I was watching Season 1 of Transparent with our kids when I wondered for a second if I should explain what a dildo is and who might use it. We weren't quite there in the season yet — I'd seen the whole thing before, so I knew it was still another episode before Ali (Gaby Hoffman) would meet Dale, the trans man character played by Ian Harvie — but I figured if they knew going in, it would be less likely to interrupt the dramatic flow. Then I realized: Never mind, they've already seen a dildo in the "Knockoffs" episode of Broad City, where Abbi uses one to peg her longtime crush, Jeremy. We watched it as a family: mom and dad and the two boys, 15 and 12 at the time. And there are plenty of mentions of sex toys, or makeshift ones, on Orange Is the New Black, which they first saw when they were 14 and 11. So I figured that when it came to preparing them for a dildo on Transparent, we were good.
My wife and I don't go out of our way to introduce our kids to television and movies with adult content. We do go out of our way to show them things that we think are well-made and textured, and a lot of that happens to feature some, you know, serious stuff. To varying degrees, Broad City, Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent offer depictions and/or discussions of masturbation (male and female), hetero sex, lesbian sex, cross-dressing, gender reassignment, threesomes, fisting, dildos, and pegging. There's very little monogamy and a lot of casual drug use. I can hear the uptight parent voice in myself saying, "Why do they need to see all this?" But these are three of the best shows on television right now, and quality has to win out over comfort. I think? There's no handbook on how to pick entertainment for your kids. We figure it out as we go and hope we're not screwing them up. So far, they seem fine.
I can see how someone might think it's excessive to let a kid watch Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad doing heroin or smoking meth, but it's not like, say, The Jersey Shore (to use a then-contemporary example), where watching people getting fucked up was the entertainment. On Breaking Bad, you can ask a young adolescent why he thinks Jesse is using, and the kid will know: because he feels insignificant, or is in a co-dependent relationship with an addict, or is trying to deaden his grief when that addict dies. It never feels like Jesse's making a great choice, and it sure never makes drugs seem awesome.
For all the adult subject matter, a surprising amount of what we watch is thematically relatable to a kid's perspective. Laverne Cox's Sophia being shunned/bullied/excluded for being different on Orange Is the New Black? What middle-schooler won't recognize that? Broad City's Abbi begging for more responsibility, yet constantly being handed a mop? That IS adolescence.
Oh, Broad City. Abbi and Ilana, two New York women in their twenties, do their fair share of drugs. They get drunk. They have casual sex. They're not lawyers. All this should be a parent's nightmare, but to us they're just about the greatest thing you could be showing to a teenage boy or girl right now. Abbi and Ilana are living their lives the way we've all been congratulating and celebrating guys for living their lives on TV for years. They are free to be stupid and make bad decisions and not have harsher judgments placed on them because women are somehow supposed to know better, or because we want to imagine women just don't do those things. Well, America, they do. And we want our kids to understand that whatever Abbi and Ilana are doing, whether it's "OK" or not is ultimately
Abbi and Ilana's goddamn business.
With the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, it's been a long time since our kids watched TV the traditional way. One of the great things about this is that we're able to direct and shape what they watch, and at least one parent generally watches with them. Shows they've seen in the last three years besides the ones already mentioned: Enlightened, Happy Valley, Catastrophe, Spaced, Parenthood, Pulling, Friday Night Lights, Weeds, Freaks and Geeks, Parks and Recreation, The Returned (the French one), Empire, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Party Down, The Venture Bros., BoJack Horseman, and Louie.
In many of these cases, they're watching and enjoying things created by women and/or about women. Beyond the storytelling and filmmaking, they're also forced to consider other perspectives — including ones to do with sex and male-pattern behaviors. This extends to the more guy-centric shows they've liked, things like The League or Breaking Bad. I'm pretty proud that neither of my kids thought Skyler White was a "bitch," and that, thanks to Walter White (and their mom's gift for finding teachable moments), they have a pretty good handle on what gaslighting is.
They haven't loved everything we've watched — Enlightened: not for every kid! — but they've been game, and they've enjoyed great storytelling, not to mention a lot of fairly realistic depictions of adult sexuality. This latter point should feel like a burden, I suppose, but it's actually been a blessing.
Sex, when it's appeared on mainstream television in the last 60 years, has been, literally, a joke. We're supposed to laugh at what a "slut" Eric's sister is on That ’70s Show, or what a "slut" Blanche is on Golden Girls, so we can confirm that women who like sex are bad, sad, embarrassing. Someone who doesn't participate solely in vanilla sex is usually either the murder victim or the murderer on the Law & Order or CSI shows. This isn't strictly a network TV issue, either. In the new season of True Detective, we're introduced to a missing character by his house full of erotic paintings and sex toys: the implication to the investigating cops (and the viewers) being that he's a freak, and he's probably missing because he was into freaky sex stuff. Meanwhile, you know what it means when a female character in a drama is having lots of casual sex: She's a mess and/or mentally ill, like Carrie Mathison in Homeland. In the shows we're watching with our kids, the sex may not always be had by the healthiest people — no one should be sleeping with Josh on Transparent — but at least it's realistic and presented without judgments.
My wife and I were raised in very different households. She grew up with a single mother and a grandmother in a house where sex was discussed just once, and briefly. I was raised by two librarians who projected 16 mm sex-education films on the wall so I'd have a better range of information than the sperm-and-egg cartoon being shown at school. (And then we had a question-and-answer session. Fun!) My childhood home seems like it was more permissive, but there was a ban on Dukes of Hazzard, due to the objectification of Daisy Duke, and The A-Team, due to all the shooting. And who knows what kind of monster I'd have become if I'd been allowed to watch Charlie's Angels?
But as we've learned in our own parenting experience, there isn't any standard way to raise children. You have to do what you feel is right, and you hope it turns out to have been a good choice. When our first son was a newborn, we kept a notebook and recorded every feeding and bowel movement for the first few weeks before we felt confident we weren't going to accidentally starve him or something. For the second kid, it was more like, "He's crying a lot. Did he eat today?"
So I realize a lot of this sounds like we're indoctrinating our kids to be TV snobs, but they've also bonded, over the years, to Scooby-Doo, ALF, Drake & Josh, The O.C., and Golden Girls. We're just trying to let them sample everything so they can learn and figure out what they care about. And not everything they watch is parent-accompanied, parent-chosen, etc. I don't know who turned our younger kid on to Robot Chicken, for instance, but it wasn't me. When there's something we do want to watch together — say, Transparent — it's usually because we think one or both of the kids is ready for it, and that the thing feels like a natural progression from other stories they've seen and liked. The older kid likes family dramas (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) and anything where people are keeping secrets from each other (Breaking Bad, Weeds, Happy Valley). It seemed like a no-brainer.
Here's how we see it: Kids are bombarded with messages and images all day long, from all angles; we can lock them off from this at home and pretend they won't find it elsewhere, we can let them take it all in unfiltered and hope for the best, or we can walk through some of it with them and give a little perspective. And frankly, since my wife and I both work in media and entertainment, it would be weird and hypocritical to try and raise kids without television. We love comedy, we love drama, so of course our genetic spawn love these things too.
We're raising children, and we're raising adults-to-be — future roommates, co-workers, maybe parents. If we make our kid clean up after dinner, that's because it's a good basic habit, yes, but it's really because we want him to be a considerate citizen and homeowner someday and not be content with living among piles of urine-soaked newspapers. (The obvious outcome for a kid who doesn't take his plate to the sink.) Similarly, all parents are raising people who are going to go out into the world and have sex and be in relationships. Why would we want to raise them as if none of those things were going to happen? Or as if only some of what they may like is OK?
We place a considerable premium on being OK with yourself in our house. Maybe too much, but then we have our reasons.
When he was 10, our older son tried to harm himself. I'll skip the details, but it was clear enough and scary enough that he spent a weekend under observation in the hospital. (He's read this essay, and we've talked about the fact that this is in here.) This had followed a fifth-grade year where the electric, confident kid we'd always known had been replaced by a sullen, angry, self-loathing guy who was often impossible to pry off the couch. That Monday after the hospital stay, he was at home from school while we tried to figure out our next steps. "I just want to see him smiling and laughing," my wife said. Then she lit up and sent me out with a one-item shopping list.
That morning we watched South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, borrowed from the library, with our 10-year-old. From the early musical number "Uncle Fucka," it was kind of magical. He chuckled nervously at first — it's weird to hear something profane with your parents — but before long we were all laughing together.
Did watching the South Park movie cure my son's depression? No, stupid! But it seemed to signal a shift in our approach. Prior to then, we'd kept adult stuff and kid stuff fairly separate. I can remember consulting the website Kids-In-Mind and sweating through their content-based reviews of current movies. (From their assessment of Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed: "A man and a woman kiss. A woman pauses at the top of stairs in a very tight-fitting red leather jump suit (it reveals cleavage and the outline of her figure) and says to a man who admires her, 'Who's your mommy?'")
South Park is vulgar. That's clearly part of its appeal. And as any consumer of media knows, there's no shortage of vulgar entertainment out there. But South Park is also thoughtful. It asks questions. It recognizes that there's more than one side to an issue. And it's funny. So we thought: Maybe this would be a way to help our son understand the wider world. And with that, the old concerns about language or content largely melted away. I mean, when your 10-year-old does something a 10-year-old isn't supposed to do, it suddenly seems beside the point to worry about what's appropriate.
I look back to the TV characters I idolized as a kid — M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce, Taxi's Alex Rieger, Barney Miller, aka "the sensitive males" — and while they were progressive for their time, there's a weird amount of male aggression boiling just under their surfaces. Watching now, I feel like Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Elaine Nardo had, frankly, far more interesting lives that we'll never really know about since they were forever relegated to the B-stories.
Helping our kids understand gender issues feels, in 2015, like an emergency. We're trying to raise two boys in a country and a time where the most dangerous thing seems to be...men. Men kill more people, they commit the most violent crimes, and they certainly rape the most. On a quieter, more insidious front, they control the conversation. They determine who succeeds and who doesn't. And when they feel like that dominance and control is threatened, they lash out. This is why we're so grateful for Broad City's Abbi and Ilana, the best worst role models our boys could have. At the same time, our hope is that by the time the kids are middle-aged, Broad City will seem as quaint and outdated as M*A*S*H. "Was this really such a big deal?" they'll say. "Women going out and having crazy times? People were so backwards in 2015!"
We used to worry about our younger son, since his tastes run to comics, sci-fi, and horror — things that, for most of their history, have been lacking in strong female leads and voices. But lately he's been texting my wife, or tagging her on Facebook, about upcoming series or movies with women at the center of them. Then they'll make plans to watch those things together — like last year's Agent Carter on ABC, or Mad Max: Fury Road at the movies. He doesn't do this out of a sense of obligation; he wants his mother to feel welcome in his world.
So what's the upshot of all this mature television? Am I saying our boys are paragons of human behavior when they're out in the world? I would like to think so, but I have no idea. But if we can get them thinking about who they are and who other people are, if we can help them now to become better adults, that seems like it can only be a good thing.
Matt Debenham is an author, teacher, and retail employee living in Westport, CT. He is the author of a story collection, "The Book of Right and Wrong." (Photo credit: Lisa Jane Persky)
Contact Matt Debenham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.