Why my kids are pop-culture illiterate

As parents who home-school, my wife and I shield our twins from mainstream kids' fare: No Dora, no Barney

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 29, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

My children have never heard of Dora the Explorer or Barney the dinosaur or "Star Wars." I'm pretty sure they still think Walt Disney's trademark mouse is named Mick, although they have stopped referring to the Marvel Comics web-slinger as "Spider-Guy." They love Thomas the Tank Engine as a toy, but they don't know he has a television show. In fact, although they've seen a handful of TV shows -- "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Between the Lions" -- they really don't know about the existence, or the 24/7 availability, of children's television as a medium. They have never played a video game, unless you count the crappy little bowling game on kiddie author Jon Scieszka's Trucktown site.

Nini and Desmond are only 6 years old, so none of this strikes me as all that unusual or amazing. Parents of all descriptions are negotiating the endlessly vexing question of how much electronic media and what kinds, and unplugging -- or at least ramping down -- has itself become a lifestyle trend. Furthermore, it's not like our kids' pop-culture illiteracy was the result of some totally thought-out parenting strategy. Dora may be a stranger to them, but Chip 'n' Dale, the cartoon chipmunks from the '40s who make Donald Duck's life a living hell, are their beloved pals. They have never watched Nickelodeon, but they've seen the Disney/Pixar film "Cars" two dozen times. Who would make those decisions on purpose?

This isolation from the mainstream of kid-oriented pop culture is at least somewhat related to the fact that my wife, Leslie, is home-schooling our kids (at least for now). Desmond and Nini haven't been in preschool or kindergarten classrooms where Barney and Dora are likely to be superstars. Our decision to constrict the flow of electronic media predates our home-school decision by several years, but both stem from the same impulse. We want to give our kids as much time as possible to be kids, to experience a slowed-down childhood of books and play and imagination before their inevitable engagement with the industrialized childhood of media conglomerates and educational bureaucracies. While I suspect many home-schoolers have made similar decisions, there's no necessary connection.

We started from two simple principles, neither of them radical or unique. We decided to follow the universal, if widely ignored, pediatric recommendation that kids under age 2 watch no TV at all, and to introduce electronic media slowly and gradually after that. The only remarkable thing about that is how much pressure you have to fend off well-meaning friends and family, who seem convinced that 2-year-olds unfamiliar with Bugs Bunny are missing out on the central joys of childhood.

Secondly, we wanted to affirm the idea that media is something you can choose and control, not a collective demonic unconscious that fills up your imagination and swallows all your spare time. Specifically, we wanted to resist the stepped-up invasion and colonization of early childhood by corporate media, both in its most obvious Happy Meal and merchandising tie-in form and also in its friendlier, allegedly educational "Dora"/"Blue's Clues" guise. It's not like we think toddlers who watch TV will all become mindless consumer zombies, but the correlations between childhood media consumption, the obesity epidemic, literacy problems and the disappearance of outdoor play are too strong to ignore.

We got rid of cable, which has saved us a lot of money. (When necessary, Leslie and I treat ourselves to catch-up crash courses on DVD, as we recently did with "Mad Men.") As far as Desmond and Nini know, the television set is only for playing videos, although it occasionally and mysteriously shows live news or ballgames. When we started showing them videos at age 3 -- the first one I remember was a holiday screening of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" (the original animated special, of course), which was a blast -- we mixed in stuff their friends liked, stuff we wanted them to watch and random stuff that just seemed like a kick in the pants.

"Cars," Chip 'n' Dale cartoons and Hayao Miyazaki movies like "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service" are all longtime favorites. They've gone through phases with the Disney "Winnie the Pooh" movie, the BBC's early-'90s Beatrix Potter animations, a series of films about the Hindu gods made for English-speaking kids in the Indian diaspora, and an entire genre of instructional video you can always find at thrift stores and garage sales: "Where the Garbage Goes," "Farm Country Ahead," "At the Minivan Assembly Plant."

Yes, I make my living mostly by writing about movies, and I guess you might expect me to be a bit more programmatic about this whole question. But I'm not delivering lectures about camera angles, framing devices and mise-en-scène, or insisting that they watch every episode of "Astro Boy," in the correct order, before moving on to Miyazaki. Some of my colleagues have kids who are incredibly media-savvy; one critic I know recently showed his 6-year-old son "Jaws," and then sat around dissecting how it was made. That movie would reduce my daughter to a state of cataleptic terror for at least three months.

My friend's kid son will be fine, of course, mostly because he's got a really smart dad who loves him and is paying attention. Like so many other parenting decisions -- talking about sex, buying them their own computer and cellphone, deciding when they can ride the bus or train on their own -- the question of what to show your kids and when is fueled by private and personal considerations, and doesn't translate into social philosophy. Mainly, I just don't think what they watch at this age is all that important, as long as they enjoy it and it's within the context of a full, active life. Maybe that's heresy for somebody with my job description, but there it is.

Sure, I look forward to watching them leap up and down with joy at Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and convincing them that black-and-white movies don't depict a different species and that you can hear people speak in one language and read the words on the screen in another and that after a few minutes you'll barely notice. It'll be thrilling to introduce them to "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca" and Frank Capra and Hitchcock, and the first time I show them Bergman's "Magic Flute" I'm pretty sure I will cry.

But it's not necessary to their survival to know about any of that at age 6, and frankly those experiences will be more powerful if they're the kinds of kids who've done a lot of other stuff along the way -- if they've read a bunch of books and gone hiking in the mountains and grown vegetables for the county fair and swum illegally in ponds in closed-down state parks (all of which has happened this summer). At their age, I was an owlish only child who had lived in three countries, but never with a TV set in the house -- and that remains an important aspect of who I am today. They need to figure out on their own terms that "Farm Country Ahead," in which a dude named Rusty with a thick Down East accent explains where the ingredients for a peanut butter sandwich come from, is a remarkably amateurish and boring production, and then decide for themselves whether to view it as a treasured, flawed private possession or cast it away forever.

Let's stipulate a couple of things here: We are not naive enough to believe that we can insulate them from mass kiddie-culture much longer, if at all. They're now perfectly capable of reading newspaper ads and billboards; they knew about "Toy Story 3" and "Despicable Me" long before I suggested that we go to see them. They're avid readers of DC Comics and occasionally sneak time on the Internet. There's almost certainly stuff that I don't know they know about, and some of my assertions in the opening paragraph may be wrong, or about to become wrong. Needless to say, all that is a normal aspect of childhood; if Leslie and I strike some people as control freaks, we are not completely insane and unrealistic control freaks.

Furthermore, there is no question that a lot of this is about our own particular and peculiar tastes. How could it be otherwise? There is no rational or pedagogical basis for banning Dora and Barney but permitting the George Reeves "Superman" serial, which was already antique when I watched it on UHF television in the early '70s. The latter seems like a charming artifact of American cultural history -- educational in an ass-backward way -- while the former examples strikes us as insipid, insidious, brightly disingenuous. (I'm beating up on Dora a lot, but only as a synecdoche I know she strikes some people as a sign of progress; for me, it isn't enough.)

Why say yes to the Pixar films and the Disney classics, but no to "The Little Mermaid" and "Shrek" and "Kung Fu Panda"? Because we think those movies suck, and because one of the short-lived privileges of parenting young children is arbitrary aesthetic totalitarianism. (The list of offbeat family-oriented DVDs I put together with Salon's readers two summers ago -- and have extensively road-tested since -- remains one of the most popular things I've ever written. An updated version is on the way, I promise.)

I have no doubt that in the years ahead Nini and Desmond will become media-literate big time, involving technologies that haven't been invented yet. They will absorb things I think are great and things I think are garbage, with less and less regard for my opinion. It was ever thus: My dad and I spent many hours together watching "Doctor Who" and "Monty Python," but he just couldn't get Elvis Costello, even though I really, really thought he should. My high-low appetite for horror movies and long, meandering art films comes entirely from my mother, although she can't grasp what I see in Douglas Sirk or Wong Kar-wai.

Our household policy -- introducing media slowly and rather late, and making it neither forbidden nor obligatory and "educational" -- definitely made managing our kids as toddlers more challenging, and most of that fell on Leslie. But it didn't kill us or anything, and it has pretty well accomplished what we hoped it would. Our kids would almost always rather read comics or go on an outing or play a game than watch TV, and they never beg for it. Maybe they watch an hour or two a week, on average, but that's deceptive. More typically, we'll have a week when I'm away at a film festival or Leslie's really busy or the weather's crappy and they'll watch six or seven hours of videos, and then several more weeks go by when they see almost nothing.

As I realized when we watched two or three innings of somebody clobbering the Mets earlier this year, Nini and Desmond had never previously seen a TV commercial, and did not understand why the game was periodically interrupted with pictures of somebody driving a Toyota along the California coast. My daughter has had virtually no contact with the pinky, gauzy, Disney-fueled princess culture that is ubiquitous among girls her age, and doesn't seem much interested.

We do not think we are exemplary parents; we both lose our tempers too easily and you should see the state of our apartment and when, exactly, did they last have a bath? We also have no idea whether Desmond and Nini will turn out better or worse because they spend relatively little time in front of the box. (Journalists rely way too much on statistics without context, but the average American child purportedly spends more than five hours a day consuming media.) But in the long war of trying to raise interesting individuals in a culture of perpetual slap-happy consumer distraction, it feels like a small victory. Someone will tell Nini that it's actually Mickey Mouse. And we'll show them "Star Wars" (the original 1977 version, thank you). Just not today. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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