In the popular 1960s television program “The Andy Griffith Show,” the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, came alive. Everybody knew each other. Most people went to church on Sunday mornings and had roast beef or fried chicken for lunch afterwards. On hot summer days, homemade ice cream was a common afternoon treat. Children, even eight-year-old Opie, walked to and from school alone, perhaps stopping at the soda shop on the way home for some one-cent candy.
Opie would spend Saturday with his friends – fishing, playing baseball, or pretending to be cowboys. About the most serious trouble Opie ever got into was for throwing rotten apples at the street lights one time or for getting into a scuffle with a bully who was taking his milk money on the way to school. Drugs were not a problem. There were no Internet connections, no cell phones, and no beepers. Terrorism was unimaginable. We certainly are not in Mayberry anymore! Times have changed.
More Than Just Fishin’
In Mayberry, we watched as an adult-centered world sought opportunities to impact the life of Opie Taylor. Much of the interaction was between adults, but often there were teaching opportunities between Andy and his son, Opie. As a general rule, life didn’t revolve around only Opie’s wants and needs. It revolved around Opie being part of the family unit. There was plenty of time for adult- child interaction and plenty of time for fishin’.
Today’s world can be described as a “filiarchy”; a family system in which children are the central decision- makers. With mom and dad both working, children are increasingly expected to participate in making consumer decisions. Unlike farm life of the nineteenth century, when children were expected to milk the cows and help in the fields, today’s kids carry an enormous sway over the family checkbook – and consequently over culture, itself – but without being expected to contribute to the family in the way kids have contributed in years past.
The nineteeen-and-under crowd, 78.2 million strong, is now larger than its 77.8 million baby-boom counterpart. Last year, kids twelve and under spent $27.9 billion of their own money and influenced approximately $250 billion of their mom’s and dad’s spending, according to a report released by the research firm McNeal & Kids. “Kid- fluence” is expected to grow 5 percent to 20 percent over the course of the next ten years.
Gone are the days when a fishing pole and a bucket of worms would suffice. Kids today are leaders in echnological savvy. They are computer wizards and routinely use more computing power than was used to put Apollo 11 on the moon. They are wired to the Internet and have televisions in their rooms. It is no longer unusual for a sixth grader to make school choices based on whether the school has access to a T1 line.
Corporations from Frito-Lay to Disney know the power of a kid. Companies are focusing on capturing the imaginations and pocket books of young consumers – those consumers who have not settled into their brand identities. McNeal & Kids has found that 90 percent of the products that children buy or request from parents are chosen by brand names. So, the advertising gurus look ever younger for the market share. Nickelodeon posted its largest audience ratings last year, hosting five of the top ten shows watched by kids aged two to eleven.
Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and ‘NSync are some of the biggest pop success stories in recent memory. They are all on Jive Records. Barry Weiss, president of Jive, admits that their fan base starts at about five years of age. “We’ve spearheaded a movement to getting kids at a much earlier age than ever before who are passionate about their music.”
More Than Just Culture
Our children are growing up in a spiritually toxic world from which there is no escape. Only näive parents think otherwise. One conscientious parent was shocked to discover that his nine year-old daughter had memorized every word of a Britney Spears’ album in spite of the fact that he had refused to let her purchase the album.
Mere attempts to isolate our children from culture or block access to it will eventually fail if we ignore the state of their hearts. Parents need a twin focus. We need to become more aware of our children’s world and of their hearts. We must become culturally equipped to fight the heart battles on the right ground.
Our children are growing up in a world where the meaning of life has been reduced to shopping at the mall and where entertainment is the sole salvation. It’s a culture of “whatever” where nothing is sacred, nothing is true, and nothing matters.
Culture is the stealth factor in our children’s lives. Through television, music, and film, a taken-for-granted perspective on what is right and real is formed. Over time, this culture defines what is thinkable, doable, and acceptable. Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher wisely wrote in 1704, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of the nation.” Children do more than lip-synch; they life-synch.
More Than Just Behavior
In the face of this culture, it’s tempting for parents to hit the panic button. Some ignore the obvious: “Not in this neighborhood.” “Not in our church.” “Not my kids.” Others react by implementing an arsenal of surveillance equipment. In the end, neither approach is effective.
Overwhelmed by the reality of youth culture, it’s tempting for parents to focus on their children’s behavior rather than on their beliefs. Faced with a wayward child, some parents strive to control their children’s behaviors instead of seeking to influence their hearts. However well intended, control is not the way of Jesus.
The goal is clear: Our children are to be in – but not of – the world. Our children are inseparably in the world. This is inevitable. People are to live in the world; to influence and engage it. But how do parents help their children not to be of the world? Often, this is where parents go wrong. Thinking their children are safe in their middle-class suburban neighborhoods, the children remain in grave spiritual danger.
Paul outlines the parents’ task in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Parents have a twofold task. First, they must learn the sinful patterns of this world. One cannot resist cultural idolatries unless one has learned to identify them. The goal is to gain cultural discernment. “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Second, parents are to help their children think differently from the world. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Paul continues. Behavior is based on beliefs. Beliefs are the rails on which lives run. Children must be increasingly convinced of their beliefs, and their beliefs must be progressively their own. Beliefs cannot be coerced, only influenced. Thus for parents to gain influence in their children’s lives, they must be students of their children’s world, and they must be able to articulate a biblical worldview.
Loving persuasion will usually help more than preachy judgment. Parents must do more than make mere assertions of faith. They must be able to express why they believe what they believe and they must do so in a way that is compelling, nonjudgmental, and relevant. This is a task many parents leave to Sunday School teachers or children’s ministers, a fateful decision that is an abdication of the parents’ spiritual esponsibilities. Ministers and church leaders should be equipping parents rather than replacing them.
Changed beliefs result in changed behavior. If the life of Christ is within a person, then that person will have a different mind set. A person’s loves or treasures will be different, and those loves or treasures will serve as the foundation for their beliefs. Paul writes, “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5). The parent’s task is to identify these loves and to address the beliefs that flow from the Spirit.
In short, parents often fight parenting battles on the wrong ground. The battle is not over their child’s insolence, but their ideas. Beliefs are decisive in shaping children’s choices from friends to lifestyles. For in the end, Mayberry is not a place, but a state of the heart. The heart must be the priority of those who would learn to love like Jesus and parent like His Father. We’re not in Mayberry anymore, but you can work to make the Andy-Opie connection strong between you and your child.
John Seel is an educator, consultant, and cultural analyst. He is the headmaster of South Shore Christian Academy in Boston, Massachusetts. He has written widely on youth culture and is the author of Parenting Without Perfection: Being a Kingdom Influence in a Toxic World (NavPress, 2000). He is presently writing two books: Culture Shock: Disciplines for Keeping the World on Our Minds and Out of Our Lives and Give Them What They Want, Not What They Need: The Educational Cost of Market Populism and the Calling of Prophetic Schools.
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