As Orthodox Christian adults, we have only to compare the moral climate of today with that of our childhood to know that we are living in an age of increasing apostasy. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, the secular culture offered children wholesome entertainment basically supportive of a Christian upbringing. The films and TV programs of those times — e.g. Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, My Friend Flicka, The Lone Ranger-- were all characterized by a well-developed sense of morality that is so essential to a child's proper development. In the past decade, the focus of children’s entertainment has radically changed into what can justifiably be perceived as a conspiracy against Christian parents. This neglect of morality — caused by the pervasive greed that favors cheap sensationalism and anything that sells over quality — is not just limited to television programs — today, games, toys, comics and even coloring books are filled with nightmarish images offering a barely disguised invitation into hell.
For those who think such a statement is a gross exaggeration, a visit to the “toys and games” aisles of the local department store will deliver an unpleasant shock. There, besides “Snow White” and “Kitten Friends,” is a macabre coloring book featuring the TV-based “Skeleton Warriors,” proudly advertised as “bad to the bone!!” On the back cover is a cut-out mask with fangs. “Hey kids,” reads the package of a menacing turtle figure, “with your help, Don can instantly mutate from his Ordinary Turtle Teen self into a sewer secret Night Ninja! the world's most dangerous dude!” (“Ninja,” in Japanese, is a martial arts warrior). In company with the “Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles” are a host of other mutants, aliens and extra-terrestrial “heroes,” such as “Transformers” and other soulless robots that sport such names as “Dr. Terror,” “Rampage,” “Tantrum,” and “Razorclaw.” There are “cuddly” monsters and grotesque monsters like the “Berserkers,” a “roaring band of renegade Mutant Viking Cyborgs.” The popular New Age “Star Wars” film and “Star Trek” TV series have spawned whole lines of toys and “play sets” — i.e. outerspace environments and space ships like “Death Star.” And now, Disney Productions--once synonymous with family values — has come out with a film, “Gargoyles.” TV Guide assures parents that these demonic-looking creatures, with their huge claws and enormous bat-like wings, “only look scary”; they are actually “decent and moral.” The cast of characters includes the “noble” Goliath and his cohort Xanatos (meaning “death” in Greek). Then there are macho soldiers such as Rambo and the now long popular G.I. Joe, who come with a whole arsenal of sophisticated weaponry and “battle machines” like “Steel Monster” and “Terror Dome.” Most of these toys are characters from films or cartoons, which “show” a child how the toys are supposed to behave. Promoted as “action toys,” they inspire violent and aggressive play. Video games, such as “Mortal Combat,” have become another source of violent children's entertainment. Other toys are familiarizing children with elements of the occult and Eastern religions. In their cartoons, the innocent-looking Care Bears, the Smurfs and My Little Pony are all heavily laced with occult and New Age symbolism.
And then there's sex. Since her debut in 1959, the glamorous, buxom Barbie has been the queen of dolls, and has become something of an obsession among many young girls. With regular baby dolls, girls naturally practice parenting—after all, toys are effective learning mechanisms--but with Barbie, the focus is on physical attractiveness, boyfriends, and dating, which, in today's sexually-charged atmosphere, is particularly unhealthy. A board game designed for mid-teens spells it out: “Hey, let's be honest. At this stage of our lives, what's more important than finding the perfect member of the opposite sex? Not much. Basically, you play girls against guys. That's cool for starters. You get to make the other team do all this bizarre stuff. If they don't do it, you stamp them and they become your personal party-slaves. Naturally, they have to do whatever you say. Cool. . . Don't be stupid. Try it!”
The toy industry, which is spewing out such abominations, is enjoying a profitable partnership with the film industry. Cartoons have become essentially 30 minute advertisements, and children have responded by becoming aggressive consumers of whatever film-character toys are in fashion — in addition to the bed-sheets, lunch-boxes, T-shirts, posters and other articles bearing the image of their favorite TV-toy, whether it is the macho G.I. Joe or the New Age Pocahontas. This gross abuse of children's souls is a lucrative business.
The task of raising Christian children has never been an easy one. “A young child,” writes St. Dimitri of Rostov (l709), “is like a board | prepared for icon painting. Whatever the iconographer paints on it, honorable or dishonorable, holy or sinful, an angel or a demon, it remains forever. The same applies to a young child: that upbringing which he is given, those manners he is taught--whether God-pleasing or God-despised, angelic or demonic--shall be part of him for the rest of his life.” Because children are so impressionable, parents must be especially vigilant regarding the influences surrounding their children, ensuring as much as possible that these make a positive contribution to their development, towards making them worthy citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The powerful influence of images on the soul is one reason why icons should have a prominent place in the Orthodox home. In his book, The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky writes that the icon “transmits, or rather testifies visually to. . . the reality of God and of the world of grace and of nature.” Iconography, he says, is a means which the Church employs to convey its teaching, to transmit the revelation of the divine world, to point to the Kingdom of Heaven. Icons are reflections of men who have been regenerated into eternity; they aid us in uncovering and developing the beauty of holiness. In other words, they help men attain likeness to God, following the basic principle that “we become like that which we habitually contemplate” (Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodox Iconography.).
The same principle holds true for the abominable images which have invaded the world of children's toys. “It is well known,” writes Bishop Theophan the Recluse (l894), “how powerfully corrupt images act upon the soul, no matter in what form they might touch it.” Children are particularly vulnerable; their consciousness and their identities are not yet developed. And so, Satan has targeted them with his own perverse form of “iconography”: images which harden their souls and accustom them to a world of darkness — a world where traditionally demonic images are considered “good,” where ugliness and brutishness are glorified, and where aggression is rewarded. The lines of good and evil are blurred. There is no God. The “saviours” of the world come from outer space. Or they come in the form of Nietzsche's superman, who wields power without conscience. Far from being repulsed by these monstrous inventions, many children describe them as “cool, “awesome,” and, approvingly, “bad.” Should Satan visit these children in their dreams, they would have no fear, and no defense.
What can and should Christian parents do to protect their children from such “soul-corrupting evils"? It is, of course, normal for children to have a certain fascination with scary monsters, and a child who plays with a magic wand or a Power Ranger isn't necessarily harming his soul. What is essential here is that the child be surrounded by a strong Christian culture in the home, and that parents be attentive and take an active part in the child's development. Providing opportunities for genuine play is important, and there are many healthy alternatives to the toys and games we have described. As most toys today are priced beyond the range of a child's allowance, it is up to parents to exercise control. Non specific toys — i.e. those that give the greatest scope to the child's imagination and creativity — are best; these include card board boxes, blocks, tinker toys, crayons and other art and craft supplies; for an older child, a supply of scrap wood with a hammer and nails. Children enjoy playing with parents, and there are many board games that are fun for the whole family; these include Parcheesi, Monopoly, Pictionary, and Scrabble. Reading aloud is another valuable pastime which brings children and parents together.
The world is full of images that pull the soul in the wrong direction. Parents should surround children with images conducive to salvation, images that make the soul receptive to grace. Raising Christian children in this post-Christian age is a daunting responsibility and a real podvig. It requires a serious investment of time, patience, love and prayer. But the rewards are incomparable — and eternal.