Column – Parental fears of explicit content are nothing new

Published 3:39 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The fears that are driving some parents to demand limits on what public school students can have access to and even what public school teachers should be allowed to tell students seem to be an altogether new response to a rapidly changing world.

The fears that parents experience, however, are anything but new. 

While digging through old copies of The Smithfield Times in search of information about civic clubs recently, I came across a revealing Page One story published 88 years ago this month, in February 1935. It concerned the Smithfield High School Parent Teachers Association.

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The Smithfield High PTA was quite active back in those days, as were PTAs across the country. If your child was enrolled in a public school back then, you were expected to join the PTA and attend its meetings. And so it was in Smithfield. The PTA met monthly in the high school auditorium, a theater-styled assembly room complete with foot-lighted stage and balcony.

Each month, the PTA would have a program of some sort for its members, and in February of that year Lamar Stanley, assistant principal of Newport News High School (identified by the paper as Professor Stanley), spoke to the parents about the evils associated with new technology — the increasingly popular “moving pictures” that were being produced and shown across the country. 

The paper reported that Professor Stanley felt “the great mass of moving pictures now produced” were “thoroughly unsuitable for children.”

He recommended that parents personally see any movie before allowing their children to do so. In addition to the “sex, crime and vulgarity” being portrayed, movies tended to over-stimulate children. 

He warned parents never to allow any child under the age of 14 to view any movie after dark for fear of nightmares being induced by the viewing.

All of which may seem quaint by today’s standards, but those fears were very real to the members of the PTA in 1935. 

And some parents were trying to come to grips with the changing world in a reasoned and rather methodical way. The same newspaper carried a story about a separate meeting of parents that very week. That gathering was of a group engaged in “Parent Education,” which met regularly in the Home Economics Building at the high school to discuss various issues confronting parents.

The subject that week was “New Morals for Old.” Parents participating in the session were reminded that “there is too great a tendency on the part of adults to prohibit and warn rather than to suggest acceptable constructive alternatives.”

The moderator, Mrs. R.A. Cox, opined that “children cannot accept blindly the precepts of their elders, and naturally rebel against dictates that are based on prejudice and emotion.”

Mrs. Cox suggested that in judging the behavior of young people, parents and other adults “frequently confuse matters of taste passing for custom with real moral issues.”

One of the participants brought an article to share with the class that evening. It emphasized something that might seem quite 21st century in its conclusion — that a child of preschool age is already accumulating the material out of which he will later construct his conscious moral attitude, and that parents can “exercise a great influence over the gathering of this material.” 

Thus, the parents of local students nearly 90 years ago were also wrestling with changes in society to which their children were being exposed, as well as the parents’ role in preparing their children for the frightening world they were entering.

The axiom that history repeats itself is never more accurate than when parents grapple with the education of their children.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is