Thursday, January 8, 2009

Don't make me ruin Curious George

I've been seething all day about something from this morning. See, I'm part of an online group called Parent Connection. It's really just a message board where San Diego parents post questions and give advice to each other. All very useful, when you need a recommendation on a new stroller or want to find a reliable contractor.

But, being a place where parents preach a little, it invariably hosts the occasional dialogue about television/video games/vaccinations/etc. You know, those touchy topics that seem to draw out the worst of our judgemental tendencies.

One such discussion is currently taking place. At first I was appreciative at the way everything was handled. First, a parent posted stating that they were finally ready to let their three year old watch television. Since they were unfamiliar with children's programming, they wanted suggestions from parents on healthy/unhealthy options. A variety of responses popped up, most including a virtual pat on the back to the parents who waited so long before turning on the boob tube.

(For the record, I'm not writing as one of those parents, and this isn't one of those posts. I have plenty of opinions on that particular subject, which I'm more than happy to keep to myself. It's the only way I keep my own judgemental tendencies in check.)

Personal opinions, kindly and fairly rendered, very nice indeed. Then I read the most recent response. In it, the parents urged their peers to shy away from television and turn back to the tried-and-true fairy tale--Grimm Brothers, to be exact. They contended that these stories had been around for ages, standing the test of time, and were much better for development than modern offerings.

If I had fur, it'd be bristling.

Turns out I studied a lot of literature in college and graduate school. A lot of children's literature, especially, and pop culture as well. And the thing that became clear to me as I studied children's literature and culture is that there's a surprising amount of subtext in even the most simple of stories. Now, I'm trying to hold back my own judgements on what parents should read or watch with their kids. I think that's a decision that each parent needs to make with his or her own family. But I do want to point out that you should never accept anything at its face value. You should never accept a story just because it's been around for a long time. You should never watch a show just because everyone else says that it's okay. I can come up with many examples right off the top of my head--Peter Rabbit, Goldilocks, Babar--of classic stories with disturbing subtexts. I even delivered a paper at a conference on the dangerous subliminal messages in Veggietales. Veggietales! They're talking Christian vegetables, for pete's sake!

Here's the thing: just because they're cute, classic, or even Christian does not make them okay. What makes them okay is if you sit down and read them, think about them, and consider how they fit in with your values; if you talk about them with your children, working through messages that you find unappealing; if you decide that they are okay for you and your children.

It's so much easier to just ask other people. And I'm not dissing that in the least. Get advice, by all means, but when it's all said and done, lay that advice out on your own kitchen table, make the best decision you can, and then make it work for you. We still watch Veggietales, occasionally, despite the paper and its very convincing findings, and Peter is a favorite around here, too. But I'm too aware now, and I cringe to think that others might blindly take advice without making sure that it makes sense, not just in general but for them and their family.

Geez, this soapbox is making me queasy. I don't rant often, so I hope you'll forgive this one. I just find it frustrating that after studying this topic for seven long years, I still see people offering up opinions that don't relay all the facts. If you had a question about that stroller, you wouldn't want answers from a person who'd never used one. If you had a question for that contractor, you wouldn't want your CPA to respond. So why is it that in questions about literature and culture, everyone's suddenly an authority? I know, I know: we all read books, we all create the culture. But we all have homes, too, and don't pretend like we know how to build them. I can at least hope that if people aren't going to consult an authority on this topic, they will at least enact their own analysis in its place.


Heather said...

that's so funny, Diana. I remember reading an article about Babar in the New Yorker--a summary of all of the imperialistic assumptions of it--and it was pretty convincing.
And you're right, too. It is so much about what we like as a family. Example: my bro in law hates Calliou, and it's one of the shows D and I feel pretty okay about letting Lucy watch.
It's also about what your child wants...much as I hate to admit it. She was not intrested in "Teach Your baby to Sign" or "Bob the Builder".

writermeeg said...

Amen to this, Diana. Many "classics" we've been given have themes that don't fit our family's values, and people seem shocked that I'm so "picky" about books. I marvel at how they think any book is a good book, and don't even read them before giving them to children. This could be a good piece to convert for a parenting mag or even general pub, BTW -- speaking as a literature expert, toned down in tone :), but message the same. Hugs, mpk