March 16, 2005

On the Other Side of the Screen

One of the things I was afraid of when I had a child was that everything I’d previously said about childhood and children was going to be contradicted. I’d had a couple of people predict that, in fact, that I’d change the way I thought about television, commercialism, and so on.

So far, not happening, and I don’t feel that’s taking any close-mindedness on my part. Yes, ok, I do see in a new light how difficult the advice to monitor what your child sees can be. For example, I really find the Sci-Fi Channel’s promotional bumpers very irritating, because you can be watching something largely innocent with your four-year old and then the promotional bumper comes on that plugs a horror movie with pretty explicit footage. Walk away from the TV at the wrong moment and you might have a problem. Yes, ok, I am impressed at how seductive some commercial tie-ins can be. Emma was walking through the grocery store with me and every time she saw some character she knew on a cereal box or other product, she wanted it.

But come on, these are not such difficult challenges. I just pointed out to my four-year old that we already tried Frosted Flakes once before and she didn’t like them, and she wouldn't like them any better just because the characters from Robots were on the back. Or I just tell her point blank that she’s not getting X, Y or Z. And she’s pretty good at censoring her own input: if something frightens her, she looks away and asks me to change the channel or skip the scene.

What I’m more pleased about is that Emma makes me feel even more confident about my more general claims on the innate “interpretative intelligence” of many children, more certain that most advocacy groups concerned about children’s media consumption flatly misunderstand children and underestimate their abilities.

We were watching Sesame Street a few days ago and a segment I remember from long ago came on where Ernie frets to Bert that he doesn’t feel special in any way. Bert enthusiastically reassures Ernie about his special individuality. It’s actually a kind of role-reversal: Ernie is uncharacteristically morose and depressed, Bert uncharacteristically enthusiastic and expressive. Ernie then turns to the camera and reassures the audience that yes, they too are also special. He instructs them to run their fingers through their own hair to feel how special their hair is.

So ok, I run my fingers through my hair. Emma looks at me curiously. “What are you doing, Dad?” I reply, “Ernie said to run fingers through your hair.”
She looks at me incredulously. “Dad, he’s not talking to us. He’s talking to someone we can’t see on his side of the screen.” Considering how often children’s TV shows try to showily interact with the audience, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she had a worked out interpretation of what was happening when they did so. But I was surprised, and delighted, even if I felt like the village idiot.

Then the segment ended and Emma turned to me. “Dad, I think Ernie was just pretending he didn’t feel special. I don’t think he really felt that way at all.” That’s not the first time that she’s smelled out the hidden agenda in a kid’s show without any prompting from me, but I was still impressed.

I honestly don’t think that this is because she’s smart (though she is and yeah I’m proud of her). I think it’s because so many well-intentioned children’s shows are much more obviously manipulative in their intent than the producers of those shows or their parental devotees tend to think. I think many kids have a nearly instinctive nose for manipulation, and most of them have an equally innate suspicion of it.

Good for them.