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The seven deadly sins of kid culture

One dad runs interference against the worst of children's entertainment

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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.

3) "PRINCESS-NESS"

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.

4) STEREO-TYPING

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.

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