A friend of mine who is generally liberal in his politics, cultural and otherwise, wrote the other day to describe a crisis of sorts that he’s going through in his family. I publish this excerpt from his letter with his permission. I’ve slightly edited parts of it for the sake of preserving his privacy:

We were shocked and disgusted that our 10 year old had basically become a gamer addict. Then over the subsequent couple of weeks, we poked around and discovered other things — like the he’d also been getting up early to go online on our family computer (which sits in our living room, in public) when we’re asleep so he could play M (mature)-rated games — and to watch porn on YouTube. Not hard-core (XXX) stuff, but things profoundly inappropriate for a 10-year-old boy: clips from HBO shows like Game of Thrones and The Tudors showing lesbian sex and masturbation and straight sex and oral sex, etc. Again, we were stunned.

We’ve taken away the xBox for over 2 weeks now, and when we bring it back it will be without the “live” thing that has allowing him to play with God-knows-who at all hours of the night. We will also limit his time on the game to 1 hour a day. We’ve already placed length restrictions and other parental controls on the public computer, and limited what times of the day it can be used to go online, etc.

But there’s something deeper here that is profoundly disturbing. Just last week, my wife and I attended an orientation at our son’s middle school next year. It’s a lovely school with great test scores and supportive staff and a million extracurricular options, etc. Everything you’d expect in a wealthy suburb with high taxes. But in all the orientation talks by the principal and administrators and counselors, not one word was spoken of morality or character. It was a complete moral vacuum, beyond empty tolerance (no bullying, which I support, of course). And meanwhile, at home we’re experiencing the consequences of this way of raising a child. We do speak of morals at home. And we go to church. And our son goes to CCD [Note: Catholic Sunday School -- RD]. But it’s not enough. Not when there are the temptations of technology. And when his peers are always doing more.

Many already have iPhones with a million apps. Just last week, in the midst of all of this crap at home, our son came home from school to ask if he could download the app for Instagram — because two of his friends on the bus have it on their personal iPhones! At first I wasn’t sure. But then I looked it up and saw that even Instagram itself says it’s not for kids under 13, and it’s known as a major way for kids to see and post sexual pictures of each other and share them. Our son also tells us that he got the idea to watch specific sexual HBO clips from friends at school.

So of course we said no to Instagram. But notice the position this puts us in as parents: left acting like the secret police, doing things that we think are best for our son, which will also lead him to be alienated from his peers, and perhaps lead him to be picked on.)

So what else are we doing? (We’re especially concerned about his willingness to lie to us over and over again, and with seemingly little guilt when caught.) We’re doing more church for Lent. More CCD. Anyway, all of this has sent me back into the arms of Christianity (of a sort), and made me realize the wisdom in much of the conservative outlook and disposition. I’m living the consequence of lifestyle liberalism in my family right now, and I don’t like it one bit.

This resonates with me deeply. The main difference between my friend and me in this regard is that we homeschool our kids. My friend lives in a wealthy suburb in a culturally liberal part of the country, and I live in a small town in a culturally conservative part of America. But technology and pop culture are the great equalizers.

In my family, we have struggled over how much freedom to give our older son online, given the pervasive culture of pornography available there. It’s not that he’s a bad kid, but that he’s a curious and inquisitive teenage boy going through puberty. I am not so old that I’ve forgotten what that was like, and it shakes me up to imagine what I, at 13, would have availed myself of had I had the kind of access to porn that kids today do. We have friends around here who pulled their kids out of school because their older son’s peers, at age 11 and 12, were getting into online porn. This wasn’t the school’s fault. But it was happening, and they wanted to protect him from that peer pressure.

Our younger son is getting into gamer culture. He and his buddies play on iPhones and iPads. It won’t be long before they start to get curious, though, especially about sex. The worst things are only a few clicks away. How do we protect our son from it? It’s not like the old days, where dear old dad could hide the porn magazine on the high closet shelf. Now, wherever a kid has an Internet connection, it’s there, at least potentially. Even if you deny your kid an iPad, mobile phone, or any connection, most of his peers have them. You tell him goodbye in the afternoon and watch him pedal his bike around the corner, and for all you know one of his pals is showing his buddies hardcore porn videos on his iPhone, with all the parents clueless as to what is happening.

There’s no way to stop this except by building up a culture of resistance within the character of children. Give them the courage to turn from this stuff if their friends get into it. This, I think, is where my friend is struggling. There are no few institutions in society that push back effectively against this sort of thing, that support parents in giving kids the moral and psychological wherewithal to resist. By “lifestyle liberalism,” I take my friend to mean the kind of laissez-faire, non-judgmental, consumerist attitudes that prevail in popular culture today.

Too often with other parents, one sees that they are uncritical consumers of media, and allow their children to be so as well. But beyond that, the schools offer weak or no moral education, and to be honest, the churches, in my experience, aren’t much better. Flannery O’Connor said that you have to push back as hard against the age as it pushes against you. My friend’s letter relates the sense I often have that the kinds of institutions and customs that parents used to be able to count on to push back against corrupting things like pornography have either evaporated or become so enervated that parents are left by themselves to try to hold the line. Your kids’ school is not going to help you, and may not be able to even if it wanted to.

Your church, lacking an awareness of the seriousness of the cultural situation, and perhaps having lost confidence in its message, is probably not going to help you. Your community is probably not going to help you either, because people either choose not to see what’s happening, or understandably feel so powerless against technology and the deeper cultural forces it carries with it that they tell themselves it’s not as bad as all that.

It’s just you. What now?

That whole Flannery quote is worth bringing up here:

“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

To raise children who become adults with the moral strength to resist the defilements of the age requires an extraordinary degree of sacrifice from parents, and even then there are no guarantees. But what choice do we have? To surrender our children’s hearts and minds?

Thoughts? Advice? I’m asking with an open mind here. I am struggling with these questions as well.