Most parents are concerned about how much television their kids watch. Bad parents, we all know, simply set their kids in front of the TV all day, never considering what their kids are watching or what the incessantly shifting images are doing to their kids’ brains. But the rest of us fall into two groups: (1) those who strictly ration “screen time,” preferring their kids entertain themselves in the good old-fashioned ways, and (2) those who allow their kids to watch multiple hours of television or movies in a given day. Those in the second group often feel guilty about letting their kids watch TV. But I don’t think they should.
Now, I’m not saying that we should turn the television into a babysitter (or a parent!). Nor am I suggesting that we should let our kids watch whatever they want, or whatever comes on the screen (may it never be!). But here’s what I am saying:
My daughters (3 and 5 years old) have watched a lot of movies in their short lives. We definitely limit the amount of time they spend in front of a screen, and we are very careful about the content they’re exposed to at this age. However, I am very glad our girls are movie watchers.
I’ll start my explanation with an example. I recently watched How to Train Your Dragon 2 with my daughters. (Spoiler alert!) In the movie, Hiccup’s father dies by throwing himself in front of dragon fire to save his son. I paused the movie to ask my five-year-old if she noticed that Hiccup’s daddy died to save his son. I think the concept registered to some extent, but we kept watching the movie. Then I asked her, “Will Hiccup be able to see his daddy again?” She thought for a minute and said, “Yes.” When I asked her why she said, “Because of Jesus.” “Yes, sweetie!” I said. “If they know Jesus, Hiccup will see his daddy again. He will miss his daddy very much, but one day, they will see each other again and they’ll be so happy.”
Later in the movie, Toothless (Hiccup’s dragon) and Hiccup get literally entombed in ice by the evil dragon. Everyone gasps because they’re dead in the tomb. But then Toothless gains some new form of life that makes him glow, and he explodes the ice-tomb and defeats the evil dragon. So I asked my daughters, “Who else do we know that was dead and came back to life again?” Both girls knew the answer: “Jesus!” “That’s right!” I said. “Why did Jesus come back to life?” They’ve both known the answer to this one from our Easter conversations: “Because Jesus doesn’t stay dead!” And we continued watching the movie, sprinkling in a bit of theology here or there.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the filmmakers wanted us to have this conversation. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not brought to you by the people who made God’s Not Dead or Fireproof. But those theological concepts are there, embedded in the movie. Actually, these theological concepts are the reason why this movie is so compelling. So I talked about them with my girls. And I believe that these concepts are that much more understandable to young kids (and to human beings in general) because they were embedded in a story. That’s how incarnation works. I do at times try to talk to my daughters about death or resurrection or the power of God, and I think these conversations are beneficial. But there is a special power of understanding available to us when we see these concepts played out in compelling stories.
One day my five-year-old told me, “Daddy, why are kings mean?” “Um, why do you think kings are mean?” I asked. As it turns out, she had been watching the “evil” king on Doc McStuffins. This turned into a great conversation about how many kings are mean because they want to use their power to get what they want. Then I asked her who the best king in the world is, helping her understand that Jesus is the best king. This theological softball was lobbed to us by Doc McStuffins, so my daughter and I took a swing.
I want my daughters to be able to play in the “real world.” I want them to run and sweat and learn to play well with others. So we are careful to do all of those things. But I also want their heads filled with stories. I want to them immersed in tales of bravery, in examples of fear and how it’s overcome, in explorations of good and evil, in stories of true friendship and sacrifice. Sure, Doc McStuffins is not Pilgrim’s Progress, but it orients them to many important concepts, and my wife and I simply do our best to help them process these concepts in biblical ways. There are many shows or movies we won’t let our daughters watch at this stage because we feel they promote disrespect or trivialize violence, but we’ve had great conversations about Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, you name it.
So by all means, follow your parenting instincts and don’t waste your kids’ childhood in front of a screen. But when you do turn on the TV for your kids, don’t let yourself feel like a failure as a parent. Just view it as an opportunity to teach them about God and the world and the people that he made. You may never get opportunities this good to talk with them about the things that really matter.