When I hear other parents talk about kid's entertainment, they typically use terms worthy of a sudden drop through Dante's nine circles of hell. Comedians, commentators and chronicles of parenting, such as Neal Pollack's recent book Alternadad, describe the likes of Baby Einstein videos and the Wiggles as lesser demons, with Barney the Dinosaur occupying Satan's place at the center.
The likes of Boohbah and Caillou grate on me as much as the next parent, but my perspective's a little different. As a pop-culture critic, I've always been interested in cartoons, puppetry and comic books, both the "mature" and kid-friendly versions. I'm sort of a volunteer on the front lines of children's media, rather than a draftee.
Sometimes the critic's job conflicts with the parental duty. For instance, the advance screenings of Pixar Studios' rat-in-the-restaurant film Ratatouille posed a dilemma. Should I take my daughter to a screening I'm covering as a critic? Pixar arguably makes the finest family-friendly product in the world, but what if the film's too intense or inappropriate? Usually I'll go see such a film solo, to take notes for review while vetting it for my daughter -- but I have to keep it secret. It wouldn't be cool to say, "Guess who saw Ratatouille while you were at swim class, sucka?"
After raising my daughter for four and a half years, I've found that only occasionally can I share the things I like with my child, like the time last month when we watched one of the Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie "Jeeves & Wooster" episodes from Masterpiece Theatre. The vast majority of the time, however, we hang out at her level, where the movies and music can have a lot of charm -- and quite a few booby traps.
I don't care much about being a "cool" Alternadad-style father, or maintain illusions about how much I can control what my daughter will like or discover, especially as she gets older. Mostly I try to introduce her to things that fit her interests, while filtering and running interference against some of what I've discovered to be the "Seven Deadly Sins of Kid Culture." As long as we guard against them, we can enjoy our time together and discover cool new things -- without passing through Hades' candy-colored gates.
One of the first cultural tests for a parent is realizing that material that agonizes you may be good for your kid. Before my daughter was born, I was shocked to learn that my sister was Barney-tolerant -- but she pointed out that it's a benign, trustworthy show, and researchers from Yale call it "nearly a model for what a preschool program should be."
Baby-oriented shows such as Teletubbies seem similarly toothless. The problem stems not from their sexual preferences, which are clearly nonexistent, but the show's implicit purpose to teach babies to watch TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television or other electronic media for children under the age of 2, yet shows such as Teletubbies or the BabyFirstTV channel seek to train infants to be TV watchers. The concept scares the bejesus out of me, and fortunately my wife showed admirable discipline at turning off the TV.
The Smart Parent's Guide to Kids' TV opposes using television as a baby sitter (or what we call in our household "The Neglect-o-matic"), but defuses some of the knee-jerk alarms against television for kids. Since our daughter was born, we gave up cable TV, keeping her choices (and level of commercial interruptions) to a minimum.
It was a revelation to me that even innocuous, insipid shows on PBS Kids might not all be equal, particularly when I compared Clifford the Big Red Dog with Dragon Tales. At first I preferred Clifford, because I liked the books when I was young, and the late John Ritter voiced the pachyderm-size pooch. More shrill and saccharine is Dragon Tales, the maddeningly inane adventures of human kids in candy-color Dragonland, featuring guests such as Princess Kidoodle of the Doodle Fairies.
It slowly dawned on me, however, that a high proportion of the Clifford stories involved characters behaving foolishly and receiving correction, while Dragon Tales emphasized working together to overcome phobia or accomplish a goal. Clifford seems more interested in shame as a motivation, while Dragon Tales rewarded achievement. Sometimes banality has a purpose, so it's back to Dragonland for us.
Recently I introduced my daughter to one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century: the 1953 Looney Tunes cartoon Duck Amuck, in which the animator plays existential pranks on Daffy Duck. A few mornings later we were sitting on the floor of her room playing with toys, and my daughter smiled. I asked her what was so funny, and she said, "Ho, ho, that's rich. Now how about some color, stupid?" quoting Daffy Duck verbatim.
Although we weren't terribly worried that she'd drop an Acme Co. anvil on somebody's head, we held back on showing her Looney Tunes until fairly recently due to the violent slapstick. I didn't expect that she'd be so amused by invective and name-calling. Such cartoons have educational value and effectively expand her vocabulary -- for insults. When she was trying to call Mom and Dad names at the dinner table, I explained that what might be funny in a show isn't suitable for real life. "Dad," she replied, "we're in a show!"
Even though I love The Simpsons, at least during the 1990s, I treat the show like poison in our house because I don't want her to be like Bart (though I'd be pretty content if she emulated Lisa). On an old Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, creator Matt Groening all but apologized to America for some of the show's gags, such as the kids incessantly repeating "Are-we-there-yet? Are-we-there-yet?"
Many beloved tots in kid culture serve as role models for misbehavior. As much as I can appreciate mischievous Eloise (for whom "Getting bored is not allowed") and the precocious Calvin and Hobbes ("I hope you suffer a debilitating brain aneurysm, you freak!"), I suspect they're most popular with adults who don't actually have kids of their own. Kids are already disposed to test boundaries and get into trouble; they don't need how-to guides to yell, talk back, draw on walls or break things. It's important to teach kids to enjoy laughing at them, not with them.
Do as we say, not as Bart or Calvin do.
The comedy Knocked Up contains an inside joke for parents of girls. Director Judd Apatow casts his own daughters as two young girls in the film, and the younger one is constantly shown wearing pastel-colored princess gowns. Nonparents may not realize the extent to which puffy sleeves, bustled skirts and tiaras will be part of a young girl's wardrobe. Parents of boys don't have to worry about this. Well, most of them.
The Disney Princess product line dominates and feeds this impulse, earning $2.5 billion in sales in 2003. Without even wanting to encourage my daughter's interest in this weird ideal of royalty, our household somehow includes a Disney Princess hopscotch mat, flashlight, a talking hand mirror, countless pairs of underpants and pajamas, stickers, and at least three books in the Disney Princess line. The existence of kid-oriented merchandising didn't surprise me. But the sheer diversity of products boggles my mind.
It doesn't help that being a princess seems inextricably wrapped up in the notions of getting married, having pretty clothes and maintaining a staff of friendly servants. Worse, many Disney princesses tend to be passive ninnies and credulous dupes. Helium-voiced Snow White bites a poison apple despite warnings from her forest-creature friends. Like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty literally snoozes through the finale of her own story while awaiting a man to rescue her. Most contemporary Disney Princess characters, thankfully, show more independence.
For nearly two years my daughter has insisted she's a princess, and while I don't want to destroy her illusions (she's definitely the princess of the household), I don't want her to aspire to be merely an airhead who marries well, either. Instead we haunt the kids' section of the library for books that run counter to the idea of being a princess, like the woman who rejects the prince's hand to open a pizzeria in The Princess and the Pizza. My daughter hasn't grown out of the princess thing yet, but lately she's expressed interest in being a scientist.
Many parents like to counteract shrill, superficial and commercial kids' fare of the present day with vintage family fare. The downside? Racism!
For instance, I was eager to read my daughter If I Ran the Zoo, my favorite Dr. Seuss book from when I was her age. Published in 1950, it depicts a go-getter named Gerald McGrew and his effort to fill a zoo with exotic, baroque-looking beasts. At one point he declares, "I'll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant/With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant."
The illustration features a predictably drawn band of "coolies" helping Gerald McGrew catch his animals. The African natives fare no better. Ouch. I don't want to deny my daughter a great children's book, but I also don't want to endorse those kinds of depictions.
Hollywood has unquestionably improved on this score. Perhaps the pinnacle of political correctness is the "Colors of the Wind" song in Disney's Pocahontas from 1995, which nearly qualifies as a public apology for the "What Made the Red Man Red" number in 1953's Peter Pan. Modern-day stereotypical figures tend to be flukes born of insensitivity, not malice, such as The Phantom Menace's Jar Jar Binks, with his shuffling gait, garbled patois and generally idiotic behavior.
When my daughter gets a little older, I'll be able to put stereotypes in context of the time when they came out, but until then, If I Ran the Zoo stays at the library. I hate to be censorious, but there's plenty of other good books out there. You can make a case for the values in the original tale of Little Black Sambo, but how can you convey the harm in the name? Parenting has plenty of mine fields already without charging into new ones unnecessarily.
I accidentally on purpose made my daughter a Star Wars fan. I had no intention of showing her the movie anytime soon, but she has a Darth Vader action figure among her dolls, and "The Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back is one of our household's favorite songs during shoulder rides and the like.
Then my parents bought a copy of Star Wars on DVD and played it when my daughter and her two cousins spent the night. She loved it, so watching it has become a "grandparents' house" thing to do. Later I was recounting the Star Wars story in a strategically expurgated way, and she asked about the scene in which Luke returns to his home on Tatooine and finds the smoldering bodies of his aunt and uncle. Specifically, she asked, "What happened to their skin?"
The debate over violence and children's entertainment is endless, and enters a whole new thicket of complexity with weaponized console games that are over my daughter's head. I'm sensitive to all the arguments against violent action, but also heed Gerard Jones' Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence case that certain material can give kids life lessons and coping skills. Even imaginary violence is like playing with fire.
Partly I don't want to give my daughter ideas that violence is OK. All that "hitting" makes superhero fare problematic. Once, her dolls were fighting "bad guys" and killing them, so I told her that, no, heroes always take the bad guys to jail.
The other risk is that we might terrorize her with material before she's ready. Context can make a huge difference: Movies in theaters can be far more intense and upsetting than shows on television. My daughter asked to be taken out of both Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Ice Age: The Meltdown because of some scary scenes, even though she liked the franchises' previous installments on video.
I currently take an incremental approach to material that might be violent or scary. For instance, Georgia Shakespeare is staging a Family Classic Series version of Robin Hood in July. I may test my daughter out with the Errol Flynn, Daffy Duck and Walt Disney versions of the Robin Hood story, and then take her to the live version of the show if she takes to it.
Shows with the likes of Godzilla or Darth Vader can't come soon enough, as far as my daughter's concerned, but we're very conservative about what we introduce to her. As far as I'm concerned, a childhood without Robin Hood, Luke Skywalker or Spider-Man seems like hardly a childhood at all.
Contemporary kid fare has, most of the time, grown beyond crude stereotypes and mindless mayhem. There's a trade-off, however: The bar for vulgarity and bodily-function humor has dropped well below the waist, egging on our juveniles to engage in juvenile jokes.
I blame The Lion King, which became one of the most popular Disney films of all time upon its 1994 release. The beloved kid anthem "Hakuna Matata," however, devotes a full verse to the gaseous emissions of Pumbaa the Wart Hog. Now flatulence is virtually inescapable in kids' entertainment -- Shrek sets the standard, and you can only hope that a show with barnyard gags draws the line merely at belching. I still balk at showing my daughter last year's otherwise pleasant, innocuous Charlotte's Web because of the gag with an animal farting and blasting Templeton the rat onto the barn floor.
And Charlotte's Web was rated G!
It's not just movies. The fifth book in the Walter the Farting Dog series comes out in July. The level of gross-out humor on kid-oriented networks such as Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network is completely unpredictable from show to show.
Unquestionably, potty humor gets laughs across generations. Like indigestion after a rich meal, coarse jokes represent the side effect of something positive: With whole families sharing the same pop artifacts, creators want to keep everyone entertained, and some resort to the earthiest kind of equalizer for "hand-hold movies" that parents see with their kids.
The problem is the idea that bodily-function gags are suitable anytime, anywhere, 24/7, in front of any audience. I'm all too aware that part of becoming a parent means bemoaning a lack of manners and propriety in the world. But just because I'm fuddy-duddy doesn't mean I'm not in the right. The only recourse is to crack a window and hope that this trend, too, shall pass.
Barbie has a bad name in many households. My wife is particularly ambivalent about the doll's limitless fashion accessories and physical proportions not found in real life.
Barbie proves a role model worthy of Mary Poppins compared with the Bratz -- a popular line of mean-looking, trampily outfitted dolls popular with tweens and younger girls and starring in a theatrical film August 3.
Compared with Barbie's vaguely Aryan ideal, the Bratz seem like more approachable "homegirls." Maybe too approachable; the American Psychological Association says, "Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas ... It is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality."
I have no doubt that in the next decade, I'll be making statements such as, "You are not leaving this house dressed like that, young lady." Right now, we're only starting to focus on the distinction between what's fashionable and what's slutty, between modesty and a healthy body image. Sexed-up models and music videos may be an inevitable part of pop culture, but sexed-up toys are intolerable.
In a way, it's comforting at this particular pop-culture moment that some questionable girly role models such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have had such public difficulties. But that won't do me much good when my daughter's a teenager and other bad influences have taken their place. I just know that The Most Annoying and Revealing Fashion Trend in History is waiting for us next decade. I just hope we've taught our daughter enough common sense and self-respect by the time it comes along.
For now, the Seven Deadly Sins of Kid Culture -- or as I like to call them, Blandy, Bratty, Dippy, Bleedy, Gassy, Trampy and Jar Jar -- can be exhausting opponents. Because of them, however, I appreciate the children's arts that my daughter and I discover together all the more, such as the graphic novel Owly by Lilburn's Andy Runton, or the catchy, hook-laden songs of Laurie Berkner, or the new Pixar movies.
But being well-rounded isn't the only virtue I want to encourage in my daughter. The best way to fight the Seven Deadly Sins is to cut off, shut down and unplug all their sources of entry. Even the best things about kid culture, even Ratatouille, can't compare to a walk in the park.