Best Friend or Best Parent?

Category: Weekly Columns

We just returned from a boys trip to Vegas.  By “boys,” I mean my two boys, who are almost 16 and 13 and me, the oldest of the “boys” (according to my wife).  I had to consider, yet again, the dilemma we confront as parents today, with the constant assault on our values and the non-stop sexual and violent imagery our kids face.  We can’t fully shelter our kids, but what should be the limits?

When my boys were very young, their mom (my ex-wife) showed them the R-rated movie, “Pretty Woman” on our VCR, because she thought it was okay for them to see it, as it was her favorite movie.  She felt they wouldn’t understand that the Julia Roberts character was a prostitute.  I didn’t object and I think that was the first R-rated movie either of them saw.

Now, on this trip to Vegas, I took David, my younger son, to see “The Hangover,” as Will had already seen it with friends (which begs the question, how did he get into an R-rated movie without an adult?).  He had my permission, so that isn’t the issue.  I thought seeing “The Hangover” in Vegas would be fun and sort of appropriate.  And, truthfully, we laughed loud and hard throughout much of the silliness.  I found it more heartfelt than many of the other raunchy R-rated movies of late, but it still left me with a nagging feeling of innocence being lost too quickly.  I’m still trying my best to preserve what little innocence I have left, as it’s clearly a lost cause with my boys.

Seriously, how often do I contribute to the problem because it’s easy or convenient to rationalize a situation?  I suspect way too much.  When Will was in first grade, we began watching the non R-rated James Bond movies—the older ones with Sean Connery, which really seem tame by today’s standards.  Shortly afterward, his teacher requested a parent conference and related that Will had begun a regular routine of acting out shooting other kids, mimicking James Bond from the movies we watched together.  I was stunned at my own naïve contribution to this minor, but not healthy, behavior.  Stopping the movies quickly stopped the bloodshed.  It was that easy.

I attended a parenting lecture by Dennis Prager, when I first became a dad, and there was substantial wisdom handed out at that event on these issues.  He compared and contrasted raising our kids today vs. when his parents raised him in the fifties.  In a nutshell, he said that his parents did not have to worry about what he was taught at school, what he’d see in movie theaters, listen to on radio or records, or be concerned about pretty much anything he read.  They knew their religious values would not be challenged at his public school. Their pride in America would be honored by not only the Pledge of Allegiance but history textbooks, as well as the values taught and encouraged by the majority of his teachers and the school board.

He went on to say that his parents also didn’t worry about him walking to and from school, riding his bike around the neighborhood, or even be concerned when he’d go out all day to hang out with his friends, during the summer.  What a contrast from what our children now face vs. what our parents did, just a few short decades ago. The list, today, is truly endless of the challenges to our values in the public and school spheres, let alone the over-protectiveness that has crept into our everyday parenting choices out of fear that something might happen to our kids if left on their own.  The technology, as Mr. Prager pointed out, makes our vigilance and the job of parenting much more complicated and requires much more attention to the details.

So, now I’m back in Vegas and we’re walking the streets, where every place we go is a vendor handing out cards with naked girls, while wearing t-shirts supporting their “escort” service.  The buses pass by with similar billboards and all the digital screens and sounds in sight blast the same sexual message.  It’s so much that it’s literally numbing.

If we, as parents, are too vigilant or strict, we risk alienating our kids as so many of their friends are allowed even more than we might allow.  Obviously, this requires a level of strength, confidence, and a willingness to face the derision of our own kids.  If we value our values, we have to risk not being our kids’ best friend and choose, instead, to be their best parent.  It isn’t as easy as it once was and I certainly haven’t helped my efforts by choosing Vegas for our boys trip.  Maybe I should switch to a river rafting or other outdoor adventure trip next year.  But, those buffets in Vegas…