The title of this article presupposes two things: First, your children are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss aside this article with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed and I am careful to protect them. I don’t need to read this.” But watch an hour of prime time television and you have seen pornography. Drive past any number of billboards while on a trip and you have seen pornography. Look at the fashion posters in the clothing stores at the mall and you have seen it, in some form.
Don’t believe it? Here is one problem to begin with: We have a very limited definition of pornography. Most of us think of pornography as something found on the Internet, or in adult book stores or behind the counter in convenience stores. While dictionaries might define pornography as pictorial or literary renderings of obscene material related to nudity or the sex act, it is much broader than that. Pornography is anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. It is anything that tempts and corrupts the human heart into desiring sensual pleasure in sinful ways.
By this definition, we live in a pornographic culture. Think of everything you see on a given day, from driving to the office to watching TV at night. Beer and soap advertisements, as well as underwear ads, all use the human body in provocative ways to catch the attention of the audience. It is not so much that sex is used to sell products, but that products are being used to sell sex. A woman groaning erotically while having her hair washed in a TV ad is not encouraging us to think about clean hair, but about having a sexual encounter.
What is happening here? The culture is attempting to feed our hearts. It tells us our lives are incomplete without the product it is trying to sell us. And when sex is used to sell it, it implies that the product will give us something even more enticing: it will make us into a beautiful woman or man, or draw one toward us, or possibly lead to a sexual encounter.
The sensuality of our culture has laid the groundwork, in some sense, for why overt pornography (like what is common on the Internet) has such power over us. The endless stream of sensual and sexual images touches upon the inner hunger for more, which is a result of living in a fallen world. The need for human relationship, a good creation but itself broken by sin, is something the culture teaches can be filled, not by long-term friendships or marriage, but by sexual and sensual pleasure whenever you can get it. This is why a definition of pornography must be broader in scope. The messages and images we are bombarded with today entice our hearts into desiring sexual and sensual pleasures in ways that are far outside of God’s boundaries.
These are the messages your children are inundated with beyond measure. When thinking about the critical issue of protecting your children from viewing or engaging in much more damaging pornography, you need to know that, daily, your children are being brainwashed into thinking that they need to be sexually active to be happy and fulfilled. You need to address the overarching problem of how our culture sexualizes everything before your children become addicted to pornography. There are two major things you can do.
1. Create a nurturing environment to talk about sex with your children
The first thing parents need to do is just begin talking about sex. This is easier said than done, as the issue of sexuality is so closely connected to matters of one’s past behavior, shame, sin, present behavior, and all the brokenness that the Fall has brought down on sex. But if you don’t begin bringing this subject into the open in your home, you will leave your children defenseless against a culture that is quite willing to talk about sex (and show it) to your children.
Start by working to create a safe environment in your home to talk about emotionally difficult things. Many parents think they are protecting their children by not talking about sex, but in reality they are creating an environment where the children will learn that sex is a taboo subject. As kids grow older, if you have not been talking regularly about sex with your children, then how will they deal with the normal sexual urges and desires they will have growing up? If there is no clear message coming from you, then you can pretty much know where it will be coming from. What’s worse is, if the only time they hear you talking about sex is when you are critical of it (judging other’s behavior), or if your only message is to not have sex before marriage, then they will grow up helpless against the onslaught of unbiblical messages coming their way.
Start by examining God’s view of sex
To teach your children about healthy sexuality, and to begin creating a nurturing environment to talk about it, first examine your own view of sexuality. Is your understanding of sex grounded in Scripture, or is it more based on your own parental upbringing or experiences? There is no way to avoid the impact of your own upbringing here, but it is critical to make what God’s Word says about it paramount. The Bible is very free in discussing sexuality. In Genesis 2:25 we read that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. The Bible says there is nothing wrong with the human body and sexuality; it was the sin of Adam and Eve in disobeying God that caused sexuality to be distorted. It is only after they rebelled against God by eating the forbidden fruit that suddenly they were ashamed by their nakedness. In Proverbs 5:15-19 husbands are encouraged to rejoice in their wives—to enjoy their wives’ breasts and to be drunk with her loving-making. In the Song of Solomon we have vivid descriptions of the joys of sexuality in the context of marriage.
So, what message are you giving your children? Do they see sex as a beautiful gift from God to be enjoyed within the context of marriage, or do they see it as something embarrassing that cannot be discussed? Are they being taught, by your words and your actions, that sex in the context of marriage is something that is right, good, exciting, and life-affirming?
Set the stage on this topic early on with your children. Even if you are late in the game, don’t hesitate to start it now! Learn what the Bible says about sex and let your own misunderstandings and distortions be shaped by God’s Word. Let God’s view of sexuality become yours. If your children are young, talk to them openly and in age-appropriate ways about sex: what it is for; why it is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman; how they should think and feel about sex and their own bodies. If your kids are older, do the same thing, but with teens you may only get an audience by coming at the topic “sideways.” Engage them in conversation over movies, television, news stories, etc. Ask them what their peers are saying about sex and relationships. This can be a good way to get them to open up about their own concerns and struggles about sex, which can then lead into a more “direct” talk on the subject.
Address the deeper longings of their hearts
Talking about the physical or aspects of sex with our children is not enough. There is more to sexuality than Biology 101. But even talking about the emotional aspects of sex is still not enough. Sex begins not with the biology of our bodies, but with the longing for relationship in our hearts.
The beginning of this article focused on the fact that our culture uses a “porn is norm” approach to entice our hearts to want something that will fill our hearts with what we lack. Advertisers clearly understand the human heart, that we have deep inner longings that never seem to be adequately met. That is why pornography is so powerful. Until our children understand why they can feel lonely in a crowded room… until our children understand why they wish life had a happy ending like the movies… until our children understand why they can be sad for no apparent reason… until they understand the longing and emptiness that is always there inside of them, they will never know how to defend themselves against the strong, enticing pull of pornography.
We need to consistently communicate to our children that everyone has these inner longings that cannot be completely fulfilled in this life. This is not to create despair but to give hope. This is Christianity 101: sin has shattered everything in the world, and our longing for something more in life is a sign that points us toward the One who alone can ultimately fulfill us. We were created to be completely fulfilled in an eternal relationship with God, and from that all human relationships would flourish. But now, because of our broken hearts, even the best relationship we might have with God and others will leave us, in this life, longing for more.
Knowing this, about what we are made for and how sin has broken and impaired this relationship with God and others, can help our children identify their longings and resist the inevitable pull to meet them in false and sinful ways. Knowing why we have these longings is one of the best pieces of wisdom a parent can impart to a child. It will give the child a way to process all sorts of emotions and temptations.
Ask the right kinds of questions
How do you address these inner longings with your child? First, do what Jesus did: ask questions all over the place! Parents who only want to make sure their children don’t do anything wrong will generally engage them with commands and lectures. But parents who are wiser, knowing that their children are sinners like themselves and will do wrong things, will engage their behavior and their hearts with probing questions. The first recorded words from Jesus in the book of John is a question: “What do you seek?” When addressing the disabled man at the pool of Bethesda, who obviously wanted nothing more than to walk again, he asked him a question, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus always engaged a person at the level of the heart. We must do the same with our children. Do not just settle for what you see on the surface, their behavior. Dig deeper, for the sake of their souls!
When seeking to engage your child’s heart, watch your own heart! It is easy to ask questions that can be asked in a way that seeks to expose someone for judgment. Are you seeking information just so you can lower the ax? Are you trying to uncover behavior so that you can punish or “ground” your child? The wrong kind of questions, coming from the wrong kind of motive, will drive a child deeper into seclusion and secrecy—the very place sin, especially sexual sin, thrives.
Instead, ask questions that invite your child’s heart to show itself. Ask questions that help him talk about his feelings (positive and negative) and not just get him to explain his behavior. For example: “You’ve been spending a long time on your computer. What is it that you enjoy doing on it?” If you, instead, acted on your fears and directly asked, “Are you looking at porn?” you would close the discussion down immediately. Use an open-ended question to start off the conversation and then follow it with similar questions. You may (or may not) in that conversation get much detail, but a lifetime of engaging your child with questions that help them to be real is what you want to do.
The right kind of questions will affirm the child as being a person of value (created in the image of God) and someone you love and care about. The right kind of questions will allow the child to express his or her hurts and pains. The right kind of questions will uncover the deeper longings that they wrestle with and allow you the opportunity to share truths about God and how to live life by his grace. Ask yourself when talking with your child, “Is this question going after behavior or is it trying to reveal the heart? Am I seeking to expose for judgment, or am I seeking to know their soul?”
Listen with the right way of hearing
Second, as you ask your questions, be careful to genuinely listen and not overreact. Often our children will share something they have done, or a fantasy they may have, and we will react in a knee-jerk way. This is understandable, because we as parents are very protective of our children, but overreacting when they have risked being vulnerable with us will communicate to them that you will not love or understand them on that level. Staying calm and connected with him or her tells your child that your love for them is real, especially when they are being real and honest with you. When you do this, you are in a position to speak into their lives and have them listen to you. By really listening to them, you will find that they will be more willing to allow you to share with them your own concerns, listen to any alternate ways of thinking or behavior you might share with them, and, more importantly, help them wrestle with what God’s Word says as you look to the Scriptures for answers.
Understand their world with the right kind of knowledge
Third, take the time to learn what your child is up against. Enter his or her world. This may mean that you have to do some research. You may have to educate yourself about what his or her peers believe. For example: Did you know that many teens think that they can have oral sex with numerous partners and still be a virgin? Are you aware of how many ways your child can be bombarded with sexual images (the Internet, message apps, text messages, photo sharing sites, etc)?
Every generation has faced sexual temptation and has been pulled to behave in ways that are outside of God’s design. But this generation, with its proliferation of ways to gather information and communicate, is clearly up against the most formidable temptations that have ever existed. As their parent, you must stay on top of what your child faces every day.
Part of taking the time to learn about their world is also determining the extent of the problem your child might be facing. You need to know the dangers out there and also what your child has gotten into. So if you discover your son is visiting adult sites on the Internet, find out, in a non-threatening manner, how often he does this. What kinds of sites (heterosexual, homosexual, streaming videos, etc.) is he visiting? Such a string of questions might sound like you are grilling him, so how you ask will be critical to “invite” him to be honest with you. It is critical that you seek to discern the extent of your child’s behavior, constantly affirming to him that you are not doing this so that you can punish, but to figure out how best to help. Do not let a witch-hunt mentality develop. Instead, hold onto the idea that you are like a surgeon trying to determine the extent of the cancer so that you can treat the patient. Look for patterns in the behaviors that might reveal the deeper heart issues.
Remember that your goal in all of this is to look for the motives of the heart that might be leading your son or daughter into dangerous territory. Keep circling back in your mind to the fact that everyone’s sinful behaviors come out of sinful decisions made to address the core issues of the heart. Your goal is to help your child see, as much as possible, what is happening beneath the surface of his or her behavior.
2. Lead by example
It should be obvious that the course of action described above cannot occur in one conversation. It is a life-long process. Start doing it now. Carefully build that environment in which you and your children can take steps to be real and open with one another. Asking good questions directed at your child’s heart, listening well, and understanding the world in which he or she lives will go a long way toward creating such a nurturing environment.
But lead now. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Technology is rapidly advancing, and the culture is rapidly moving away from traditional (read: much less Christian) values. You cannot shield your children from problems and sin in this world. You can only shepherd them and give to them the lifelong tools of thinking and behaving that will better help them resist the pressures they will inevitably face once they are grown-up and on their own.
If your children are young, start talking to them now about God’s design for sex (see “Take Courage! Parents and the Dreaded Conversation,” another article on this website).
If you have found that your children have been looking at porn—and again, the odds are overwhelming that they have—go to our bookstore to order a copy of our mini book, iSnooping on Your Kids: Parenting in an Internet World. This mini book will give you further tools on how to talk to your kids about healthy sexuality and the destructive effects of pornography, along with many practical, technological, preventative steps to take.
To help teach your child what are the subtle ways porn impacts and twists one’s mind and heart in ways that destroy relationships, read our mini book, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single.
You might be thinking right now, with the direction the culture is going, that your children are doomed to make it through their childhood, much less their whole life, without escaping this scourge. Remember this, though: The good news is that the first followers of Jesus Christ found themselves in a culture just as deeply broken and sexualized as our own. The Greek and Roman pantheons thrived on unlimited and outrageous sexual debauchery. The early church was filled with people who were coming out of lifestyles of immorality (I Corinthians 6:9-11). Yet the truth of the gospel overcame the pressures to conform to that culture. The gospel then is the gospel now: It is God’s grace that trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11-12, ESV).
God’s Word still speaks powerfully to these issues. You can have the faith that as you share this same gospel with your children, they will experience hope and change. Our hope as parents does not falter, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.