(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."
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.