how to think critically

Train Your Kids How to Think Critically about Media

You wouldn’t let a stranger into your home for hours every day to train your kids how to think about themselves, would you? You wouldn’t invite a salesperson in for dinner night after night to pitch her product while you and your family were eating together, right? Maybe we need to stop and think about that for a minute.

Media sells real messages to our kids. That’s television shows, movies, commercials, print media, music—all of it. Those messages specifically target core issues in our children’s development, including identity, values, self-worth and more. While dads don’t want to create reactionary or nervously critical kids, we are tasked with training them to know where their worth really comes from, build their life on what truly lasts, or find where real happiness lies. This takes an intentional conversation from dads. And it is a process, not a onetime conversation.

Here are some steps for training your kids to think critically about media (but, try out the first two before meeting with your kids):

  • Identify a couple of messages you feel are critically important for your children to receive from you as a father. Is it a message about their self-worth? Is it a specific value or belief that is central to your family? Is it identity? Is it validation of your son’s masculinity or your daughter’s femininity? You can’t tackle every single issue at once, so spend a minute identifying which topics or messages you most want your kids to receive from you and not from advertisers, music, or media portrayal.
  • Listen carefully to the media you use. Before starting to help your kids discern the messages embedded in their music, movies, and advertisements, practice on your own. What messages are being held out to you? Notice where you feel the pull of a product pitch: “You’ll be cool again if you drive this car! Manly men use this deodorant! Women are attracted to guys who dress in these clothes! Who cares about tomorrow? Live wild and free tonight!” Get in a few reps by going through this exercise on your own.

And when you sit down with your kids:

  • Don’t start with a show, movie, or video game that is immediately controversial. Parents perpetually have to negotiate with kids about what shows, movies, and media are acceptable or not. If you start with your kids by analyzing a show they watch but maybe shouldn’t be, you could end up sidetracked in disagreement over basic rules and enforcement. Your objective here is to invite discussion, reflection, and participation from your kids. So it’s wise to keep things as simple as possible by picking media that’s already acceptable. Don’t worry. Targeted messages are still embedded in safe media choices. They’re every media form, once you recognize them.
  • Do start with a commercial. In commercials, advertisers have a thirty-second spot to make a big, splashy point. It’s not very subtle. It’s a lot easier to identify something big and splashy. With practice and time, you and your kids can graduate to examining whole shows or movies.
  • Remembering the topics you’ve thought about from Step 1, ask your kids to identify the message within the commercial. Notice it and examine it together. Take turns identifying the message until you both agree you’ve got it nailed down.
  • Discern the aspects of the message you can affirm as well as elements you would reject. There aren’t too many things in life that are all good or all bad all the time. Kids have to learn how to differentiate what’s healthy from what’s damaging, even within the same presentation. This practice also has the added benefit of making sure your kids don’t feel like the hidden agenda of your effort is to “show them how all the media they enjoy is hurtful.”

As fathers, we need to train our kids to use and enjoy media wisely and responsibly. As fathers, we need to train our kids to use and enjoy media wisely and responsibly. “Kids, keep your eyes open. Remember, your dad loves you and has more life-giving things to say to you than any movie or advertisements you could watch. So here are some of the good things I want to reaffirm and for your to carry with you into life.”

Huddle with your kids, watch a commercial on TV, and ask, “What did that commercial say is really important for happiness?”