Monday, January 19, 2009
Why TV is bad for kids (and worse for parents)
I have a friend who doesn’t let her kids watch any TV. She doesn’t even have a cable hook-up. She gets most of her news online and her kids get theirs, well frankly, they just don’t get any news. This no TV rule says a lot about my friend. It says that she is obviously a brave woman who lives by her convictions, we’ll see how this pans out for her once her boys reach middle school. It also says, quite obviously, that she is a better mother than I am (and probably you too). But it also says that somehow she knew something, something that the rest of a missed along the way and that is, Noggin and Nickelodeon and Disney and even PBS Kids are all in a brilliant conspiracy to screw us, the parents of their target audience.
I know it's a grand assertion and I don’t usually put much stock in conspiracy theories, but stick with me. I am confident once you read the following couple of paragraphs, you’ll agree that there is incontrovertible evidence that kids' television is designed to completely undermine parents in general and mothers in particular.
For years I have known that there is something inherently wrong with kids' television but I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. No it isn’t the bizarre mix of muppets and humans in walk-about costumes that defines shows like the Doodlebops and Yo Gabba Gabba. And it isn’t the absolute lack of any plot (or real dialog for that matter) characteristic of the Teletubbies or Boobah. It's something less obvious, something I could never quite put my finger on, but something that always just felt wrong about kids shows. And then it hit me earlier this week. These shows deliver unreal -no, poisonous -expectations about parents and mothers in particular!
This may not surprise you when I tell you that I came to this conclusion while watching the Noggin/Nick Jr mainstay Franklin. You know it's the one about the turtle with that insidious theme song "Hey it's Franklin, comin’ over to your house"? Here’s what I noticed, Franklin does a lot of really dumb stuff, including lying to his parents (or not telling them the whole truth right away) quite often. And I don’t mind that, that’s the part of the show that is real. What bothers me is that Franklin’s mother never, ever loses it on Franklin. She always talks to him in the same sweet turtle voice no matter what they are discussing. She never throws up her arms in complete exhaustion and then blurts out something she wishes she didn’t - hey I’m not looking for an expletive laden send-up of the little turtle's behavior or anything - but she never even says "Gee Franklin you’re acting like a complete brat right now and I can’t be held accountable for whatever happens next if you don’t get it together by the time I count to three." Franklin’s mother, in all her sweet, even tempered supportiveness, is misleading my kids into thinking that mothers like her exist in the world. That somewhere in a little paradise filled with talking animals and clubhouses, mothers don’t get mad at their kids ever, no matter what. This isn’t just a problem with television turtles. It's everywhere, think about it, the mother on Little Bear is the same way (even worse really) and it's just as bad on Clifford and Dragontales too.
And Dora’s mom never says "Take this map and go play with your monkey because mommy - I mean mami - has to clean up the mess you and the super babies left behind and then I’m going to lie down for a little while because I couldn’t sleep a wink last night because those damn babies kept waking each other up and your papi got pissed off because I haven’t washed any of his dress socks for the past two weeks so I’m feeling a little grumpy and underappreciated and overburdened this morning"
TV sets us up to fail. It lies to our kids convincing them that the rest of the mothers in the world are patient and comforting all of the time, that they always know what to do and how to solve whatever problem the kids might be having.
Children’s television isn’t bad for mothers only. Its pretty hard on father’s too. For the most part, the dad’s on kids' tv shows are strangely available, involved. I have never seen father turtle actually do any sort of work, except in the garden. He’s always around. Yes, the dad on Little Bear does travel for work sometimes, But he’s a sailor - daddy off to sea to fight the sea monster (and catch fish) is infinitely cooler than daddy off to work to look at the computer and talk on the phone (although my youngest would get a kick out of speaker phone).
The parents on the shows for older kids aren’t much more realistic. Hannah Montanna’s dad is, well he’s Billy Ray Cyrus for chrissakes! And the dad on the Wizards of Waverly Place is a wizard. On Corey in the House the father works in the white house. What’s a regular parent left to do when we’re not talented, magical or cooking for the President?
This isn’t even counting the shows where the parents are altogether absent. What kind of message is this sending to my kids? Is it saying "your mother is smothering you because she doesn’t let you go outside and rescue wild (and traditionally carnivorous) animals like Sra. Diego does?" Is it saying "your mother is a a total spoilsport because she makes you clean your room and practice piano instead of hanging out with your crew of weirdly matched bugs and animals in the backyard like all five moms on the backyardigans?" Or, "your mother’s a bitch because not only will she not let you have a giant dog the size of your elementary school, or even a wonder pet, she won’t let you have any pet at all?" I think the answer is all of the above.
I think its obvious. These shows, or there writers, are working together in some sort of underground movement to destabilize parenting in the United States. I suspect that the same thing is happening in Britain and the rest of Western Europe. The British imports I’ve seen - Thomas, Teletubbies, Jakers - all have no parents and an uncomfortable amount of autonomy for their main characters. And let’s not even go there with the Scandanavian offerings like Lazy Town. I haven’t figured out the hidden plan yet but I know there is something wrong with that show.
Japan is not even on the table at this point. I mean c’mon, pocket monsters?
Its undeniable - tv makes us look bad, really bad. The only problem is, it's so, so easy. I’ll risk my reputation and sell my soul for a couple of minutes (ok hours) of actually productive time.