Why my kids get to see `South Park'

April 16, 2000|By Barry S. Fagin

I CONFESS: I let my kids watch "South Park" on cable television's Comedy Central. Not every episode, mind you. I prescreen them on video before I watch them with the family.

But when my face lands on the cover of Negligent Father magazine, that will 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."

My son and daughter have seen the young character Kenny get eaten by rats. They've watched a cute little bear get blown to smithereens and seen a boy toast marshmallows over a burning Vietnam veteran. It's scenes like these, and much worse, that rile up groups like Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

They think American popular culture is a moral sewer and "South Park" is its lead exhibit. The group's youth culture magazine calls the show "twisted," "extremely mean-spirited" and "deplorable." It concludes that the program's own tongue-in-cheek disclaimer may be the most accurate warning of all." It states the program "should not be viewed by anyone."

But my family has had some of our best times together sitting around the dinner table, repeating bits from the show and laughing hysterically.

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 experience and 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?

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 one episode, an animated Bob Denver of TV's "Gilligan's Island" fame makes a fool of himself on a talk show. In another, former TV star and zaftig Christian Children's Fund pitchwoman Sally Struthers gets caught stuffing herself on food meant for famine relief. Most of the shows featuring "guest" celebrities drive home the point that actors are just people who are paid to pretend.

It's good to make fun of people who believe stupid things. 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 born with a stillborn fetus attached to her head.

The script suggests 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. 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, 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. That's what parenting is all about.

Given the opportunity, parents can find moral education and artistic value in surprising places, even in "Conjoined Fetus Lady." When our family sits down to dinner and my kids start riffing on a "South Park" episode, we laugh and laugh, sharing the kind of connection cultural conservatives claim is all too scarce in American family life.

It's a moment made by the delicious anarchy of American popular culture. If this is a moral sewer, it's one I'm proud to swim in.

Barry Fagin is a senior fellow in technology policy at the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colo., and wrote a version of this article for Reason magazine.

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