Rethinking "Family Friendly"

May 10th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

A few years ago, I went to a movie with some friends.  I got to pick the movie and I chose The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because I heard a review that said it was “family friendly.” Suffice it to say that this movie about the Holocaust doesn’t end well. As we sat in stunned silence, one of my friends turned to me and said, “You are never picking the movie again. Clearly you don’t know what family friendly means.”

I suppose she had a point. If the review I heard called it family friendly, clearly the reviewer had a different definition from my friends! Recently, I’ve crowd sourced many people I know to try and figure out just what this popular term means. I’ve gotten a variety of responses from, “something without sex and swearing” to “something for kids” to “something I’m clearly not invited to because I don’t have children.” It is not surprising to me that the definition changes when talking to someone with kids as opposed to not. So, I did a little experiment. I looked up several church events that called themselves “family friendly” and tried to decide if I would attend or not. I’m a single woman with no kids (unless you count my cats, but they’re not always welcome at church events). The truth is, there were none that I would attend. This doesn’t make them bad events, necessarily; but it does make me think that I’m not their target audience. I fit into a very different market from a family with three children. Were these churches intending to limit their events to moms, dads, and their children; or did they just mean that the events were appropriate for all ages?

Maybe the bigger question in all of this is, Who decides what is family friendly and what isn’t? Are there rules and criteria? I’ve heard that one of the unofficial rules in determining movie ratings is that one F-word earns you a PG-13 rating, but two gets you an R. Are there similar rules in determining what is family friendly; and if there are, who made them up? Truthfully, many parents have different expectations about what family friendly means when it comes to media. One parent I know won’t let their children watch the movie The Lion King because they find it too violent, while another parent said it’s their child’s favorite movie. If Disney doesn’t understand family friendly, who does?!

Child psychologist James Dobson founded Focus on the Family as a vehicle for distributing parenting wisdom and advice, and one would assume they are not only focused on the family, but friendly to it; but the organization has come to be known in recent years as an organization more focused on defining the word family than on potty training and discipline. For some, that reputation strengthens the advice they offer, and for others that makes their advice invalid. “Family friendly” in that context carries a host of political implications.

I once had a conversation with a parent disgusted by what was in the media today, and she said to me, “I will only ever let my children read the Bible, because that’s the best G-rated thing I know!” My response was one of surprise and disappointment.  I asked if she had ever read the Bible. The Bible would be the last book I would call G-rated. There’s murder, rape, incest, and swearing, not to mention Song of Solomon. (Ask most middle schoolers where those stories are; they’ll tell you.) Even the teachings of Jesus tackle difficult issues like adultery, murder, and poverty, which parents might not want to discuss with their smaller children. Consider the surprise of one father who had to explain what virginity was to his five-year-old daughter because she wanted to know what made Jesus’ mother, Mary, a virgin. If even the stories and teachings in Scripture are dangerous, doesn’t that make our churches the least family friendly places around?

In the midst of all of these questions, the church does have a voice in the conversation. It is our role to wrestle with the questions, question assumptions, and think theologically. In Mark 3:34-35, Jesus is notified that his immediate family members have arrived, and he rebukes the person, saying “Who is my [family]? . . . Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” If Jesus’ definition of family is expanded, why shouldn’t ours be as well? Family doesn’t necessarily mean Mom, Dad, 2.5 children, and a dog. Family means a community coming together to love each other, support one another, and serve the community.

In my context of ministry, I work with our young adult group. Young adults in our church range from eighteen to forty. It’s a pretty wide range and encompasses many different stages of life: single, married, married with kids, divorced, single with kids. Our mission statement as a church says that we are “a church family.” Our identity as family is central to who we are and doesn’t require us to market or advertise as family friendly, although we are! Our young adult events are family friendly in as much as we offer childcare when events are held at the church, and we welcome children when events are held at members’ homes. Perhaps “family friendly” is the best description, or perhaps “multi-generational,”  or maybe “all ages welcome.”

As people of faith, we often equate community with family, which on one hand is a wonderful image. A family is a group that loves and supports one another and defines relationship. On the other hand, a family is a closed system and there’s not really a way to get in or out (beyond birth or marriage) and not all families are loving and supportive. Does it mean that as a church, we stop using the word family? Not at all. Based on context, family can be a very important word and description. But it’s important to think through what audience you are targeting, and use words accordingly. Know your context, your community, and your identity as a church. Make sure family is a word that will not divide or exclude, but welcome people into your community of faith.

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