Parenting and Popular Culture


Barry Fagin


Colorado has often been said to be a major battleground in the culture wars.  If the past two weeks are any indication, I’d have to agree.  Shock rocker Marilyn Manson’s visit to Denver got the “free speech” versus “protect the children” going at each other, and in my home town of Colorado Springs, a radio station drew national attention when it was fined by the FCC for playing a song by Eminem.  As a parent with an interest in civil liberties and a diehard rock fan, I’ve been following these issues closely.


Make no mistake, Eminem is not for the squeamish.  He is vulgar, shocking, profane, and deliberately provocative.  He makes fun of those who idolize him, and seems to have contempt for anyone who’d actually buy one of his albums.  His lyrics are misogynistic, his riffs are as thin as water, and musically he’s completely forgettable.  It’s hard for me to find anything redeeming in his work. 


That’s why, as a parent, I can sympathize with the mother who complained to the FCC when she heard Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”.  Even the radio edit version is pretty vile.  It’s hard enough being a parent these days without having to deal with your kids’ exposure to songs about cannibalism, graphic sexuality, and bestiality.  That’s why the vision of government as a helper in the daunting task of parenting is so seductive.  When it comes to parenting, we all could use a little help now and then.


But it’s a vision parents everywhere should resist. Parents should not be enthusiastic about giving up any part of their role as primary caretakers of their children.  For make no mistake, when you assume that the Federal Communications Commission’s job is to make sure your kids don’t hear bad words on the radio, you are falling down on the job as a parent.  In my opinion, parents are much better off in a world where there are no legal restrictions on what radio stations can play.  That way, all of us will have to engage our kids at an early age to discuss what is out there and why.


That’s what I do with my children, and you know what?  It works pretty well.  My kids are 13 and 11, and my wife and I make sure they’re well versed in the excesses of modern popular culture.  This has two advantages.  By exposing them to some of pop culture’s more radical efforts in an environment free from anger and fear, it takes away the “forbidden fruit” syndrome that attracts many teenagers to otherwise unremarkable cultural artifacts.  Better still, carefully exposing children to the negative elements of a dynamic capitalist society helps them better appreciate the positive ones.  My son, for example, hates “The Real Slim Shady”, but loves Mystery Science Theater.    And why shouldn’t he?  One is garbage, while the other is terrific.


While we’re on the subject of what we can and can’t hear, must we have the FCC tell us what we can and can’t see?  Why can’t television content be left to people to decide for themselves?  No one has to watch TV (our family doesn’t), and content providers can’t make money by making shows that alienate their audience.  What exactly are we afraid of?  There is every reason to assume that if parents know they’re the sole source of control over what their children watch, they’ll take a much more active role in scrutinizing their children’s TV watching. 


Nor should movies be let off the hook.  The entire movie rating system is silly and pointless, rendered obsolete by technology.  When a new film comes out that we might want to see on a family movie night, my wife and I ignore the ratings and go straight to the internet.  Sites like let us know in excruciating detail what’s going to happen before we walk into the theater.  As an added bonus, that can help get a good family discussion going about what writers put into movies, and why.


In my own personal journey through politics and parenting, I’ve become convinced that content-based regulations in any medium accomplish nothing more than making their advocates feel good about themselves.  Most parents, including myself, would rather raise children than fight political battles, but I think it’s an issue we ignore at our peril.  Raising moral, responsible children is simply too important a task to entrust to anyone else.




Barry Fagin is the Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute, and a recipient of the National Civil Liberties Award from the ACLU.  He is the co-founder of Families Against Internet Censorship, and the author of “Goin’ Down to South Park:  How Kids Can Learn From Vile Trash”.