TV for Kids: Children Are Not to be Trusted, It Seems

Children’s TV. It’s something I’ve been confronting lately — well, actually, as I rummage around in my a-intensive past. Do you realise, fellow Gen-Xers, that the newest DVD sets of the show carry a disclaimer to the effect that “These early episodes of Sesame Street are intended for grown-ups, and may not meet the needs of today’s preschoolers”?

Sad, and a little strange — not least because it’s accurate. On the one hand, the belief seems to be that children are more sophisticated than ever before; on the other, that they’re fragile flowers whose every input needs monitoring for fear it’ll corrupt the mechanism.

You see it reflected in the pages and pages of ‘what behaviours are The Mole Sisters teaching my child’-type forum posts, complete with just-saw-it-on-Oprah-so-I-know-it’s-scientific vocabularies. In the attitude of my nephew’s pre-K teacher, who reacts to the news that this four-year-old has taught himself to read with ‘Well, we need to think about how much he actually comprehends…’

Yes. She really said that. I swear, sometimes you just want to grab these people and…

… [ahem]. Well, maybe there is something to be said for social conditioning. I’m not advocating wholesale exposure to disturbing imagery, either; children’s mechanisms can certainly suffer, and on the whole it’s a Very Good Thing that those closest to them realise that.

But you can get carried away with it, is all I am saying. This obsession with socialization, with carefully categorizing every possible influence in the here and now, actively works to stifle any imaginative possibilities for the future. Worse, it gives kids the impression that intelligence, thinking about the answers, is much less important than getting the answers right. If you’re going to ensure the world is laid out exactly as it should be, then where’s the inspiration to think about what could be?

When I was a kid, or so it seems, educational media refused to talk down to me, treated me as though I was a smart, aware kid and deserving of respect. The assumption was that I knew that the world wasn’t perfect, but by God it was interesting. Becoming a good citizen was, like every other aspect of learning, held up as the key to unlocking worlds. Watching your Franklins and Arthurs today – engaging as they might be in themselves — putter round their middle-class living rooms learning middle-class values, oh, do I miss that sense of “Look! This is what’s out there, and it could all be yours! Pay attention, ‘cause here’s how!”

Sesame Street used to be about that kind of wonder. So did Schoolhouse Rock (one episode of which actually includes the lines “…forever, towards infinity/No-one ever gets there, but you can try…”). The Electric Company hauled in everything they could think of, up to and including Spider-Man, to keep me alert and interested. Even dorky Canadian standard Readalong followed this trend, as best they could with bad child actors and a talking skeleton.

You still see flashes of the old spark now and then, mostly on PBS –- Between the Lions was probably the last great example –- but the raw excitement of learning is long gone, and the notion that kids can be trusted with their own thoughts and feelings has apparently gone with it. Do you realise, The Backyardigans is almost the last series left in which the characters actually do things just because they want to each week? You can seriously picture the five of them acting out stuff they’ve read, or heard, or perhaps been taken to a museum to see. Try that little visualisation exercise with the Wonder Pets.

Nowadays, the approved characters are those that run round and round on pallid little tracks of good behaviour, as determined by the majority — i.e., those with enough time on their hands to care about the fine points of what a cartoon bunny is teaching their children. What is said is less important than the race or gender of the speaker. Creativity and individuality is allowable only in terms of deviation from the norm; any dissenter must and will be brought back into line, becoming upright little citizens of a strangely unsettling netherworld where everyone is happy just because there’s no alternative.

(I once read an amusing attempt to define exactly what disturbs so many adults about Barney. Loosely paraphrased, it was: “Nobody is ever allowed to be upset on that show for ONE SECOND! Even when the one kid’s dog died, they just refused to let her be sad!”)

It’s the difference between the original Blue’s Clues, which at the very least taught kids that if they used their brains something amazing would happen, and the eventual spinoff Blue’s Room. In which the producers are too busy ensuring that Blue explains exactly how much fun! we’re all going to have to notice that she’s speaking in a little boy’s voice. Never mind, it’s off to celebrate the birthday of the little character whose main goal in life is to have birthdays! Because, y’know, having a cake and streamers and such is just ever so empowering. This little girl is clearly going to grow up to force the other characters to wear bridesmaid dresses with butt bows the size of Cleveland, and frankly I hope she does.

It’s all very well, in a given Dora the Explorer episode, that the characters complete their tasks in a given sequence; but their little, simple, primary-coloured world is painfully devoid of any other reason to visit. There’s no sense that anything they do is going to lead to higher things… except that, the way she’s been potrayed in the most recent episodes, Dora is apparently being groomed to rule as Queen of the World someday. During which we’re all going to wear matching unisex outfits and… sort of… stand around and congratulate each other for managing to kick a soccer ball.

The half-time show is an earnest presentation on how eco-friendly the new artificial turf is. ‘Fun’ happens when the fox gets into the orangeade, and everyone gently persuades him to put it back.. as gently as is possible when everyone’s shouting at the top of their lungs, the better to ensure everyone’s most banal utterance is heard and valued. I’m starting to think that the world of The Giver got its start when someone found an ancient Party Time With Dora DVD.

I suppose now would be a good time to issue the standard disclaimer: I’m not an early-childhood education expert, nor even a parent. But I do speak as an ex-kid, who used what I was handed to kindle a lifelong love of learning and respect for knowledge. Moving up from Dora to Hannah Montana through High School Musical… it just doesn’t seem like the right path, somehow.