Goin' Down to South Park

How kids can learn from "vile trash."


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.

It's good to make fun of hypocrisy. In "Conjoined Fetus Lady," we're introduced to the school nurse: She has "Conjoined Twin Myslexia" and was born with a stillborn fetus attached to her head. The script suggests that the handicapped don't want to be singled out for special attention; they just want to lead productive, fulfilled lives. Some "normal" characters talk about wanting to help, but they single the nurse out anyway with a hilariously awful "Conjoined Twin Myslexia Week." It's bad, I tell my kids, to say one thing and do something else.

Things that happen in cartoons aren't real. My kids figured this out long ago, but it's a point worth driving home. Kenny gets killed in almost every episode of South Park, only to reappear the next week with no explanation. If there is any more dramatic way to teach kids that TV is fantasy, I don't know it.

Make no mistake, much of what my evangelical neighbors say about South Park is accurate. Every show contains a lot of profanity and graphic sexual humor. I won't let my kids watch most of the episodes, because they deal with issues they aren't ready for yet. Very young children shouldn't watch the show, because they don't understand context; repeating what they hear could get them in trouble. In fact, I doubt that kids of any age should watch it without their parents sitting there with them. Of course, that's true for virtually everything on TV.

But cultural critics who think shows like South Park are malevolent don't really understand modern life. They seem to think Americans are completely passive consumers, helplessly force-fed a mass media diet that they can't control. Well, they may lead their lives that way, but my family doesn't. In my experience, parents can wield much more influence over what their children see now than they could when I was a kid.

When I was growing up in the '60s, our house had three networks, two TVs, one time when we could watch a television show, and no real choice. We had to watch what was on, when it was on. Today, my house has more than 60 TV channels, every one of which competes with the Internet and the video store down the street. In our house, TV loses so often that we pay our cable bill only so we can get the Weather Channel. (And if we parents do want to watch something on TV, and it doesn't fit our schedules, we can tape it.)

Having more choices wakes you up as a parent: It makes you realize how much you can do for your children, and it helps you shape their environment to be more in tune with your values. It may be counterintuitive, but for an alert parent more options means more control.

Let me stress this again: South Park is no ordinary cartoon. Don't watch it with your kids unless you're prepared to talk about homosexuality, profanity, and fart jokes. Don't show your kids any South Park episode unless you've taken the time to watch the whole thing first, to make sure it's right for your family. You're a parent. That's your job.

But if South Park isn't Sesame Street, it isn't poison either. Given the opportunity, parents can find moral education and artistic value in surprising places–even in a video called "Conjoined Fetus Lady." When our family sits down to dinner and 10-year-old Erica starts riffing on a South Park episode, we share the kind of connection that cultural conservatives claim is all too scarce in American family life. When her big brother Max chimes in with his Cartman imitation and we all start laughing uproariously, that's a moment of closeness I treasure. And it's a moment made possible by the delicious anarchy of American popular culture. If this is a moral sewer, it's one I'm proud to swim in.