be that Islam is the “true” faith. Or perhaps Judaism, or any of the other thousands of religions that mankind has invented over the years. Or (and I would suggest this is the most likely scenario) it may be that there is no god at all. But the point is that, if there is a god, only one religion can be “right”, which means that if either Christianity or Islam is true, about a billion of the world’s current inhabitants are going straight to hell, simply because they are following the religion their parents told them to. When viewed from this perspective, and again assuming that either Christianity or Islam is true, isn’t it dangerous to just follow the religion of your parents? Wouldn’t it be “safer” to investigate all the available evidence, and choose your religion based on that? I’m sure lots of Christians have looked into the evidence for Christianity and satisfied themselves that their religion is the one “true” faith, but, again, Muslims have done the same, and reached the same conclusion about Islam. This is simply a case of starting with a conclusion and looking for evidence to justify it – a dangerous way to make decisions.
So, I would argue that, if there is a god, it is dangerous to teach children complex Christian (or Islamic) ideas, and much more beneficial to teach them how to analyse evidence, and apply reason to their decisions. And yes, the two are mutually exclusive.

Greg T said...

Hi Timaahy,

Thanks for the response.

Hmmm, I think we might have strayed a little from the topic of children and movies, but I’ll try to respond to some of your points!

Firstly, I have to question your view that “almost everyone just follows the religion of their parents”. I don’t feel qualified to speak about other religions; but as far as Christianity is concerned, for the point to be meaningful, I think there would have to be practically no Christians who were not brought up as Christians – which is demonstrably untrue. Sure, we find that a lot of Christians had believing parents; but a lot didn’t (most of the 70-odd million Christians in China, for instance). Many Christians are converts from other religions. Some of the most faithful Christians I know were brought up in non-Christian homes (either unbelieving or of other faiths). On the other hand, not all children follow the faith of their parents, so if it’s a form of brainwashing, it doesn’t work very well.

I agree that ‘if there is a god, only one religion can be “right”’. As to your view that therefore”about a billion of the world’s current inhabitants are going straight to hell”, I think the issue is probably more complex. From a Christian perspective (which, once again, is the only one I can give), who will and will not be saved is something that God gives us little specific information about - at an individual level, at least. Ultimately, it is up to him. One of the key elements of Christianity, one that is not well understood, is that anyone who is saved, is saved by God’s grace – not, strictly speaking, but anything we do, or can do (Ephesians 2:8,9). This, by the way, makes Christianity unique among the major religions, as far as I am aware: there is a real sense in which it is not just another religion, which tend to be “works” based.

I think in heaven there will be a lot of surprises concerning who is there, and who is not. One thing I am confident of is that God will be completely just in his dealings with people, because that’s the way he is portrayed in the bible. Personally I am immensely grateful for the mercy God has shown me in revealing himself to me in a way that is comprehensible and incites faith in him. It is likely that in one way or another he shows the same kind of mercy to everyone.

(To be continued)

Greg T said...

(Conclusion of previous post)

People come to faith in all kinds of ways. For some it is (at least initially) an intellectual process: it has to make sense at a “head” level; others find that the Christian message simply “rings true” when set against the facts of earthly existence and human nature; some people are struck by a moment of illumination, and find themselves believing almost in spite of what seems to be the evidence; others go to bed one night mocking Christians and their religion, then wake the next morning to find themselves experiencing an overpowering urge to receive God’s love and forgiveness; people in non-Christian cultures have had dreams of the Cross; etc. I suspect that for each individual there is a “way into faith”, and that God’s expectation is that we will take that way, at some point.

Returning to the question of what parents tell their children concerning their religious beliefs, I think the key question is not “is it potentially harmful?”, but “is it true?”. Part of the reason I am a Christian is that I have analysed a number of other religions and found that Christianity makes more sense. As children grow older, they can investigate such matters for themselves. When they are young, however, that is not a realistic option. Those who have been raised in other religious traditions will teach their children concerning their own beliefs; and I will do the same with mine. Given what I believe to be at stake, not to do so would be irresponsible.

Up to a point, there is nothing wrong with your suggestion that people ought to examine all the evidence and choose their religion based on that. Personally, I would be delighted if people did so, because almost anything would be better than the kind of indifference we mostly see in the West! We need to remember, however, that if (as I believe) the God of the bible exists, it is ultimately not a question of purely rational processes, as if he were sitting in heaven waiting for us to work out that he exists and therefore believe in him. His expectation is that we will respond to him in faith, based on his revelation of himself. These are complex and difficult questions; but a whole lot of things start to make more sense once one has come to faith and started to understand God’s character and purposes as revealed in the bible.



Timaahy said...

Hi Greg,

I don't think we strayed from your original post at all. In fact I think our discussion exactly highlights my point - that teaching religion to children is just as inappropriate as showing them violent or sexually explicit movies. Each will contain concepts that children of a certain age will not be able to understand.

With regards to your other points...

Obviously there will be Christians whose parents weren't Christians, and people in other religions whose parents were Christians. But you cannot deny that most people follow the religion of their parents. You said it yourself - "Those who have been raised in other religious traditions will teach their children concerning their own beliefs; and I will do the same with mine."

You seem to suggest that Christianity teaches that you don't have to be Christian to go to Heaven...? Didn't Jesus say "No one comes to the father, except through me"?

I'm not sure you can say that God is portrayed as "completely just" in the Bible, but if we get into that then we really will be off topic. :-)

I thought the point of your original blog post was that the key question was indeed "is it harmful?", not "is it true?". If the key question was truth, we would have no problem with showing children movies about war and rape and drugs, because these are things that happen in the real world.

In terms of religion, the problem with saying that the key question is truth is that lots of people disagree on what the "truth" is. And this is what I was getting at in my previous post. A few billion people are dead wrong, and are passing the wrong religion on to their children as we speak.

Belief in God MUST be a result of rational processes. Otherwise, how do you make the leap of faith to the Christian God instead of Allah?

These are indeed "complex and difficult questions" - and certainly not suitable for children.

Greg T said...

Hi Timaahy,

Thanks once again for your comments, but I fear we may be mostly going over old ground now. Nevertheless, I’ll try to respond to some of your points.
Whether the simple statement “most people follow the religion of their parents” is strictly true or not, I will leave to those with a bent for statistics: I really don’t know. I’m not disputing that it is very often the case; however, there are so many exceptions, that as a blanket statement it is practically meaningless. For instance, I suspect that it is no truer or more useful than statements such as “Australians like sport”, or “Americans are patriotic”.
As for the question of who will and won’t go to heaven, Jesus did say “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Nevertheless, I think it is a simplification of the bible’s message to see all adherents of religions other than Christianity as being automatically and eternally excluded from God’s love and mercy.
The bible makes it very clear that no one can be saved apart from Christ, but what that means in practice for people who haven’t heard of Jesus is something it is difficult to be dogmatic about. There are certain hints that God will take into account a person’s individual circumstances (Luke 12:48, for instance). Whatever provision God will or won’t make for those who haven’t heard of Jesus, however, it is clear that the outlook is bleak for those who have specifically rejected Christ.
I agree that the question of divine justice is too weighty to go into here, so I will leave it alone!
I think you misunderstand my use of the notions of harmfulness and truthfulness. I have been suggesting that truth is the ultimate criterion when dealing with matters of eternal importance, due to what is potentially at stake. When it comes to deciding which films to allow children to watch, however, harm minimisation is the issue, for the simple reason that exposing children to concepts in films that might be frightening or otherwise unsuitable is going to do them no earthly (or heavenly!) good. I think I’ve said much the same thing two or three times now, so if I’m still not making myself clear, we might have to agree to disagree on this one.
I agree that rational processes can (and frequently do) form part of the process by which a person comes to faith. This is certainly true of Christianity, since so many of its fundamental tenets are based heavily on matters that can be the subject of historical and other investigation. My point is that rational processes are ultimately limited when dealing with a being such as the God of the bible, because he has the power to reveal himself in the way, and to the extent, that he chooses (which, in a nutshell, is why atheism doesn’t work as an epistemological system). For reason to be the ultimate criterion for establishing truth, it seems that there would have to be some “higher authority” determining that that is so; otherwise I would suggest that to believe that “reason is king”, is merely another faith position. Actually, I believe there is a higher authority, but He seems to place greater emphasis on faith than on reason (“We (Christians) live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)). It is ultimately a question of an individual having a childlike faith in God as he has revealed himself, rather than the use of reason pure and simple.



Timaahy said...


I suspect you are growing weary of my comments, so happy to leave it there. Unfortunately these misunderstandings are inevitable when faith and reason collide!

Thanks very much for taking the time to respond. I really enjoy trying to see things from the "other side", even if I'm not very successful.

I look forward to reading some more of your posts in the future.


Greg T said...

Hi Timaahy,

Thanks for your contributions on this topic.
I think it would be a boring blog where everyone agreed all the time, so please continue to give the perspective from the "other side"!

Kind regards,