Who doesn’t love a cute and educational children’s television program? If you have small children, I’m sure you’re amazed by the wide array of supportive, nurturing programs that strive to be as educational as possible, given that most of them are commercial ventures. But what are they really teaching, and what does that message mean for the society this generation will construct?
I had the best intentions, before my kids were born, to limit TV time. I still do to a greater extent, I think, than many other parents (I like to think so, at least). I don’t allow them to see anything involving gun violence, up to and including cowboy-cartoon type shows. I try to restrict viewing of commercial programs (Nickolodeon) in favor of PBS and Playhouse Disney and movies. And yes, I know, Playhouse Disney is a 24/7 advertisement for the products of the Disney Corporation, but at least it doesn’t have blatant blaring Bratzz and Transformers ads every ten minutes.
So now that I’m digging a deeper hole for myself, admitting to familiarity with these programs, I’ll start off by naming MY favorite kids’ shows, and why, before going on to the horror at the bottom of the barrel.
The Wiggles: You could argue that the Wiggles don’t teach a thing. These four guys from the land of AC/DC dress in bright primary colors and do little but, well, wiggle around while singing songs about wiggly spaghetti. What I like about it, though, is that they do encourage a lot of movement in kids – my children love to dance to Wiggles songs. They also like Talking Heads, though, so maybe it’s just the music. But it’s the ONLY show I’ve ever seen inspire actual movement, as opposed to zombie-like lounging.
Little Einsteins: The Little Einsteins take a few bars of a classical composition, artwork of some sort and then use these “tools” to rocket around the world to save a moose, help the baby monkey find his lost rattle, and so on. I’m not sure what’s being taught, but I know that constant exposure to classical music in Bugs Bunny cartoons at least made me recognize the music later in life. Unfortunately I refer to “The Ride of the Valkyries” as “the one where Bugs is in Viking drag on a giant horse chasing Elmer Fudd.” Freud, start your engines. Little Einsteins don’t have much Viking drag.
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Yes, because of this show my kids have Disney deeply implanted in their skulls. The title song – by “We Might Be Giants” – doesn’t make up for that. But this show surprisingly seldom gets as condescending as many shows (I’m looking at you, Dora) and puts a great deal of emphasis on counting, collaboration and goal-setting without resorting to mind-numbing repetition.
The Penguins of Madagascar: OK, I don’t like my kids watching this show. It’s utterly non-educational. Four penguins who act like a Delta Force team are engaged in constant shenanigans with the preening, annoying king of the lemurs, King Julian. Everyone acts crazy. But the dialogue is snappy – unlike the lethargic, repetitive pace of most shows – and that alone makes it more enjoyable. Not for them, for me. This show is more fun for me. I deserve a break, for God’s sake.
So those were some of the good ones. Now for the ones that make me shudder:
Curious George: OK, I like Curious George. I like the books. The monkey’s fun, the artwork’s cute. But think about the very odd living situation of the man in the yellow suit. He lives in a penthouse on Central Park with his monkey. Is it too soon for Michael Jackson references? The monkey creates endless havoc, does exactly what he’s told not to do and is often saved by others who put themselves in peril to do so. This show basically says “go ahead, do stupid and dangerous things and people will chuckle.” Don’t get me wrong – I like a “take chances with life” philosophy, but someone stifling your dreams of becoming a poet is a far different scenario than “George, don’t play on the conveyor belt”.
SpongeBob SquarePants: I told my kids that Sponge Bob was canceled and not on the TV anymore. I couldn’t take it and I saw no other way out. Much like Curious George, the premise of the show seems to be that being an idiot is something to emulate. The running side gag – that a flea is trying to steal the recipe to the Crabby Patties Sponge Bob makes – as a burger-flipper – annoys me. SpongeBob works at McDonald’s-Under-The-Sea. He aspires to nothing, contributes nothing, annoys everyone and harasses his neighbor, Squidworth. No point, no attempt at education, and the products based on SpongeBob are EVERYWHERE.
Dora the Explorer: Quick poll. If you plop kids in front of an episode of Dora, what do they do when Dora asks a question? She asks, pauses about 5 seconds, then says “That’s right!” My kids say nothing. My kids have not learned Spanish, either, as a result of Dora, nor do they need to do so. I’d rather have them watch Telemundo and learn spoken Spanish, not Dora’s Spanglish. Dora is tedious, repetitive and the attempt at interactivity is painful. I’d rather see kids play a Dora game on the computer where they could actually click the mouse around, rather than the stupid effect of having a pointer fly around the TV screen, clicking. Vaminos to a different channel.
(catchall) Any show that teaches kids that they are unique and special just as they are. It’s a common rant – I’ve heard both Adam Carolla and Anthony Bourdain rant on this recently – but it’s true. I wrote a post about “8 steps to a six figure career.” Not one of them said “you are special and unique, just as you are, and nobody’s like you, and because of that everyone will recognize your specialness and give you a six figure salary. Just for being you. Sweetie.” Even Paris Hilton has to get out there and hustle for attention. She has to distinguish herself from Lindsay Lohan, Tara Reid, a host of minor B-list drunken actresses and singers. Not everyone is special. People make themselves special through effort, not through entitlement.
Everyone can MAKE themselves special, but even Tiger Woods practices. Kids need to learn that being special and valued and unique is the work of a lifetime, not an entitlement. I made myself somewhat special by learning Russian, living and working for years in Russia. That took effort. Without that, I am just another guy with an MBA from a state university, working the traditional corporate path. I made myself stand out. Children need to be taught that inherent intelligence is NOTHING if not put to use. Special abilities (drawing, music, athletics, language, whatever) are also worthless unless used and developed. The idea that you can sit on your butt doing nothing and call yourself special is laughable, and the attempt at building self-esteem is going to implode when these kids realize, as adults staring at the clock in the cubicle at 4:52 pm, that all of the bubbly anthems declaring that “everyone is special” were a lie.