What is more of a threat to child well-being in America: SpongeBob SquarePants, or The Rod?
This is not an idle question, or a facetious one. It goes to the very heart of a debate about how best to raise children in a society so saturated by popular culture that we can forget how powerful the individual family truly is.
SpongeBob, a bright yellow, bucktooth, beloved cartoon character, is in a bit of hot water. The nebbishy resident of an undersea village is star of Nickelodeon's wildly popular children's TV show and his own feature-length movie; he even marched in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
But SpongeBob also holds hands with his best friend, an exuberant pink starfish named Patrick, and has picked up a following among some gay men. Perhaps that's why he was in the news again last week, when James C. Dobson, respected pediatrician and founder of Focus on the Family, a prominent Christian evangelical organization, asked guests at a black-tie inauguration-week dinner in Washington whether they'd ever heard of SpongeBob.
Dobson wasn't criticizing the oddball hero per se. He was warning the Congress members and other political allies in the audience that SpongeBob was being enlisted in a "pro-homosexual video" that was to be sent to thousands of elementary schools later this year. He urged them to join the "spiritual battle" against those trying to impose this homosexual agenda on innocent school children.
At the same time, another "spiritual battle" is in motion, this one led by a Lutheran mother in Massachusetts who home-schools her children and has begun a national campaign to stop what she sees as the misuse of the Bible as justification for corporal punishment. Susan Lawrence's mission was sparked by an advertisement in a home-school magazine for "The Rod," a flexible, 22-inch whipping stick touted as "the ideal tool for child training."
Lawrence is trying to get the federal government to ban the sale of all products designed for spanking. Her advocacy of Christian nonviolence runs smack into the equally-devout claims of some religious leaders that corporal punishment was created by God and has an appropriate role in the Christian home. Among the most vocal in that camp is - that's right - James C. Dobson.
So I could rephrase the question in an obviously loaded way: What's worse for children - subtle messages of asexual friendship delivered by goofy cartoon characters, or a parent reaching for The Rod and delivering a solid, painful whack across the bottom? But that's too easy.
It's just plain silly to pick on SpongeBob, or Barney the saccharine purple dinosaur, or the Teletubbies' Tinky Winky, or any of the other benign characters that have been targets of the Christian right. It's a case of adults reading far more into a situation than children ever will.
It resonates, though, because the constant assault of a coarse and hedonistic popular culture does alienate and anger many parents - for good reason. Children had been exposed to the dark, difficult side of life long before the Brothers Grimm began to write their scary tales, but today's pop culture is uniquely relentless, pervasive and cynical.
And it's a convenient target for those wishing to stoke the perception that traditional (and Christian?) values are at risk in the "spiritual battle" raging through the nation.
There's a simple response to those worried that SpongeBob is corrupting their kids. Turn off the TV. The jury's still out on my parenting, but one of the smartest things my husband and I have done is to keep televisions and computers out of everyone's bedrooms.
I can't raise my children in a protective bubble, and they'd rebel if I did. But I can offset whatever else they are exposed to by the way I act at home. A short video with SpongeBob is no match for the power of good parenting.
Which brings us to Susan Lawrence's campaign. Here the right of parents to raise their children as they wish collides with society's obligation to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Corporal punishment is still approved by two-thirds of Americans and sanctioned in schools by more than 20 states, even though scads of scientific studies indicate it often does more harm than good.
What happens in the home is far more consequential than what is beamed in from the outside. In America today, that's cause for satisfaction - and deep concern.
Contact columnist Jane Eisner at 215-854-4530 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/janeeisner.
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