The risk of going on holiday with friends is that you inadvertently expose the vagaries of your child-rearing methods to the scrutiny of others. Some parents seem to be breast-feeding lusty six-year-olds. Some of them have strange systems of potty training. And I am now accused by my fellow parents of being eccentrically liberal in what I consider suitable for the kiddies to watch on television.
It happened like this. We were all chuckling at a DVD of For Your Eyes Only, a superbly bad 1981 Bond film starring Roger Moore, and I was just thinking what wholesome family viewing it was.
For those of us in the throes of middle age it was cheering to watch the elderly Roger Moore as he creaked around the set while younger, fitter women flung themselves at his wobbly jowls. It is not so much an action movie as an anti-ageism tract.
So there we were giggling away, when another friend and mother came in and said – very nicely – would we mind pressing the pause button, because she didn’t want her 11-year-old exposed to the sex’n’violence of James Bond; and of course we immediately complied, though I was puzzled. There was no swearing; the violence was so parodic as to be completely undisturbing. As for sex, the only racy scene involved Bond and the girl taking off their dressing gowns, so that you saw their undraped knees – in the case of Roger Moore, a reassuringly wrinkly knee.
What was wrong with that, I wondered; and then another parent piped up and observed that we let our children watch a film called Hot Fuzz – an acutely observed satire of rural policing – even though it carried a 15 certificate, and most of our children were not yet 15. Yes, said someone else, and what about this DVD of Shaun of the Dead? Don’t tell me you let your children watch Shaun of the Dead? Er, yes, I said.
Like families across Britain, our family has been richly entertained by the bit where they bludgeon the zombies with cricket bats, and the bit in Hot Fuzz where the spire falls from the church and skewers someone.
But I have to admit that under the interrogation of my friends I felt a spasm of guilt. Am I contributing to the erosion of public morals? Am I failing to set the right boundaries? Am I partly responsible for Broken Britain?
Well, yes, you are, said one friend and mother. These James Bond films glamorised violence, she argued. They carried the implication that chaps with guns were successful with women, and she didn’t like the way her three-year-old rushed around pointing his finger and going bang.
And what’s this, said someone else, riffling through the pile of DVDs: not Desperate Housewives! Not Sex and the City! Did we really let our children watch these shows? I don’t think I am grown-up enough to cope with a full episode of Sex and the City, since it is Aristophanic in its vulgarity, but I had to admit that some of our children might have seen some of it, and they might have seen some of Desperate Housewives; and by this time I realised that I stood convicted in the eyes of my peers.
We have been so lax as to allow our nation’s future – at their most impressionable age – to be exposed to shattering images of New York harlots, exsanguinating zombies and Roger Moore’s knees.
I have been racking my brains for a defence, and the first point to make is that we are always slightly stunned to discover what the younger generation is reading or watching. I remember my grandmother being amazed that I was reading David Niven’s risqué memoir, The Moon’s a Balloon; and no one stopped me picking up Flashman, at the age of 11, and discovering that the hero gets off to a cracking start in life by being expelled from school and raping his father’s mistress.
I speak for most of my generation when I say that in every group of 13-year-old boys there was always a porn merchant who did a lively trade in Knave or Fiesta before going on to hone his skills at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs.
Did these literary or visual stimuli corrupt us, or make us any more dysfunctional than we would otherwise have been? I doubt it, any more than children in fifth-century Athens would have been corrupted by sneaking a look at the images on their parents’ red‑figure calyx-craters.
Every generation is phobic about the effect of new technology on the morals of the next, and the truth is, I don’t like the idea of kids spending hours on the web, probably being groomed by paedophiles from Liège; and yet all the kids I know – whatever they have been goggling at – seem remarkably unruffled, and surprisingly moralistic. No matter how sordid the programmes, they disapprove vehemently of swearing. Anything remotely racist or homophobic sounds much more profane, to their ears, than it did to children 30 years ago. I could direct you to an 11-year‑old who certainly likes Desperate Housewives, but the show she really loves is called High School Musical and is so clean as to be positively emetic.
Sometimes I think our censoriousness is not so much about protecting children as it is about preventing them from seeing the embarrassing silliness of adult behaviour. Of course there must be limits. It’s just that I am not sure we always put them in the right place. The satirical schlock of Hot Fuzz is apparently only suitable for those of 15 and above, while the much nastier and more violent Batman yarn, The Dark Knight, rates only a 12A. What’s that about? In so far as there is any potential for corruption in these films, it depends, I suppose, on what else is going on in the lives of our kids and what else they do with their time.
The real trouble is that they watch too much blasted electronic media altogether, and for a treatment of this painful issue I direct you to the micro-selling volume, The Perils of the Pushy Parents, by me, published by HarperCollins, and still available at the local Oxfam.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 24 Februrary 2009 under the heading, “How, exactly, will Roger Moore’s knees corrupt my children?”]