February 10, 2018
On the Right Time to Begin
My daughter turned three last year, and while I had intended not to expose her to television or smart phones, that isn’t exactly how things turned out. As many parents will attest, there is sometimes no greater tool for getting thirty minutes of peace than a children’s television program, and believe me, there is a need for that short respite. Sometimes it’s the difference between becoming completely out of sorts and on the verge of tears, and handling screams, diaper changes, and messy feedings in a calm and sensible manner.
So my daughter has watched Teletubbies, Peppa Pig, and Dora the Explorer. She’s also a fan of the Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear, a show that can be enjoyed by both parents and children. Her favorite episode is called “Picture Perfect,” and it involves little Masha developing a fondness for art and changing nature to match her drawings. It’s cute and has a catchy tune to boot, one that she frequently sings along with. Recently I began showing her late Donald Duck cartoons, and she’s developed a peculiar fondness for “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land.”
And here’s the kicker. Television has actually helped her.
In the first year of my daughter’s life, she had difficulty showing or responding to affection. In fact, sometimes she would completely reject it. It made for some difficult moments, ones in which we questioned if we were doing right by her. And then Teletubbies came alone with their constant hugging, and pretty soon she wanted in on the act. Soon she began initiating hugs herself. She also picked up La La’s dance moves and even today breaks into ballet every time the character does. Then there was the vocabulary. At a certain point, she started picking up words that frequently appear on the show, words like scooter, bag, ball, and hat, the Teletubbies favorite things. The show taught her about the seasons, rainbows, animals, fruit picking, washing her toys, and so many other things as well
So I don’t regret failing to keep her away from television completely, yet I find myself in a quandary over when and how to take the next step. Years ago, I was in charge of an afterschool program, and Friday was designated movie day. Each week it was my job to find an appropriate film, and for the most part, I stuck with films I was already familiar with. The one time I didn’t was a disaster. I selected Sinbad’s First Kid, which the previews had made out to be a safe comedy for kids, so I didn’t give much consideration to the film’s PG rating. Those who have seen the movie can attest to it being relatively kid-friendly - up until the final fifteen minutes that is, when the villain tries to kidnap the president’s son and actually shoots Sinbad in the shoulder. The older kids didn’t bat an eye (which is telling in and of itself) yet one of the youngest ones came up to me and said he was scared. He sat me with for the duration of the film, but, hindsight being what it is, I should have fast forwarded to the much calmer finale or just stopped the film outright.
Suffice to say, I have not introduced full-length films to my daughter yet, even as I slowly upgrade some of my collection of kids films to Blu-ray. Those films just seem worlds apart from cartoons, where the violence is often slapstick and never yields much in the way of bruises or permanent scars. My daughter is able at laugh at the antics of Tom and Jerry; she hasn’t had to wonder why Penny from The Rescuers has been kidnapped, if her mother will die like Bambi’s, or why someone didn’t help the crazy guy in Up avoid falling to his death. In fact, looking at recent cartoons, it seems that the death of the antagonist has become a staple. And don’t get me started on the frequency of death in today’s superhero movies.
Then there’s the not-so-subtle message of women needing a male savior in a number of early Disney cartoons. It never bothered me growing up, but looking back, I wonder how many of my notions of chivalry and manhood were shaped by movies in which the male protagonist is the sole redeemer of a cursed or victimized heroine. How many of my ideas about appropriate behavior were influenced by the notion that it is acceptable for a prince to kiss a comatose woman, so long as the audience has been told that only a kiss from her true love will break the spell? Is this really the right message to give children at such an impressionable age?
Admittedly, I grew up on Disney. In fact, the first movie I recall seeing is Pinocchio. Back then, Disney was pretty much the only game in town. We live in a different world now, one filled with Madagascars, Shreks, and Ice Ages, as well as odd YouTube videos of children unwrapping toys and then playing with them, but the questions remain the same – When is the right time, when is too young, and what is the right content to show them? I don’t pretend to have an answer to these queries, yet they’re important ones to ask. After all, I only get one chance to get them right.