Parenting is hard. Fun, but hard. Fortunately we have the examples of our own family to guide us, or at least the wisdom passed down from previous generations.
Except when we don’t.
Parents today can point to dozens of challenges never dreamt of by previous generations. Cell phones. The hyper-organization of youth sports. Social media. The increasing exposure of our children to adult issues. The polarization of public opinion and discourse. The Kardashians. Video review in baseball. These are issues the people who raised us never had to deal with. We’re on our own here, making it up as we go along.
Of course, previous generations had their head-scratchers, too. Televisions, telephones (every teenager wanted one of each in his or her bedroom when I was growing up), and it seemed like each generation cracked the Pandora’s Box of scandal a little wider. Change itself is nothing new, but for each generation, their particular brand of change is something never seen on the planet before.
All that change is tough enough to navigate when you’re sailing with the rest of society. But what if your family is a little… different? What if your family has historically taken pride in marching a little out of synch with those around them?
My parents were born in the late teens and early twenties of the previous century. Their parents had all arrived (separately, though I’ve nothing but hope as proof of that) to this country from Sweden. And not the “hippie” part of Sweden, either. My father came from a line of Lutheran pastors, a line which continues to this day, having taken a bypass around me. My ancestors were steeped in piety, and proud of it. But not outwardly proud. That would be unseemly. Think of the decorum of Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day with the gaiety and ecumenism of the Amish thrown in.
Remember that one classroom we all sat in in elementary school that had portraits of the US Presidents across the walls up near the ceiling, in chronological order? When I was bored, I used to catalog the glacial change in men’s fashions over time, particularly searching for the game-changing switch from cravats to ties (usually somewhere around Woodrow Wilson). My people would have worn cravats well into the Tie Era. Or at least they would have if they weren’t wearing big fat heavily-starched clerical collars, the kind you see coming a mile off. The kind specifically designed to avoid comfort, leaving little doubt as to the heroic, yet humble piety of its wearer.
In these pictures, my grandparents appear in black and white. In real life, I have little doubt that they did as well.
That sort of piety keeps you out of the mainstream of popular culture. During the 1930’s, for example, a fantastic time to be a movie fan in this country and around the world, my grandparents would have none of it. Movies were not culture, and were to be dismissed. Movies could only steer you off the path of righteousness. The first movie my father’s mother finally broke down to see in a theater, the one it took three clergymen (my father included) to convince her was not “of the Devil” was The Sound of Music. Her reaction to the film is lost to time. I’ll bet she would have been miffed at the childrens’ playclothes. Or the fact that all the music they were learning was secular.
And music? We had records growing up, but they were all sacred music, or its close cousin, classical music. To this day, I can sing (badly) all the men’s parts to the entire Messiah, which I could do for as long as I remember. I don’t recall ever not knowing the entire oratorio. J.S. Bach (The Man himself, not any of his no-account kids, except maybe for Carl Phillip Emmanuel) might as well have been a saint. And none of this “Contemporary Christian” crap, either; we weren’t fooled by that. The closest we had to that was an album of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing hymns.
At a time when my peers could rattle off the names of the members of AC/DC or argue about which bands had the best bass players, I knew who E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox were, and most importantly, which one was the diva.*
So while my parents passed onto me an appreciation for the benefits of High Culture, it was my friends who brought me up to speed on Popular Culture. As it probably should be, and that worked out pretty well for me, except that when I plug my iPod into my car radio, I have an equal chance of listening to Berlioz or The Ramones. I don’t mind, but passengers can sometimes feel a little disoriented.
All of this is well and good for me. I’ve enjoyed the cultural education my parents gave me, even more so when I find traces of that in pop culture. But it gave me pause when I became a parent. When The Knucklehead arrived, I wanted to share everything with him that I found cool and interesting. Every parent does. But how much? And how soon?
My problem came from a fundamental difference in philosophy from my parents. My parents sought to shield my siblings and me from the distractions and wrong turns of the popular world. They saw that as their job, because it had been the job of their parents, and of their parents before them. I think they believed that the home was a cocoon designed to keep the depravations of the wide world out. In the home, moral and cultural education was designed to armor us against the unchristian influences when we needed to go outside. Popular culture wasn’t to be embraced, it was to be shielded against. I disagreed.
My feeling has always been that children are going to be exposed to outside ideas, morals, culture, and values no matter what we do. Your choices then become either ignoring what they’re exposed to or facing it together. I hate that we live in a world where I have to explain issues like child abuse, drug use, sexuality, and horror long before children are ready to deal with them. It’s not fair that children are exposed to adult issues they can’t possibly understand. And these issues are everywhere; you’ll find them all on ESPN alone after an hour’s viewing. You can try to keep this stuff out of the home, but you can’t keep it out of their lives when they leave the house. Home is where you need to learn to deal with these issues. Home is where children have loving adults who will help them make sense of the world.
It’s tough talking with kids about the fight for LGBT rights, or drugs, or rape, or abortion. Parenting is hard and messy as it is, and these things make it messier. But if I had to choose between talking to my kid about tough issues before he’s ready and leaving him alone to deal with them – and let’s be honest, there’s never a good time to bring up uncomfortable topics – I’ll take the former. I’d never want to leave my Knucklehead alone to sort through 21st-century America on his own, or worse, depending on whatever help he stumbles on.
All those social issues are encapsulated in our popular culture. So the choice of “which culture” to expose my boy to in his own home was an important one. My decision was to bring in both what my parents had passed down, and what my friends had taught me. Not everything, there was stuff in both categories that could be a little overwhelming. But a good sampling of life.
Technology helped me here. I put all my music on my iPod, and usually have it on shuffle, so all sorts of stuff comes up. If something interesting were to come up, I’d tell my kid an anecdote about it. The first time I went to a rock concert. How a fugue works. Why so much 1960s rock music is so angry. How the clarinet was a radical new instrument in Mozart’s time, and how he loved to explore what it could do. How the Moog synthesizer was a radical new instrument in Mike Oldfield’s and ELO’s time, and how they loved to explore what it could do. Could I still enjoy an artist’s music if I didn’t agree with the words they were singing? Obviously, this came up with the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead. But as an atheist, it came up just as often for me with sacred music as well.
Our president was recently criticized for allowing his daughters to listen to Beyoncé. Fine, but the alternative is they listen to Beyoncé behind his back. Better to be able to keep track of what your kids are listening to. And be able to discuss intelligently with your daughters what Beyoncé has to say about female sexuality, both good and bad, and honestly judge her artistry against Diana Ross and Billie Holiday and other women who went before her. Personally, I don’t listen to a lot of Beyoncé, so I don’t know. Maybe the woman is actually a good musician worth listening to. Maybe not. Or maybe Obama is telling his daughters that he trusts them to make their own decisions, as he supplies them with the tools with which to make those decisions.
For all the protection a cocoon can offer, it can also smother. “We know better than you” isn’t a lot of help to a kid when you’re not around. I’d rather the home be the ethical playground, battleground, and workshop. And our stories and our music are the boxes we unpack most of our ethics from.
Looking back, I don’t regret what I missed out on growing up in an austere Scandinavian-American household. I was able to catch up with the rest of society, though that might have been easier if I didn’t feel like I had to be disloyal in doing it.
I regret what my parents missed out on. As a parent, I didn’t want to miss out, too.
*It was Fox. Show-off.