There was a time when it was easier to protect children from stimuli and information they were not ready to handle. There was much less of it around, for one thing. Now it seems to sneak in from every direction. Also, in the past there seemed to be a greater consensus than there is now among adults about what children should be exposed to — and what they should be protected from.

Parents differ in their judgments about the appropriateness of particular movies, videos and video games. The greater availability, and even intrusion, of what some consider inappropriate content, coupled with the variety of views among parents about what is appropriate and what is not, combine to create a complicated issue for parents who wish to protect their children from being overstimulated, overwhelmed or confused. Here are some reflections on handling this parenting challenge.

Be your child’s advocate: Parents can be uncomfortable to ask the parents of another child what their own son or daughter might be exposed to in this home they are visiting. Fortunately, parents will know some families well enough that they don’t need to ask the question. Inquiring can be awkward, and might not always be well received, but this is one of those times that requires parents to rise above any natural tendencies to avoid the unpleasant potential of the conversation.

Parents should ask the hard questions, unapologetically. If they get answers that concern them, the visiting and home parent can develop a plan that sufficiently accommodates the visiting parents wishes so they can feel comfortable allowing their child to visit. If the visiting parent does not feel confident in the plan, they should consider not allowing the visit. Their child may be upset, but his or her parent is acting in the child’s interest and on the behalf of their family’s values. In the long run, the child-parent relationship will be strengthened by the parental commitment to follow through with the implication of these values.

Parental power is limited:
All parents wish they could protect their children from disturbances, small and large. Sometimes parental frustration over their own limitations can lead to overreactions. The likelihood is that for every situation that a parent learns about in which their child has been exposed to something that they consider inappropriate, there are probably others that occur at school or in other homes that they do not find out about. It helps to keep cool about situations that develop in which a child has been exposed to something that disturbs a parent. After all, the cow is already out of the barn.

Positive steps to take with your child: Parents should help their children understand why their parents believe they should not be exposed to certain things. For example, the following guidance suggests ways to address certain aspects of exposure to sexuality and violence.

With regard to sexuality, the parental challenge is to protect children from content that is confusing or overstimulating without conveying that sexuality — or their childhood curiosities and excitements about sexuality — are wrong. In a way that seems right for a particular parent, he or she should explain to a child that they understand that they might be interested in learning more about sex. Parents may want to simply answer questions in a developmentally appropriate manner and convey an openness to future discussions. This is just one possible way to respond; addressing it this way may or may not be right for a particular parent and family. The important thing - whatever a parent says - is to dignify and respect their interest and curiosity and provide context for the family’s values.

Explanations about parental limits regarding exposure to violence are similar in some ways. Parents can acknowledge that violence has its attractions, if their children indeed are interested. They may think it is cool or fun. Parents can simply say that they want them to learn that violence is not a good thing and, depending upon their values, either that it never has a place or only has a place in emergency situations, such as war. Violent video games or movies confuse children about how wrong violence really is.

If parents watch videos with violent content, they have a bit more of a challenge, but could say that grown-ups have learned to watch violent movies without getting confused about violence, and that children can watch them when they are older. The language about confusion can also be used to explain limits about sexuality.

If parents keep their cool – and provide respectful explanations for their limits and for their children’s interest — their children are much more likely to come to them when they have been exposed to something that is beyond the family boundaries or with something that confuses or upsets them. Since children will ultimately be exposed to many things that parents wish they wouldn’t be, the most important task is to keep open communication with so that children will turn to parents for help with what they do experience and learn.

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