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Pop Culture and Family Values

How can we communicate our values without lecturing, harassing, or infuriating our children?

By Alison Birnbaum

A 15-year-old girl adds “very sexy” to her Facebook profile and includes provocative photos of herself and a friend in her bedroom.

At a party, a 14-year-old boy takes prescription pills from the family medicine cabinet and chugs a few beers.  A partygoer records the action and resulting embarrassing behavior and posts the video on YouTube. His friends all link to the video from their Facebook pages, encouraging even more people to watch and spread the footage.

A 13-year-old girl hacks into a “friend’s” e-mail account and sends a “mean-girl” style e-mail to her “friend’s” acquaintances. The victimized girl feels she has no way to fight back

In each of these examples, a teen is trying something he or she has witnessed in the broader youth culture. It is normal for teens to experiment with being a part of their culture and testing authoritative boundaries.  

So what can we parents do to help shape our children’s values and encourage them to assert independence from the collective pop culture?

1. Discuss (don’t lecture!) values in your own life. Clarify the values you live by, how you have chosen those values, and examples of how the values have been in sync or out of sync with the larger culture. Then, ask good questions and open your ears. For example: “Do you think we would have expected you to act differently than that character on ‘Pretty Little Liars?”

2. Make rules about media use in your household. Use of social media, smart phones, and e-mails is a parenting decision. Many parents make the rule that since Facebook and Instagram are public forums (strengthened by the fact that employers also use these sites for information about future hires), they will be treated as public forums at home as well. Parents can tell their children that being online will include a routine check to avert spying and conflict. For many families, another tactic is to keep the computer in a public space in the home. It is far easier to supervise use when you are nearby.

3. Make rules about not using technology to bully or harass others. Because computers and gadgets allow kids to be detached (you can’t see the hurt in the face of the other person, and you can’t hear the injury in his/her voice), teens need reinforcement about what defines cruel and injurious behavior.

4. Teach your teen to have healthy skepticism. Help your child detach from the larger culture enough to see its strengths and weaknesses. Teens hate feeling that they are being manipulated. They don’t want to feel that they are being told what to do—or think—by their parents…but they also don’t want to be told what to do—or think—by the media. As parents, we want to encourage our children to think more critically about the world, to question ideas or actions promoted on the Internet, in music, or on TV, and to reinforce healthy behaviour rooted in personal values.

Alison Birnbaum, LCSW, has practiced psychotherapy in New York City and Connecticut for 30 years.

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