What are they watching? One dad's discussion of navigating the seemingly safe TV waters By Dave Whitakerphotos by Josh Hawkins Hayley Yussman, 8, of River Forest.
Dad, it's not real. It's just a show." That's how my 5-year-old daughter responds when I march into the room after hearing the word "stupid" shriek from the television.
It's not real? Just a show? I am dumbstruck. No, I am awe-struck. I can't help but think, "That's it, I'm off the hook." If she already realizes this behavior isn't something to emulate then, well, short of "The Jerry Springer Show" she can pretty much watch whatever she wants with no real ill effects. In her mind, it's just dramatic embellishment, artistic license, pretend.
And maybe I shouldn't worry. After all, the offensive word came from the mouth of an animated aardvark. Yes, that aardvark, the most celebrated character in the PBS Kids lineup.
Actually, in this case it wasn't the title character doing the name-calling. It was Muffy. Or Francine. Or was it D.W.? I can't keep these three characters straight, but I know D.W. is Arthur's volcano of a kid sister, an abrasive 4-year-old who seems perpetually on the verge of showering her brother with a four-letter pummeling.
As a work-at-home dad, I've been watching TV over my kids' shoulders for the past few years. No, I don't watch every minute along with them. Let's be honest: At crucial moments, television can keep kids in one place while we pack equipment for the day, practice a little personal hygiene or enjoy a moment or two alone with a bowl of cereal. The lesson I've learned, however, is you can't blindly trust any network, or any show, to watch your kids for you.
Aren't we safe here? Of course, this sounds obvious, but when you've done your homework on a show you'd like to think you can sneak out of the room for a few minutes without concern that the episode will deteriorate into a shouting match.
We introduced both of our children to television gradually. When our oldest turned 3, she graduated to PBS programs such as "Clifford, the Big Red Dog," "Teletubbies," "Sesame Street" and "Barney and Friends." These 30-minute shows are safe, entertaining and often educational. That's pretty much where we've kept the dial.
But, with our daughter now turning 5, the anticipated pressure to see what else is out there has led us to other PBS shows and, occasionally, to another channel.
My kids and I ventured deeper into television land together, and came out with a few more PBS staples and a couple of reliably creative programs on the Disney Channel. We've gotten to know the shows, the characters, the story lines and the core messages being sent.
As expected, "Arthur" is downright tame compared to a number of shows you can find on a quick, kids' channel surf. It's one reason why my wife and I limit our children's viewing choices to these two networks. You have to limit choices for the kids just so you can keep track of what's out there.
And, yes, we all are aware of the importance of limiting the amount of television the kids watch. That's sometimes easier said than done, but a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics makes it clear that more than two hours of viewing each day can affect a child's ability to concentrate down the road.
Depending on the season and their rising time, the kids often watch two shows in the morning, and maybe another late in the day. The routine helps. Sometimes, however, the familiar can surprise you. It's in these "stupid" moments that, as the television monitor, I can't help but feel like both a stiff-nosed protector and a whiny prude. My internal battle over the tipping point is every bit as conflicted and tortured as a glimpse of any episode of "The Powerpuff Girls."
Actually, the unrelenting mayhem of "The Powerpuff Girls" is a good place to draw the line, for viewers of any age. I was once trapped in a doctor's office waiting room while this cartoon catastrophe blared from an aging set. Of course, the kids were transfixed. It's not real, just a show.
When ‘Arthur' goes south Oddly enough, "Arthur" is still one we've OK'd, but it's not one we'll leave in their lap. If it goes south, it goes off. These outgoing aardvarks are, for the most part, genuine characters with real-life quirks and curiosities. The show revolves around Arthur's home life, his school friends and schoolwork. It's often an adventure of learning and lessons. It suffers, as do I, when its plot relies on conflict, name-calling and some sort of preteen, aardvark angst.
While these episodes are well intentioned, what's really seeping through? You can't help but believe it is the bickering and put-downs that drive the plot, rather than the cozy wrap-up as the credits begin to roll.
In my experience, plenty of real-life kids ages 4 to 8-the show's target market-are streetwise and quick-witted without being crude or cruel. Sure, older kids play this wisecracking game, but the tone seems more playful at that age. Still, casually and consistently tossing around the words "stupid" and "dumb" to any audience seems awfully, well, stupid and dumb.
In one episode of "Arthur," called "Bleeps," the show's writers seem to have gone over the top. Opening on an animated set of HBO's "The Sopranos," where the gangsters' colorful discourse is slathered in bleeps, the show carries on with Arthur and his gang trading their own bleeping swipes and barbs. By show's end, I guess young viewers already familiar with the series could conclude that it's not yet appropriate for them to hurt peoples' feeling with swear words, but using words such as dumb, stupid, duh and ugly is just a part of growing up.
And, what kindergartner or elementary-age child can reach to "The Sopranos" as a frame of reference? This seems like a long way to go to get a laugh out of any parents in the room at the expense of the show's true audience. Let's leave that to "The Simpsons." Not Jessica, I'm talking Homer.
The perplexing thing is, "Arthur" can be one of the best programs on the tube. Take the episode before that bizarre "Sopranos" sendup. One of the show's characters was struggling to learn how to play the harmonica. He kept at it, and was encouraged by his close encounters with blues legends Koko Taylor and Taj Mahal. These two special guests, of course, were dolled up as aardvarks as well.
Finding the right stuff So I hover over my kids as they watch this show and a few others. Like Tipper Gore roaming the music aisle at Best Buy, I listen for select words and judge for tone, reference and repetition. I always feel bad, mad and quite peculiar when I'm forced to turn it off. Why should I be put in this position? For crying out loud, it's a children's show on PBS.
Yes, there are some shows on PBS and the Disney Channel that give me the comfort to move in and out of the room. But I don't get too comfortable. I've learned you have to judge them individually. "Caillou" is a reliably fun and socially educating PBS series, as is "The Berenstain Bears." Of course, "Barney & Friends," featuring PBS' much-maligned purple dinosaur, is as safe as a soft pillow. It's toddler stuff, and it's interactive. Kids sing and play along with Barney and his dimpled little mates.
The best show I've come across on PBS, the one that seems to consistently connect with audiences of all ages with a skillful mix of charm, wit and imagination is "George Shrinks." George is 7 or 8 years old and, by some freak of nature, stands only
7 inches high. With a baby brother who towers over him and lumbers after him, an eccentric musician father and a high-spirited mother, George eagerly takes on what for a normal-sized kid might be a challenge. There's no whining or complaining. Every task is an adventure for this inventive character. And his dad is a riot.
"Sesame Street" is still around after 35 years, although its sketches seem more hurried. "Between the Lions" is a very well put together show that focuses squarely on reading.
On the Disney Channel, "Stanley" is far and away the best for young viewers. A curious boy hungry for anything he can learn about animals, Stanley and his funny goldfish friend, Dennis, dive into their magical great-big-book-of-everything and come face to face with their subjects. My daughter is fascinated by what they learn about everything from eels to elephants.
"Rolie Polie Olie," centering on an off-center family of robots, is clever and entertaining for preschoolers, and "JoJo's Circus" is another upbeat Disney ride that stays on course.
"Disney's House of Mouse," starring Mickey, brings back some classic characters in a variety show format, but is usually a dizzying mix of skits squeezed between a steady flow of messages brought to you by the unceasing Disney marketing machine.
Dialing for depth To find programming or home video that fits your kids, it's important to do your homework, consider your limits and watch as much as you can. Both stations offer previews and profiles of the shows on their respective Web sites, and the PBS site offers resources that can help you develop a television plan with your kids.
Rather than selecting a channel, they advise parents to select one show at a time. Be choosy; read reviews or descriptions of the show beforehand. When that show is over, the television should go off. For preschoolers, they stress making television an active experience.
Select a show that young viewers can respond to and interact with as opposed to one that leaves them zoning out. Parents are also encouraged to discuss the show. Ask children to repeat words or phrases they hear, and talk through situations they may not understand. Parents should also remind children that television characters can sometimes do things that we can't without getting hurt.
What these resources don't always take into account is the likelihood that you're dealing with more than one child, more than one age, at a time. So, ultimately, you make the call.
When it doesn't seem right, you're probably right. "Turn it off" is good advice. "Turn the channel" is as well. In adult programming, we know this also is the resounding retort of industry insiders to anyone who questions content. When it comes to children's programming, however, part of our responsibility as parents, I think, is to challenge the responsibility of the shows' creators as well.
As our kids get older, they'll certainly venture further into the thorny landscape of television, and the debate about how such programs affect their language, behavior and development will rage on. We'll travel with them, and do our best to focus on life away from the set.
We'll help them see television as a special place to visit-to have fun and learn about people, places and things-and be clear that it's no place for loitering. We'll listen, but won't surrender, when they tell us, "It's not real. It's just a show."Dave Whitaker is a writer, author and father of two living in LaPorte, Ind.