I confess: I let my kids watch South Park. Not every episode, mind you--I prescreen the shows on video before I watch them with the family. But when my face lands on the cover of Negligent Father magazine, that'll be the headline: He Lets His Kids Watch South Park. My kids have taken in four episodes of this foul-mouthed cartoon about life in a "redneck mountain town." They've seen young Kenny get eaten by rats. They've watched a cute little bear get blown to smithereens, seen a boy toast marshmallows over a burning Vietnam Vet, and heard another call his school bus driver a "fat ugly bitch."
I can't help it: I am what I am. I'm tired of living a closeted life. I expose my kids to the traditional fixtures of American family entertainment, but they also know the cultural icons of South Park. So they're familiar both with venerable kids' show host Mister Rogers and with South Park's Mr. Hat. Some of the best times we've had as a family have been sitting around the dinner table, repeating bits from South Park and laughing hysterically.
It's not easy for me to admit this, living in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We're only a few miles down the road from Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian ministry. Focus thinks American popular culture is a moral sewer and South Park is its lead exhibit. Writing in Plugged In, the group's youth culture magazine, critic Bob Smithouser calls the show "twisted," "extremely mean-spirited," and "deplorable." He concludes, "South Park's own tongue-in-cheek disclaimer may be the most accurate warning of all: 'The following program...should not be viewed by anyone.' We heartily agree."
The Christian Family Network--a group whose "mission" is to "advance Christ-centered values, restore morality, and protect life for the individual, family, and community"--goes even further. It has prepared a South Park Education/Action Guide to "help make people aware of South Park and its potential affect [sic] upon our youth." "Working together," the authors write, "we can help protect our youth from vile trash like South Park."
That's what they think. Some of us feel otherwise.
Good parenting is an ongoing process. You're constantly exposing your children to new ideas, developing their moral character, and helping them realize their potential, all the while preparing them for a world that doesn't necessarily share your values. If you expose them to unfiltered adult issues before they've accumulated enough life experience and emotional maturity to deal with them, it may indeed be harmful.
But complete isolation from pop culture is just as bad. Forbidden fruit is always more tempting, and isolation can keep you from discussing important issues with your children. That, in turn, impairs their ability to make judgments later in life. How can they make important choices as adults if they haven't had any practice?
When South Park first aired, back in 1997, it caused quite a stir out here and in the rest of the country. During the first season, one Georgia principal banned South Park clothes, while the founder of a group called Action for Children's Television denounced it as "dangerous to the democracy."
It turned out that lots of people like to watch cute but crudely drawn third-graders curse and spout social commentary far beyond their years. It wasn't too long before my two kids, currently 10 and 12, were asking what all the excitement was about and whether they could watch the show. We don't watch TV, but I told them I'd preview a couple of episodes first. If I found some I thought they were ready for, I'd bring them home on video and we'd watch them together. That seemed to satisfy them.
The first time I watched the show, I couldn't remember the last time I'd laughed so hard. The dialogue was outrageously funny; the writers' barbs were accurate and timely. I wound up watching almost all the episodes, finally settling on four I thought our family would enjoy. The kids loved them, and we've never looked back.
So am I a bad parent? Am I, to quote the Christian Family Network, showing my children "a steady stream of violence...that poisons as surely as if they swallowed it"? I don't think so. I feel pretty good about my kids, and I feel pretty good about South Park.
Contrary to popular belief, South Park is loaded with moral content, whether or not the show's writers planned it that way. It's hard to list all the valuable lessons it has taught my kids, but here are some of my favorites:
It's good to make fun of celebrities. Most episodes contain at least one dig at a famous person--or, sometimes, at someone who just wants to be famous. In "Volcano," TV stalwart Patrick Duffy shows up as a leg on a legendary monster. This prompted howls of laughter from my kids, though I had to explain to them what Step by Step was. (It's his latest series.) In another episode, Bob "Gilligan" Denver makes a fool of himself on a talk show; in another, zaftig Christian Children's Fund pitchwoman Sally Struthers gets caught stuffing herself on food meant for famine relief. Most of the shows with "guest" celebrities drive home the point that actors are just people who are paid to pretend.
It's good to make fun of Barbra Streisand. I guess this falls under making fun of celebrities, but La Streisand is in a class by herself. The episode "Mecha Streisand" spoofs Japanese monster movies. Cartman, one of the 8-year-old boys on whom the show centers, finds a mystical artifact that will make Barbra Streisand ruler of the world. She eventually comes to South Park and gets the artifact from him through cruel and unusual punishment: She chains him up and starts singing. A frenzied Japanese incantation turns Barbra into a mechanical Godzilla, who battles both movie critic Leonard Maltin (as a giant robot) and Sidney Poitier (as a fire-breathing turtle). Only when The Cure's lead singer, Robert Smith, transforms himself into Mothra is evil finally vanquished. (Now that I think of it, my kids are learning a lot about pop culture too.)
It's good to make fun of people who believe stupid things. And not just Barbra Streisand. In "The Mexican Staring Frog of Southern Sri Lanka," the kids hoodwink the hosts of a public access cable show with a hilariously primitive videotape that supposedly shows a mythical creature. The adults eventually come to their senses, and I get to tell my kids what's wrong with believing that something is true just because you want it to be.