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Media Circus

Save the Children

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 4/18/2001

I never used to grumble about what pundits call "the coarsening of the culture." Shucks, I suppose I've contributed to the problem--publicly using profane language, drawing offensive cartoons, wearing jeans with holes in the knees . . . stuff like that. But now that I'm a parent, I shudder at the prospect of raising two daughters in a society that seems to get more brutal, more willfully ignorant, more pervasively sexualized, and more hideously materialistic every day.

You can fend off the rude world only so long. On a recent family trip out West, we listened to a lot of "oldies" radio in the car, and my 6-year-old became a fan. This wasn't a problem as long as her parents controlled the mute button, but last month a family friend gave the girl her own radio, which she now keeps tuned to WQSR (105.7 FM), Baltimore's powerful oldies station. If she turns it on in the morning, our domestic peace is shattered by Rouse & Co., WQSR's vulgar drive-time show. It's like finding that a bunch of smarmy, none-too-intelligent middle-schoolers have invaded my child's bedroom, guffawing about erections, flatulence, and "boobs." I march in, growl my opinion, and snap off the radio.

Censorship is one of a parent's less joyful duties, partly due to a nagging sense of hypocrisy: We enjoy for ourselves much of what we rightly forbid our little ones to hear, see, or read. It's also a lot of work to eavesdrop, evaluate, and interfere with a child's entertainment, but you can't shirk the responsibility. Partly to displace the radio, I bought our little oldies fan some CDs for her birthday. Now I find myself crossing the room to skip the CD player past early-'60s ditties that send egregiously sexist messages ("Johnny, Get Angry," for one).

As for the most invasive and persuasive electronic medium, my wife and I maintain some pretty stern standards. We didn't let our older child watch television at all until she was 3. Our concern wasn't just about content--we distrust the television itself as something that inherently breeds passivity and distorts reality. But we've relaxed our guard. Our firstborn is allowed to watch Arthur and Zoom on Maryland Public Television (MPT), and her little sister, at the tender age of 2, watches with her. Even though it's educational television, my wife and I keep our ears cocked, and we generally limit both daughters' exposure to an hour or less a day.

Go ahead and laugh, you childless types. The fact is, while MPT is by far the best place for kids on television, it has its pitfalls. On what used to be called "noncommercial" stations, all the kiddie shows are now sponsored by advertisers targeting little consumers with lively 30-second spots. Sugary breakfast cereals, Lego toys, America Online, and even pharmaceuticals are being hawked to young'uns who can't even pronounce their own names yet. Again, that's on public TV, which has some standards for wholesomeness.

Now, back to Barney and friends. Contentwise, what MPT calls its Kidworks lineup is a mixed bag. Like most parents of toddlers I know, I've come to accept the insipid purple dinosaur because he espouses love, tolerance, imagination, good manners, even water conservation. He's just not appropriate for anyone over the age of 5. (Ask any 5-year-old.) Much of the same can be said for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

There's less to like about Dragon Tales and Clifford the Big Red Dog, animated fantasies that belong on public TV, I suppose, only because they're nonviolent; their educational value, beyond a general representation of niceness, escapes me. The infamous Teletubbies, also carried by MPT, is strictly banned from our household, under the principle that there should be no such thing as TV for babies.

Fortunately for my family, MPT runs two of its best kids shows between 5 and 6 p.m., when our girls are most likely to be watching TV. Arthur, lifted straight from a hugely successful series of children's books, features a gang of preadolescent kids (styled as generic cartoon animals) who get into various ethical and emotional scrapes, and respond very much like real (if quaintly innocent) children. Zoom, the revival of a show that began in the '70s, is also aimed at somewhat older preadolescents, but our precocious 6-year-old laps it up. Everything on the program--plays, jokes, recipes, games, races, inventions, animation--is sent in by young viewers. Both shows encourage children to think creatively.

Between the Lions, another real standout in educational TV, is less conveniently scheduled at 11 a.m. weekdays on MPT. The program teaches reading, using some of the time-tested techniques of the venerable Sesame Street--animation, songs, phonetic subtitles--but raising them to higher levels of both humor and pedagogic clout. The writing on the show, crafted to please parents as well as children, is far wittier than that of most prime-time sitcoms on commercial television.

Enough hype. Nobler and wiser folk than I have stressed that television's worst threat to children lies not in its content but in its displacement of other activities, such as sports, reading, and interactive play. Still, content counts because children who watch TV inevitably learn from it; hence, children's TV that isn't educational tends to be actively miseducational. For all its flaws, MPT provides a precious alternative to the storm surge of commercial kidvid that's violent, witless, radically detached from reality, and hellbent on turning our offspring into whiny little narcissists. Pass the Alpha-Bits!

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