Monday, June 9, 2008

Minds Like Steel Traps--For The Wrong Stuff

When you raise your kids in a way that's in some way different than the way everyone else is raising their kids, you often have the chance to perform psychological experiments on them.

(Psst... don't tell the APA....)

Ahem. What I mean by this, is that your kids are being exposed to a different set of influences than much of the population. So when your kid learns something new, you have a chance to reflect, "Now where did my kid learn this?" and get answers that are often different than most parents would--and this can tell you something about how your kids learn, and what they're learning.

Now, my kids are being raised in a household that does not have television. They have videos, but no television. But occasionally we go on trips to visit family members who have the set on for much of the time; and not only that, they have a different set of videos than we do.

We went down to Southern California a couple of weeks ago and spent some time with my Aunt. Now, this Aunt takes care of my nephew (age four) on a regular basis, since both of his parents teach in the public high schools. And this little boy has his favorite television shows picked out, and his favorite videos already loaded into the DVD changer.

On this particular trip, we actually didn't watch all that much TV, or that many videos. At least, not more than we do on a usual day, in which the kids get to watch one video (usually half an hour) in the mornings, and another one in the afternoons. But it was television (un-pauseable, and un-replayable), it was shows they only rarely see, and it was episodes they hadn't seen yet. And the videos were (for the most part) different videos than what they normally watch when they're at home. So with only a few exceptions, they were seeing all-new stuff, and they were watching it once.

And my wife and I were amazed at how much the girls picked up on one viewing. Here are some examples.

A few days ago, the girls were counting some objects, and suddenly the Adrenaline Junkie (age three) started up an evil, cackling laugh after every number. The Pillowfight Fairy (age five) asked her, "Are you being The Count?" and she replied "Yeah." We found this noteworthy, because we don't watch Sesame Street at home. The only place we can think of where they could have learned about The Count was at my Aunt's place, on one viewing of Sesame Street. (To be fair, they may have seen it when we were down there back in January--but that's a long time ago for a three-year-old. Something has to be pretty special for a kid that age to remember it in detail for that long.)

(And since that time, we've been finding clips on You Tube of The Count and showing them to the girls. They love them. They particularly like this one and this one.)

Well, just before we jumped in the van and started heading back up north, while Mommy and Daddy were loading our luggage into the van, the Pillowfight Fairy was watching a PBS show called Super Why, which is intended to teach early reading skills (and perhaps some critical thinking). Now, in this show, there are four main super-hero characters, each with their own super powers: one has the power of Reading, one has the power of Spelling, and so forth. And these characters tell the viewing children (referred to as "Super-You"), that they have the Power to Help.

Anyway, I caught a little of this show (which I'd never seen before) as I was wandering in and out of the house loading up the van. And I hate to say it, but it was annoying. Perhaps it has some educational merit, although I didn't see enough of it to make a judgment (although on my first impression, it seemed to place a lot more emphasis on special effects and entertainment value than education. Note that this is just a first impression, however). I don't even think our little girl had the chance to finish watching the episode, as we had to hit the road. She got perhaps the first ten minutes, and was rather miffed that she had to miss the rest.

But even after having seen no more than ten minutes of this show, it was amazing how much of the storyline and characterizations she'd picked up. As we pulled out onto the freeway, she was telling us all about those characters, and what their names were, and what their super-powers were, and how they got around (those funny little spaceships), and where they were going, and she proudly announced that "My super-power is to help." So I tried to remind her that, "Honey, you already have the power to read." But she wouldn't hear it: "No, that's Super-Why's power. My power is the power to help."

Et cetera.

Now, I don't think it was the intention of the creators of Super Why to convince my little five-year-old daughter that she didn't have the power to read. But I think it's pretty obvious that, in at least one way, these shows are doing exactly what they were designed to do: they are grabbing the attention of the kids, using all the motion and action and colorful sets and strange characters, long enough so that some kind of information can be piped into their little heads.

But at the same time, speaking as someone who hasn't had a TV in the house for nearly the last decade-and-a-half, that there's something about this that rubs me the wrong way.

To explain what I mean, consider the typical commercials that show up on non-public TV. Most people don't think much about them; yeah, they're there, they're just part of the background. You're used to them. They present an opportunity to visit the restroom; or, if you're watching a show saved on a TIVO, you can just skip past them. But most people think nothing of them, unless a particular ad happens to be just a little more witty, or a little more annoying, than all the others. Otherwise they're just part of the wallpaper.

However, not having had a TV for so long, I find I've developed an almost visceral loathing of the ads. I'm no longer accustomed to all the quick cuts, and the garish colors, and the loud, percussive, dissonant music; and the hard-sell techniques that are designed to play on my emotions? I find that I occasionally have to leave the room when the commercials come on to save my sanity.

And I don't think this is just me trying to make the case that I'm somehow more enlightened than the rest of the plebians out there who haven't evolved to the point where they've scrapped their TVs yet. This is simply a case of my not being accustomed to it anymore. I assure you, I can be just as plebian as the rest of you.

(Except for the Opera stuff. And the harp. But aside from all that, I'm really just a redneck at heart.)

Well, I find this same visceral loathing starting to kick in as I watch the kids shows. Again, it's the garishness, the in-your-face quality of the whole thing, the really-simplistic storylines, the intentionally-annoying voices, the so-cute-you-want-to-freak-out characters, the same hard sell techniques now applied to educational ends instead of product hawking, and so forth. I'm going to scream if I have to watch another Elmo's World segment on Sesame Street. (And don't get me started about the time that I distinctly heard Elmo tell someone, "You did good!" Gaaaacck! Cringe-inducing....)

But the girls (and the boy, to a lesser degree befitting the fact that he's only sixteen months old) are absolutely enthralled when this stuff comes on. They don't want it to stop. They can't think of anything else when it comes on; the rest of the room vanishes for them, and they begin floating in this spiritual plane where it's only their disembodied minds, in communion with the TV.

As the Pillowfight Fairy's favorite theologian put it,
Oh greatest of the mass media, thank you for elevating emotion, reducing thought and stifling imagination. Thank you for the artificiality of quick solutions and for the insidious manipulation of human desires for commercial purposes. This bowl of lukewarm tapioca represents my brain. I offer it in humble sacrifice. Bestow thy flickering light forever.


So, my dear internets... Am I the only one out there who thinks this way (aside from my lovely wife, of course, who's with me the whole way on this), or are there others out there who also suspect that there's something wrong, something developmentally unnatural even in the widely-acknowledged "educational" TV? Is my visceral reaction against this stuff something that's natural and healthy, that I experience now because I've pretty much been re-sensitized to it by being off TV for so long, or is my visceral reaction--even against PBS educational TV--the result of some kind of snobbery?

Let me know, I want to hear your opinions.


the Fish said...

Thank you for putting so eloquently something I've bee saying/practicing for years. My oldest is 17, and from the beginning we limited the TV to one commercial show we didn't mind too much and PBS. We never had cable.

As the years rolled by and our other three kids arrived, we had to ixnay more and more PBS shows, starting with Barney's "family". Later I was sorry to lose Sesame Street to the Elmo's World format change. The last show I remember having to ban was Cyberchase, a math show, for sheer ugliness approaching Nickelodeon proportions. Eventually the only thing left was my beloved Mr. Rogers, alas inconveniently timed.

Personally, I'm now so unused to TV, I can no longer think when one is on. It's a conversation killer when visiting and a right misery in waiting rooms.

I sometimes struggle with wanting to explain to younger moms how bad TV has gotten/is for their kids, but am stumped as to how to not sound elitist and superior about it. Even here I sound overly sensitive to myself. (But I know I'm right.)

DavidofOz said...

We stopped broadcast TV when our eldest was 3.5 and her brother was 1. They were finally old enough to play together and we were getting annoyed at all the shortcomings of the TV system. That was 13 years ago. We have a very large collection of DVD/videos and the children are used to:
1. Watching a film without advertising/interruptions
2. Knowing they can get back to a film once it is stopped,
3. Subtitles so you get to understand so much more of the movie, and
4. Watch what you want when you want.
The other benefit is not having to re-arrange YOUR timetable to match the TV programming.

Why would we want to hook up an antenna?

Theocentrica said...

It's not just the visual effects, but the inane, banal little songs on those shows that imprint themselves forever in one's mind....Sesame Street ditties still move subtly within my mind years later...just think of the damaging psychological effect. If kids are going to watch those shows, mute them and put on Zauberflote or Il Barbiere or Ruddigore in the background.

My favorite show when I was little was Wild America, a nature documentary which I don't think they broadcast anymore. *sigh*

Chris said...

1) yes, yes and yes. We have cable, but the kids have only a limited concept of the fact that it exists. (the grown-ups, however, dig into "House" and "Numbers" regularly. Color us hypocritical if you must; they'll get their chance later).
2) is it too scary to admit that The Boy's real name is the same as PFF's favorite theologian. Some people think it's because it's a family name, but we know better. If only he would agree to name his stuffed tiger appropriately!!!

Tonya Power said...

Most of my objections to using television come from the fact that I was once addicted to the silly thing. I consider myself in recovery now. Once I realized how much it dominated my life, it made me sick. I tried limiting my use of it, but I lived with TV addicts (one of whom would listen to the news constantly and the other would watch movies to relax). Hi, Mom and Dad! When Tim and I got married, neither of us wanted a TV, so cold turkey it was.

As a result, I have found that the longer you do without TV, the less you miss it. You become resensitized to normal life and don't need to be constantly given more and more "entertaining" shows. I think the real reason that most people consider TV OK for their kids is that they can't conceive of life without it. They are also addicted but don't realize it. They are influenced by it, but don't understand the extent of this influence. They figure if it hasn't hurt them, it is fine for their kids. My suggestion is that it is neither fine for kids or adults to watch much TV. It can be a very useful tool. But, most people let it use them rather than the other way around.

OK, I'm off my soap box now... carry on...

Timothy Power said...


After reading your comment, I find I have one of those "banal little songs" stuck in my head.

Repeat after me:
When you go one,
I go beep....


That whole doppelganger thing was funny for a while, but this has really got to stop. ;-)

We decided that the best sounding kids names to go with a last name of "Power" were the Celtic ones (Irish, Welsh, Scottish) and Nordic ones. This all makes sense, seeing as how "Power" is an Irish surname. Of course, these names all sound like those of folk singers and pagan horse-goddesses and the like. I suspect that when we call out their names to take them home from the church playground, that uninitiated visitors think they've been overrun by Celts.

So no, none of our kids are named after famous theologians and their fuzzy, philosophical sidekicks.


By the way, regarding your comment about cable: My first introduction to the wonders of Monty Python was when I was in Junior High, and I wandered downstairs from my bedroom one night for some long-forgotten reason... and caught my parents cuddled up in front of the TV, watching a rather naughty episode of the Flying Circus. Never seen them the same way since. ;-)

B. Durbin said...

I've been off the TV habit since college, which is amusing since I ended up getting my degree in broadcast studies. So I can analyze the shows and commercials and tell you exactly why they're being so annoying.

Anyway. Our dude isn't going to get exposed to television because we're not TV watchers, but I'm glad of it because what little exposure I've had to children's broadcasting (primarily in doctors' offices, actually) is enough to convince me that long-term exposure would drive me mad. forget the kid's development, I'm worried about mine!

And besides, they've taken Cookie Monster's cookies away. No fun anymore.

Queen of Carrots said...

My mother had a voice from God (or something like that) tell her to switch off Sesame Street when my older siblings were small, so I'm now a second-generation parent going children's-TV-free. Our kids don't even get videos (actually we never got around to buying a player; we watch DVDs on the computer if we really want to see something after the kids go to bed).

I hesitate to even mention this policy in most settings for fear of sounding elitist, but although I think it's better for their little brains and eyes, I honestly would rather listen to my kids fight than listen to the inanities of children's programming. And they don't fight all that much. They're used to having to entertain themselves, and they do it quite well.

Catherine said...

We also do not watch TV. Videos, yes. The family computer is at a level where the children can watch the screen as though it were a TV screen. We put on Blue's Clues videos from the library and let them watch Barbie videos when they're interested in them (2 little girls under age 4). Thanks to Blue's Clues, our older daughter (who doesn't read yet) surprised us one day by writing down "BLUE" and "HAT" on slips of paper at the library, and our children get ideas from the show for their oh-so-important imaginative playtime. I think Blue's Clues is a wonderful show. Most other children's programming (Dora included) is too loud and annoying.
As for commercials, ugh! We have a small house and a tight budget. I don't need my children being told that they need this or that toy to be happy! Especially not at a volume even louder than the children's program that the advertisement is interrupting!
Now that we're off the TV habit, we wouldn't ever go back on it. We have too much else we do (reading, talking, house projects, web surfing, watching videos, spending time with our children, service) in that time to give it up to "the boob tube".

kat said...

I was very put out 12 years ago when my husband put the TV in the Goodwill bin. I was pregnant with #1 child and wasn't sure I didn't want to parent without Big Bird and Elmo.

Now with 5 children under the age of 10 I am so grateful for that day the boob tube went away. My kids read, read, and long to read. Even the 2 year old looks at books and wedges himself between the older kids trying to get a seat with a view of the pages of whatever I am reading aloud. They play games, put together puzzles, dress dolls, swim, draw, but the TV hasn't been on (we have the monitor/DVD/VCR combo) in over a week. They haven't missed it a bit.