Unexpectedly Explicit: The Pitfalls and Advantages of Watching TV With Your Teens

Filed under: Opinions

tv with your teens picture

Zoe FitzGerald Carter says watching TV -- even when it's racy -- can open up a dialog with your teen. Courtesy Zoe FitzGerald Carter

Recently, I was watching a cable television show with my 14-year-old daughter when, suddenly, the couple onscreen tore off their clothes and began having sweaty and graphic simulated sex. I found myself staring straight ahead, face hot, until the camera cut away.

As the show proceeded, I wondered: Should I have lunged across the couch and covered my daughter's eyes? Turned it off? Said something to make the moment less awkward? (Like, "Check out that guy's pecs! Do you think he works out?")

Or should I have avoided the show all together, insisting we watch something more firmly grounded in PG-13 territory? The thing is, this particular show -- "Shameless" on Showtime -- has great writing and acting, and, as my daughter has informed me more than once, she's "seen it all before."

More importantly, if I did jump up and turn off the television, or if I forbid her from watching "mature" content, I would run the risk of giving her the message that there is something shameful or wrong about sex. At the very least, it would convey that I was personally uncomfortable with the subject.

In the end, I overcame my embarrassment and made a more-or-less-coherent comment about the sameness of Hollywood sex scenes: how passion is invariably conveyed by a high-speed flurry of ripped off clothes and frantic coupling. It was a way of acknowledging the scene's graphicness, while neutralizing the awkwardness of watching it together. I also was trying to put the scene into some kind of perspective for her, letting her know there are many ways to initiate sex and they don't always involve knocked over lamps and broken dishes.

The fact is, with more than 700 cable channels, Netflix, On Demand and Hulu, trying to control what our kids watch is akin to carrying water in a sieve. Let's face it, once they hit their teens, our kids are going to watch what they want to, whether we approve of it or not.

The advantage of letting them do it openly at home -- and even occasionally watching with them -- is that you get to weigh in on it, something that doesn't happen if we censor anything that even hints at adult sexuality.

I still feel caught off guard when a scene suddenly turns R-rated, and I often find myself wishing these scenes weren't quite so crude. But these moments can open the door to important conversations on everything from safe sex to what constitutes a healthy relationship to whether what they are watching is realistic.

Even just knowing that your kids have watched some explicit show or movie can engender a good discussion. When I discovered my older daughter had watched the entire oeuvre of "Sex and the City" with her best friend in eighth grade, I was less than thrilled. Not just because I felt the show was too mature for them, but because it gave such a skewed view of adult female sexuality.

So, the three of us ended up having a conversation about the four women characters and whether or not they were realistic. I took the opportunity to let them know that, in my observations, the one-dimensional sex-obsessed "Samantha" was more of a male fantasy than a real woman.

But even when we successfully turn these situations into "teaching moments," it still can be unsettling to realize our kids are growing up and becoming sexual. And there are times when I find myself missing the days of "Blues Clues" and "Dragon Tales." (Or, in the tween years, "Hannah Montana." Miley Cyrus may be cavorting on stripper poles and taking bong hits these days, but you could always count on her Disney character to keep her clothes on.)

And, in my household, the question of what to watch has long been compounded by the fact that there are four years between my two girls and, so, as often happens, the younger one was exposed to things especially early in her rush to "keep up" with her big sister.

The fact is, our kids are going to end up watching all kinds of things that we probably won't like or approve of sooner or later. But while we still have them at home and they are still willing to sit next to us on the couch and watch something with us, there's no point in militantly policing their innocence in order to make us feel less awkward.

Instead, we need to embrace their growing maturity and, when we can stop blushing ourselves, weigh in on content while we still have the chance.

Zoe FitzGerald Carter is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue and Salon. She is the author of Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go (Simon & Schuster). She lives in Northern California. Read her blog on Red Room.


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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.