Thursday, January 27, 2011

Things That Keep Parents Up At Night: MTV's Newest Shocker, SKINS

In evaluating the value of media, some critics find it helpful to ask whether the media is prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, does it describe reality - even tough reality - or is it trying to "prescribe" what we (and our children) should think or do?

While many Christians would hope to shelter their children from difficult subjects, most of us agree that addressing tough topics can be important. We want our kids to make right choices, but we don't want them to be completely naive and unaware of this difficult and sinful world that they must exist in. We want them to engage in descriptive television shows and books that teach them about tough subjects. That is why we have them read books about the Holocaust or think through tough ethical issues like the death penalty and racial inequality.

What we fear, as parents, is that some of these tough shows about tough subjects will actually educate and indoctrinate our kids with the depravity of their generation. They will make it look good and appealing. We don't want MTV to introduce our kids to drugs and sex. Shows like Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl scare us with their views of teens and bad choices.

This week I have been hearing a great deal about the new MTV dramatic teen series, Skins. This is hard core material and scares parents with its take on what teens today are like. These teens, and even preteens, are into sex and drugs in a graphic and shocking way. Is this what our teenagers are actually involved in? Or, is this MTV's prescribed view of teenage life?

No matter your view, parents need to be aware of this new show as it will certainly attract the attention of a young audience. I have not yet viewed it, but I intend to. This article by TIME magazine gives a helpful introduction:,9171,2042346,00.html,

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sarah Dessen: This generation’s Judy Blume?

If you walk through the young adult section of any bookstore, you won’t be able to miss her books. Sarah Dessen’s books have lovely covers of soft focused girls holding flowers or standing on the dock wearing rolled up blue jeans. They have just as lovely titles like: Just Listen, Keeping the Moon and The Truth About Forever.

They are middle school chick lit…books about girls and problems and relationships and falling in like (as I call it) and worrying about our looks and getting along with mom.

If you want to learn more about Sarah Dessen, check out her web-page and blog at: She is hugely popular with the young adult audience and has just published her tenth novel. Sarah never intended to write for teens. Born in Illinois, she grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of two professors. She loved to read and write. She says that, “When I was eight or nine my parents gave me an old manual typewriter and a little desk in the corner of our den, and I'd sit there and type up my stories.”

Sarah’s books are loved by her readers and by major award givers. She has been on the New York Times Bestseller list but has also claimed awards by the American Library Association and School Library Journal. My daughter has already read three books by this author and her books in school library's are known by their well worn covers. There is no doubt she is influencing our young women.

So I decided to read one.

I borrowed The Truth About Forever from my daughter’s bookshelf. It tells the story of Macy, a smart girl who has suffered the tragic and unexpected death of her dad. The story details the summer following this loss where Macy faces troubles with her boyfriend and her mom. She struggles with learning to let go of grief and to also learn how to be a different person, one who has been significantly changed by loss.

Macy’s character is real and engaging. She has those quirks that endear me to characters – the faltering confidence, the longing for love, the parents with strange hobbies. Sarah’s dad loved to send away for telemarketed products called EZ Products – things that promise to change your life (but usually don’t). Part of her struggle with losing her dad revolves around a box of these quirky products that she hides under her bed. “I put the box down, running my finger over the edge. It’s funny what it takes to miss someone . . . every time a box came from Maine, it broke my heart.”

I enjoyed watching Macy learn and grow in her relationships. She finds out that her “perfect” boyfriend is not so perfect. She learns that her mom might not have everything in control. She learns that, just maybe, control is overrated. She makes new friends. She takes chances. She meets a new love.

Yes – there is always a new love. This one will make you sigh. He is perfect and dreamy and artistic and mysterious – this is the guy you always wished you would meet in high school but never did. The character of Wes is almost too good to be true. He is a rebel who has reformed. He has a tender and true heart. This is where the chick lit part kicks in – because Macy’s life’s problems do get solved a bit too easily with the appearance of this marvelous young man.

At times, as a mom, I was frustrated with the portrayal of parenting. The mother is removed and unreasonable. I wanted her to engage and to see her daughter and to talk to her. But, I do realize that this is written from a teen’s perspective. And, as parents, we often fail to listen and to see what our teens are really going through. A good lesson.

There is not too much to be afraid of as far as content goes. My daughter is in 7th grade and reads Sarah’s books. The characters are in high school. There is some sneaking around and the main character goes to a party and drinks a beer. In one scene, she plays a game of quarters and gets drunk. Luckily Wes rescues her and gets her home. Otherwise, there are little consequences to this act…. I worried a bit that this is portrayed as normal.

Sexual content was limited to a kiss at the end of the book. I have not read Sarah's other books, but I do know that this book portrays characters who are a bit more mature than her readers may be. This age/maturity gap is not unusual. I think that my age group read Judy Blume because she introduced us to ideas our parents just didn't talk about. Scary for parents? Yes. But it is also the way teens find out and think about topics as they grow. If your pre-teen is reading Sarah's books, it might be helpful to read one with her and to follow up with a conversation about the content.

Some questions to talk about with your teen who might read this novel:

1) Why does Macy feel the need to be perfect? Why does her mom feel that way too?

2) Can any of us achieve perfection?

3) How do we know what boy might be right for us? What were clues that her relationship with Jason was not the best one?

4) What did you think of Wes and Macy’s game of truth? Do you have anyone who you can ask true questions? Are you comfortable telling the truth with your friends?

5) Should Macy have stayed in the library job? Why does she finally leave?

6) Why do you think Wes creates sculptures? Are his sculptures important to the story? Why?

7) The characters talk a lot about forever? What is more important: now or the future? Do you believe that anything lasts forever?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Look to the Stars

Henrietta Leavitt had an unusual talent.

She was good at counting stars.

In the 1800s, Henrietta was employed by Harvard University to begin a massive project. The university wanted to produce a careful record of the position, brightness and color of every star in the sky.

At this point in history, the computers we rely on today were non-existent. In addition to basic calculators, the scientists depended on a different type of sophisticated machine: the human brain.

Scientists like Miss Leavitt were paid about 25 cents an hour to look at photographs of the night sky – counting, measuring and recording the stars.

Henrietta found that she was very good at this job. She began volunteering at the observatory in 1893 when she was just 25. The eldest daughter of a minister, Henrietta wanted more than anything else to learn astronomy. She was also highly educated, receiving training from Oberlin College and Radcliffe.

Despite her troubles with increasing hearing loss and poor health, Henrietta’s work in astronomy led to the discovery of new laws of science and astronomy. She proposed a relationship between the brightness of stars and their distance that contributed to the later work of Edwin Hubble.

To this day, Henrietta Leavitt is remembered for her significant work with stars. What better career could you have than examining the heavens? For me, anyway, there is something about stars spread across the evening sky that makes me think about God.

In the summer my family likes to go camping in northern Wisconsin. Even in mid-July when the sun is at its hottest, the evenings are cool enough for campfires. One of our favorite night time things to do is to walk to a nearby golf course, stretch out a blanket on the empty fairway, and lie on our backs to view the stars.

The galaxy spreads as far as we can see. With no competing lights to block our view, we can see every constellation, shooting stars and even an occasional planet. Very often our joking and talking fades as we each get lost in the wonder of the heavens.

A few years ago, our daughter brought along a girlfriend. The two girls were a bit nervous at the night time trek through the dark woods. Every creak of a branch would make them jump, but the same silence fell upon us as we star gazed.

After minutes of quietness, their young voices broke into song – first one, then the other in sweet harmony. They were singing the words of a popular song about stars and planets – but in this hushed heavenly surrounding, it felt as grand as any hymn I’ve ever heard.

The Bible talks a lot about the wonders of the stars. In Psalm 147: 4, 5, the psalmist writes about God, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”

Tonight, if the sky is clear, step outside and say your evening prayers under the canopy of the stars. Look to the skies and recognize the greatness of God. It will make your worries, your concerns, seem small and inconsequential in contrast to the power and glory of the Almighty.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Media Mom Goes On the Air

UPDATE: I had a wonderful time talking with WMBI Radio program host Nancy Turner about our kids and the media. If you'd like to listen to my segment, feel free to go to this page and click on the Listen tab under my name.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gilmore Girls, Mrs. Kim, and Over-Protective Mothering Mistakes

When my daughter was little, I tried to keep her from hurting herself. We put safety latches on drawers and moved sharp and breakable objects out of her reach. But with each year, our parental efforts to safeguard her existence get more difficult. While she has changed and grown and matured, our instinct, as parents, is still to keep her safe, to keep her from harm.

I was thinking about this as I watched one of my favorite television series, The Gilmore Girls. In the show, there is a Korean mother and daughter, Mrs. Kim and her daughter Lane. Mrs. Kim owns an antique shop and keeps her daughter close at hand. She attends church regularly and forbids her daughter to talk to boys. She wants to keep her daughter pure and safe.

There is only one problem. Lane.

Lane is a delightful character. In the series, we watch as she progresses through junior high, high school, and college. She is sweet and funny and kind and awkward. She also is a HUGE fan of all sorts of music – music of which her mother would never approve.

Lane’s solution is to hide everything she listens to from her mother. She wears rock band t-shirts under her proper sweaters and stashes CDs under floor boards in her bedroom. Unbeknownst to her mom, she is an aspiring drummer, wanting desperately to belong to this world of rock and roll.

A sad scene in the show occurs when Mrs. Kim finally finds Lane's hidden music. As she uncovers piles of posters, music, t-shirts and more, she realizes that she does not know her daughter at all. In her efforts to protect Lane and keep her from harm, she has created a huge chasm that is almost impossible to cross. Despite her best efforts, Lane has indeed discovered the world.

In my experience as a Christian mom, I have encountered two types of parents. There is the permissive parent who desperately wants to be liked by her child. She will shrug off questionable choices and bad behavior by saying, “That’s what kids are doing these days.” She wants to be cool – so she allows her pre-teen to participate in behaviors that are risky and beyond her years.

More often, in Christian circles, I’ve met a lot of parents like Mrs. Kim. They think they can shelter their child through the precarious teenage years. They think if they do not allow him or her to see secular movies or hear popular music that their child will be saved from spiritual harm.

I n many ways, I think that this extreme protective stance can be as dangerous as the permissive one. The pre-teen years in particular are a time of growth, mentally, socially and spiritually. As your offspring moves from childhood to adulthood, he is trying out his independence. He wants to know not just what you like, but what he is on his own.

For Lane, that meant listening to rock music. Mrs. Kim, in her effort to keep Lane away from danger, actually pushed her away from herself. She allowed Lane to create an entirely separate world away from parental influence.

What does this mean to us as concerned moms?

1) Know your child. As your child wades into the world of peer influence, she is entering a vast world of choices. She will be trying out books and music and web-sites that you might know nothing about. Make it a point to know about some of her choices. Read a book that she reads. Have her plug her ipod into the car stereo when you ride together. Friend her on Facebook. Sit down and watch a teen movie that you have no interest in. The minute you create an us and them division, you will step away from any influence you have on your child.

2) Influence your child. Notice that I said influence and not rule over. Yes – you are still the parent. You set household rules and limits. But don’t make those limits so absolute that you create an atmosphere of rebellion. One teen celebrity talked about how television was off limits for her. Her mother would feel the tv when she returned from errands to see if this young woman had watched it. To fool her mom, she would put ice packs on the television to coo l it down. Her mom’s efforts to keep her safe actually encouraged deception between them

3) Share your own media choices with your teen. Watch a movie that you love together. Recommend a book that you loved as a teen. By sharing music or films, you create bonds. My daughter has a Dave Brubeck song on her ipod. She also thinks that she discovered Bob Marley. We both can quote lines from The Princess Bride.

4) Discuss why you choose what you do. From time to time I have chosen a really bad movie or book. Sometimes I will stop reading or walk out of a theater. Other times, I stay. I’ve learned to be thoughtful in what I choose to see and what I choose to support. Encourage those types of discussions with your teen. Why are some musicians better than others? Why are some actresses role models and others examples of shame or despair? What themes in video games or book series should people of faith avoid? The answers are not easy – but they are important. Your teen must learn to make these choices on his or her own.

I know that at times I will mess up. Sometimes, I will most likely be a Mrs. Kim to my daughter’s Lane. I hope that as a parent, I can continue to listen, to learn, and to help my daughter grow in a way that teaches her good choices in media.

Following is a montage video of Lane and her mom's tumultous will especially appreciate it if you've seen the show. The good news is that the Lane's story has a happy ending. The mom and daughter do finally learn to communicate - to share what is most important in their lives - and to respect each other.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

To My Mom, As She Retires

My mom retired yesterday after nearly four decades as a teacher. This is my letter to her:

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher, just like you, mom.

I remember playing school with dolls and friends, passing out worksheets and writing on a chalkboard. I would mimic all of the things I had seen you do in your real-life classroom.

You have taught school for as long as I can remember. I always loved going with you to school. In those early summers, when you were teaching in Thornton, in those non-air-conditioned classrooms, I would get a cold bottle of grape pop in the vending machine and help you cut out construction paper alphabet letters for your bulletin board. I loved watching you help boys and girls learn to read and write and add and subtract. Your students loved and respected you. Your classrooms were colorful and interactive and always well organized.

I remember your first days at Glenwood School. As I rode onto the campus for my first visit, I was impressed by the tall trees and stately brick buildings. The boys – only boys at that time – wore neckties. In those years, before the updates the school enjoys today, the buildings seemed old and musty.

You were assigned to teach special education students in a big back room with high ceilings and heavy rolled up window shades. There was a large piano sitting in the middle and vinyl upholstered furniture. I remember that the room had a lot of space, but seemed old-fashioned. We could hear the band playing in the classroom below us.

You were not intimidated by the surroundings. Immediately you set to work cleaning out the cobwebs and covering old tables with fresh contact paper. You raised the dark shades and let the light stream into the room. Up went colorful posters and students were welcomed with individual folders complete with their schedules and assignments.You were the Mary Poppins of learning – and with one touch the atmosphere was transformed.

Your classroom was filled with fun and learning. At any one time you could have a dozen students on individually assigned tracks of progress. The students loved to come to your classroom. They loved tracking their own accomplishments and earning rewards for top effort. You ran a tight ship. Students did not goof around in your classrooms – yet they always seemed to have fun. You knew how to discipline them and still make them feel welcome.

You loved to plan special parties. Many times you took groups of boys out for lunch. Sometimes you brought lunch in. I remember the make your own French crepe parties and an Italian party – where two of the Glenwood boys treated us to their mom’s homemade pasta.

Our whole family was often on the campus enjoying Flag Day and the military processions. We traveled through the north woods up to Camp Glenwood – and many of the members of the Glenwood faculty have seemed like members of our family.

I know you will miss this wonderful school and the memories you have of both employees and students. Glenwood has been a part of your life and of my life.

I am proud of you. You are, for me, the true example of a teacher, someone with boundless love, creativity and energy. You are someone who loves students and has the ability to make them want to learn. Your impact on their lives certainly has continued to this day.

Congratulations Mom! I know it is hard for you to retire – but you have worked long and hard and deserve this time of relaxation. You have set an amazing example for all of us in this profession.