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Confessions of a Failed Parent

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I LET THEM WATCH R-RATED MOVIES

For years we sailed along innocently with "The Land Before Time." The boys went into a Scooby-Doo phase. We rented John Candy movies. We rented my all-time favorite, "Airplane." We did The Pink Panther. We escaped, largely unscathed, with vintage James Bond--fun action, no blood and guts. The double entendre sex jokes went over their heads and the occasional lip-lock was met with the boys' usual reaction to kissing: They covered their eyes and cried, "Awkward!" I dutifully avoided the newer Bond, the likes of "Casino Royale" where Bond gets strapped bare-assed in a torture chair, but violence was becoming harder to avoid. I bought time retreating to comedies, but attempts to relive the hilarious films of my youth, such as "Mister Hulot's Holiday," were met with the anguished wail, "It's in black and white."
Woody Allen? I'd forgotten the sexual innuendo in "Bananas." "Caddyshack"? More crude humor. Comedy began to seem more problematic than...action. I bought time with John Ford westerns, until there came the day when I found the perfect mix of harmless action and fun comedy.
"You let them watch 'Beverly Hills Cop'?" demanded my outraged wife. "Did you happen to notice the rating?"
I reminded my wife that it was she who'd rented the family-chestnut, "Old Yeller," which ended with the agonizing death of a family pet. I defended violence on film as, well, not really so bad.
I actually believed this. Of course there was too much violence in the world. Terrorists bombed innocent civilians. Religious strife tore apart countries. Mexican drug lords performed unspeakable acts on rivals. All of this was bad--very bad. But how much was due to R-rated movies?
My wife rolled her eyes. "Did you listen to what they were saying? Did you hear the bad language?"
I ask you: how bad is bad language? I asked my wife: Wasn't it better they hear bad words in the context of our home where we could, well, tell them not to use them?
"I don't hear you saying anything," she pointed out, quite correctly.
These disputes escalated when the boys began to shun movies in favor of video games. I'm sure you know the problem with video games: the good ones, the ones that sell forty million copies in the first twenty-four hours, are unspeakably violent. True, there's Sims--a wonderful made-up world that teaches architecture and energy efficiency. There are the sports games--soccer, football, racing. There's the WII--you can bowl and play tennis! But none of these satisfy the Y-gene lust for action like aiming an AK-47 and blasting the enemy to bloody bits.
Already I had ceded the high ground by permitting one of the boys to watch the Military Channel ("That's a head shot from two thousand yards, Jim."). Now the other--the quiet one who shuns McDonald's for a "healthy" Subway--lobbied for Grand Theft Auto. "The hero is fighting the drug dealers," he explained.
His campaign was relentless, and eventually, inevitably, I gave in to the following logic:
If they don't play it here, they'll play it at one of their friend's. This will make them feel it's okay to do something somewhere else that's taboo at home. It will create a double standard. It will mean my wife and I can't supervise them (whatever that means) when they do play. They will stop feeling comfortable bringing friends home. They will seek increasingly lawless pursuits outside the home. We will have lost them.
And so I bought GTA III and Halo, both rated M (mature audiences only) for violence, gore and language. To appease my wife, I trotted out The New York Times review of Grand Theft Auto extolling the game's miraculous graphics. She told me it was time to cancel our subscription. The rest of what she said was rated M.
Do violent movies and video games encourage boys--and this is all about boys--to be violent in real life? Prepared to hear the worst, I contacted Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian morals watchdog. A helpful person in media relations referred me to the group's extensive website, where the article "Violence in the Media" began with the tale of a pre-teen who bound his sister to a chair and cut her with a knife while Eminem droned, "I strangled you to death then I choked you again..."
Two more shockers followed. But then a reasonable view was sounded. Most kids would not be so susceptible. Media violence was only one factor. Family and environment counted. But as the article went on, it was clear where we were headed: why risk this poisonous influence when we could be filling their heads with joy and benevolence? I had no good answer, except that they really liked violent video games whereas joy and benevolence were boring.
I will say one thing for M-rated video games. My fears of a West Point future are gone, because my son no longer watches the Military Channel.

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(This is the second in a series, Confessions of a Failed Parent, by Jonathan Black)