How many times have you heard discussions about whether or not violent video games, song lyrics or film scenes can influence our children? B.C. (before children) I would have argued that it was ridiculous to make such a connection, that kids could not possibly copy violent acts they’d experienced through forms of popular culture unless they came from a violent background themselves. Now that I’m a mother it’s a totally different story…
No matter how strong your maternal instinct was prior to having children, all mums know that our urge to protect our little ones goes into overdrive when we become parents. I’ll be the first to admit that my protective instinct runs in top gear when it comes to my little ones. I can’t help but think about the possibility of them hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting up to all sorts when they’re older. I like to picture myself as the kind of mum who they’ll be able to share anything with. Don’t we all? But I bet this will go out the window the day my daughter leaves the house in a dress so short that I think she’s wearing a T-shirt and forgot to put something else on with it, or my son goes to his mate’s house for the afternoon with a full backpack and part of our garden hose is missing. Madonna’s song lyrics were racy in my day and I’m sure my dad’s blood pressure went up a notch when he heard Like a Virgin blaring from his teenage girl’s stereo. But when I recently read American author, civil rights lawyer and mum of two Lisa Bloom’s new book, Swagger – which details song lyrics of some of today’s chart-topping hip-hop and rap artists, like Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye West – I imagined myself throwing my kids’ iPods in the bin and grounding them… forever.
Either I’m getting old, prudish and easily offended, or singing about things like misogyny and homophobia as though they’re something to be revered is apparently okay these days. Swagger details these lyrics, however I’m still too shocked to share them with you. As Lisa Bloom states: ‘If a violent criminal knocked on your front door and said he’d like some time alone with your son to sing some catchy and slickly packaged songs he’d written about life on the streets and behind bars, would you give him ten bucks, show him to your son’s room, and leave the two of them alone for hours, unmonitored?’ This paraphrase from the third chapter of Swagger kept me reading. It made me laugh and, at the same time, had me thinking ‘You couldn’t have put it any better’. Before this I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish reading Swagger. This is because it starts out with an alarming bunch of statistics and research into how girls are outperforming boys at every level of school, in every subject. Boys are being kicked out of preschool at four times the rate of girls and girls dominate the top 10 percent of the class, while boys crowd the bottom 10 percent.
Straight to the point, no messing about, the first few chapters are a blunt reality check for parents of boys in the United States. Lisa Bloom’s research was conducted in America, but as I turned each page I could see how parents in the United Kingdom could easily relate. I lived in London for seven years and saw the consequences of a poor education, unemployment and too many free hours to listen to Kanye West singing:
She said can we get married at the mall?
I said look you need to crawl ’fore you ball
Come and meet me in the bathroom stall
And show me why you deserve to have it all.
I’m now based in Sydney, Australia where education cuts and gang culture often make news headlines. Swagger covers topics like education no longer being a national priority, the de-industrial revolution, thug culture and incarceration. Why just boys, what about the girls? In a nutshell, Swagger explains (and supports with statistics) how one thing leads to the next – boys are growing up in a society where reading is being seen more and more as ‘girly’, yet reading is the key to educational success (if a child can’t read and comprehend then how can they interpret and answer exam and essay questions?). This leads to dropping out of school or finishing studies at high-school level. The problem with this is that developed countries are increasingly outsourcing the manufacturing of products to countries like China, so the ‘blue-collar worker’ is disappearing and obtaining a degree is becoming a necessity in order to secure a well-paid job. Unemployment leads to poverty and so on…
‘Thanks, All Abroad Baby… what a cheerful start to my day!’, you must be thinking, but hang in there. In the end, Swagger delivered – I felt like I was brought up to scratch on the world my son is growing up in, rather than the one I grew up in. Reading Swagger I was reminded of an old Chinese proverb that I’ve always admired: Do not confine children to your own learning for they were born in another time. Swagger gives parents some practical tips on how to raise boys right now (some of which you can use from the day they’re born, see point 3, below, about making your home a reading mecca) to help steer our little men away from offensive song lyrics and towards reading for enjoyment. Lisa Bloom goes into more detail in Swagger, however I asked her to summarise her ideas for you. Here’s what she said:
1) Lose the swagger: Teach humility, not arrogance. This one attitude adjustment will raise his grades, make him emotionally healthier, less likely to fight, drink alcohol or use drugs.
2) Set university expectations early and often: A university degree is the golden ticket into the middle class. Get him there by being clear from the beginning: you’re going, kid. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of where.
3) Make your home a reading mecca: Model for him that reading is a pleasure by reading frequently in his presence. Have books in every room, family library outings. Take him to author events. Listen to audiobooks in the car.
4) Eliminate the competition: Books can’t compete with the razzle dazzle of TV, movies and video games, which slow down our kids’ brains. When in doubt, turn them off.
5) Become aware of the data pinging in and out of your boy’s brain: Take out the earbuds and listen to the music he’s listening to. Google the lyrics. If you still don’t understand them, go on UrbanDictionary.com to get definitions. Watch his video games to check the violence level. Insist on the username and password to Facebook and other sites he visits, so that you can monitor his use.
6) Teach your boy to be ever-critical of all media: Swagger includes scripts on how to talk to your son about all the messages he’s bombarded with. Talk loudly and frequently about your values, and engage him in the conversation. How does he feel about those demeaning images of women in music videos, for instance? Would he want to see his sister or mother depicted that way? What non-violent ways could the hero have used to solve his problems in that movie?
7) Support his teacher: When his teacher tells you there’s a problem, hear them out. Don’t push back. They’re trying to help you and your son. And if you have an issue with his teacher, talk to them about it privately, away from your son.
8) Teach him to respect girls and women: It’s not just the good and decent thing to do as it’s always been. In many industries women now dominate as middle managers. He’ll likely have a female boss in his first job. If he doesn’t know how to treat her and his smart, empowered women coworkers with respect, he’ll be out on the street.
9) Make community service a regular part of your family life: It’s not all about him. Feeding the homeless, walking dogs at a local shelter, speaking English with immigrants opens his eyes to other worlds, and gives him the genuine self-esteem that’s earned from making a contribution to his community.
10) Take him away: If possible, take him to another country, and let him experience other cultures, languages, religions and ways of life. If that’s not possible, take him to local historical sites or science, art or offbeat museums to expand his mind. Take a tour, stand with him in the front, ask questions, and encourage him to do the same. Model intellectual curiosity for him, and engagement with the world.
You can find a free excerpt from Swagger on Lisa Bloom’s website by clicking here.