C.S. Lewis opens his brilliant, prophetic series of lectures entitled The Abolition of Man with these words: “I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books.” Lewis alerts his audience to particular lessons children in his day were learning about values, ethics and knowledge - lessons which, if uncritically absorbed into our souls, gut our very humanity. How this dehumanizing happens, I’ll not spoil for you – please read the book if you’ve not already! Suffice it to say, Lewis was right.
The ideas espoused in the allegedly harmless text he critiques have formed the philosophical ethos of our era. Society declares itself the master and maker of meaning. We define ourselves by redefining millennia-spanning social institutions like marriage, and we decide which human lives matter and which are expendable in our pursuit of self-defined social progress. The children who imbibed the ideas Lewis laments have grown up. Now, like their philosophical fathers, they set their sights on the (re)education of younger generations. This time, however, they not only aim their educational efforts at children, but they actively seek to use children as teachers of their morality.
Taking Lewis’ thoughts into our generation, I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to films bearing the benign label “romantic comedy” – chik-flik is the crass term - especially when these “romcoms” involve children. I’ll not even come close to touching the thorny issue of what is or is not good for us adults to watch (let alone what’s good for kids!). My concern is how children are increasingly used as the salespeople for a film’s moral agenda and how their being made the champions of our entertainment’s ethics profoundly hurts them.
We often decry physically violent movies as destructive and desensitizing, especially for young viewers. But we seldom decry what we might call socially violent media, especially if comes to us as comedies. These are films in which no blood spatters on the screen, no murders take place – there’s not a gun or knife to be seen, not a scream of horror or a whispered threat to be heard. They are “clean” films according to typical rating standards, but they feature carnage of another sort. The casualties in these films are society sustaining social structures, and the children whom the films prop up as enlightened social commentators.
Filmmakers put words expressing their ethics into the mouths of young actors, and seek by force of the child’s cuteness to connect their philosophy with the hearts of their audience. The implicit message is this: kids understand the way the world should work, and grownups need to learn from them.
Think of the romcoms, and sitcoms for that matter, in which children assume the role of parents as the moral compass of the family. Bumbling dad and manic mom are corrected and comforted by their often foul mouthed progeny. If we’re amused at the vulgar antics of these pint-sized protagonists, we’ve already bought into the worldview the film is selling. Sometimes, child characters actually encourage the destruction of the relationships in which their identity is formed. Consider this increasingly standard fare of the chik-flik:
A parent wants romantic happiness beyond his or her current committed relationship. But the parent does not want to traumatize the child whose emotional stability seems dependent upon that relationship’s survival. What is the conscience-stricken parent to do? Typically, the parent decides to be a martyr for the child’s sake, to quell the passionate desires stirred by the outsider of interest. Such suppression is always portrayed as a noble gesture, but is increasingly portrayed as an unnecessary one.
The parent tells the child of the sacrifice made. But then comes the shocking plot turn we’ve come to expect, a twist made of Hollywood magic: To the parent’s great surprise and delight, the remarkably circumspect child says exactly what the parent wants to hear but didn’t dare believe could be in the child’s best interest: “I love you, and I want you to be happy. Follow your heart, and I’ll be right behind you.”
Poof!! Dilemma solved! Conscience cleansed! Cue the swelling soundtrack and the quick cab to the airport to catch the rejected romantic partner before it’s too late. The stunned, beaming couple embraces while the airplane which would have separated them forever flies off into the sunset. Meanwhile, back at home, the child gazes knowingly at the same rosy sky, wearing a satisfied, sagacious smile. Sighing at the endearing ignorance of the parent, the child is glad to have taught the lesson we all need to learn: We must have the courage to pursue our personal happiness, however we want to define it. If someone truly loves us, they’ll be happy for us to do so, and we’ll all be happier in the end.
Well told fiction creates a desire for reality to reflect the morality it promotes. If the film applies the common romcom elements of rocky relationships, burgeoning romance and cute kids effectively enough, it can get us to hope for an outcome predicated upon the violation of principles we’d otherwise hold dear: fidelity, honesty, and a selfless parental love for children.
In the scenario above, the parent was at least willing to forsake “true love” for the sake of the child. Such is not always the case. In some stories, a parent actually leaves a child to pursue romance, confident that the child “will understand someday.” How is such abandonment good for a child? Sprinkle more Hollywood magic on the story and fast forward to “someday.” The child, now an adult, thanks the absentee parent for exemplifying the courage to follow one’s heart. Poof! Abandonment begets affection; the morally outrageous becomes morally courageous.
The children in these films are meant to be adorable emissaries of the filmmaker’s ideal world: a world wherein relationships are revolving doors, wherein commitments are entirely conditional, and wherein even children are ultimately unharmed by an adult’s pursuit of self-satisfaction as life’s greatest good. Such children are truly works of fiction.
My wise wife commented after we watched a film boasting a worldly-wise kid as its moral center: “That’s how the writers want kids to be in order to justify their lifestyles. It’s not how kids really are.”
Real children do not respond with self-effacing calm to the willing destruction of relationships precious to them. Indeed, they should not respond that way! Yes, children should be encouraged in selflessness, but not a selflessness which serves the selfishness of others.
A much more realistic expression of a child’s heart comes from a song by the band Everclear. Not known for its family friendly lyrics, the band is brutally and refreshingly honest as it expresses the heart of a child whose parents are going their separate ways. The song is called “Wonderful” and it includes these lines:
“Promises mean everything, when you’re little, and the world is so big. I just don’t understand how you can smile with all those tears in your eyes when you tell me everything is wonderful now…
“I don’t wanna hear you say, that I will understand some day …
“I don’t wanna hear you say, you both have grown in a different way…
“I don’t wanna meet your friends, and I don’t wanna start over again. I just want my life to be the same, just like it used to be. Some days I hate everything, everyone and everything … Please don’t tell me everything is wonderful now.”
Children’s hearts are crafted by the eternally faithful God whose image we all bear, and for Whom it is impossible to lie (Hebrews 6:18). As such, children have an innate desire for right relationships, relationships expressive of the immutable, holy love among the Persons of the Godhead.
Children therefore have wisdom seemingly beyond their years – not the pseudo smarts of socially relevant sass, written by adults. These writers want children to speak crassly of relationships for which the children are not physically and emotionally ready. It’s a form of child abuse which our society accepts because it makes so many of us laugh.
The true genius of children is seen (among other ways) in their skill at spotting hypocrisy; in their passionate desire for justice; in their loving to be loved unconditionally; and in their craving for compassionate consistency to mark the social structures in which they are reared.
Children, like adults, are also sinful. Their image bearing instincts are twisted by sin, mixed with and marred by selfishness. Thus, a toddler may have murder in his eyes when his toy is taken because of disobedience. And thus, children often desire attention and adulation even if it comes by hurting someone else. Some filmmakers take advantage of that desire, offering kids fame in exchange for selling the film’s worldview through vulgar speech and activities. What the children don’t realize is that they are harming themselves in the process.
Children, like adults, need God’s saving grace and forgiveness, His renewing of their minds. They must be taught to love the unchanging, Triune God, to trust His definition of social mores, and to display His character in their affections, actions and relationships.
As Christian children grow by God’s grace to know and love Him, the relational instincts they have as image bearers begin to flourish, especially when they see Christ’s character radiant in the relationships surrounding them. The “me first” mentality driving so many romcoms and destroying so many right relationships and their young beneficiaries, is increasingly put off in favor of Christ like humility and selfless love.
As Christians, we must recognize and redress Satanically subtle forms of child abuse in our day. The depth of these evils is evident when children are made the affable advocates of the very ideas which destroy them. May the abolition of man in our day cease, and may children no longer be used as pawns in society’s arbitrarily defined pursuit of social progress. May we see instead more of mankind made new by the gospel (Romans 12:1-2), and hear the powerful praise of God from the lips of our children (Psalm 8:2).