You don’t have to be in the parenting game long to realize how destructive television can be to family values. In the early years, you tend to overlook the occasional compromising situation or innuendo, figuring the kids don’t “get it” anyway. But as the children grow, the cumulative effort of the occasional objectionable material cannot be ignored. And it’s not just a question of turning off the soap operas. Among the worst offenders are programs aimed directly at children.
Sesame Street, while it maintains a very good reputation for introducing preschoolers to letters and numbers, is notorious for its social agenda. One area of concern is the show’s subtle redefinition of the family. There are a number of segments which deal with alternative family structures, such as one in which a little bird talks about her father’s nest and her mother’s nest and her grandma’s nest and that each one is a home for her. According to recent reports, a planned Sesame Street segment on divorce was scrapped because the children involved in the taping became too upset over the material.
A segment which is several years old shows up from time to time, in which Big Bird joins Maria to look at her unborn baby on ultrasound. A beautiful moment? Maybe. But definitely an intrusion on parents’ turf. Personally, I don’t consider Big Bird qualified to make decisions for me about how or when I tell my three-year-old about where babies come from.
The Children’s Television Workshop, creates of Sesame Street, also produce 3-2-1- Contact!, an educational program for children, ages 7 to 12. It usually airs in an after-school time slot. A prime time special program, What Kids Want to Know About Sex and Growing Up, a 3-2-1- Contact! Special, was aired recently on most PBS stations.
Recommended for 8 to 12-year-olds to view with their parents, the program is overly explicit in its graphic presentation, yet condescending and inadequate when responding to children’s concerns. It is not the worst of its genre, but it is a recent example of an insidious trend toward explicit sex education of young children via the living room TV.
While the TV reviewers gushed about this breakthrough in children’s programming, I was astonished to discover how utterly boring What Kids Want to Know About Sex and Growing Up actually is. Parental objections (and they are numerous) aside, from a kid’s point of view, there is very little interesting material presented. Very little in the breakthrough department either, unless enduring a bratty kid’s street description of an erection is enough to launch us into a new era of educational television.
Unfortunately, Canada seems to have taken the lead in this are of children’s programming. Always politically correct, CBC appears to be the biggest offender, but is by no means alone. In March 1992, CBC’s Wonderstruck, a Saturday morning science-for-kids show, ran two consecutive telecasts entitled The Sex Show, described by one reviewer as stressing “the physiology of puberty and including frank question-and-answer sessions with students at a Toronto high school.”
Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the CBC, outraged parents when it aired an explicit three-part Nation Film Board series, Grandir, in an after-school time slot. The Association des Parents Catholiques, which represents 60,000 parents, objected especially to the four o’clock scheduling of the programs. It is perhaps the most difficult hour for parents to monitor their children’s viewing, and it is a time when children much younger than the targeted 7 to 12 year-old group are watching.
Growing Up is the English language version of Grandir, and is scheduled to air this year in British Columbia and Ontario. (Leaflets encouraging parents to buy copies of the home video version of this film were included in the November family allowance mailing, and approximately 10,000 are reported to have been sold in English and 5,000 in French.)
Other recent forays into the sex-ed arena include A Conversation with Magic [Johnson], hosted by Linda Ellerbee, in which pre-adolescent children looked for the “facts” about AIDS. While giving the usual nod to abstinence, Ellerbee used the first tow fingers on her hand to demonstrate how to put on a condom. The show was produced by Nickelodeon, a U.S. cable company which specializes in “wholesome” programming for children. The same show has been broadcast repeatedly on YTV, a Canadian children’s cable channel.
The influence of TV over kids is a common concern among parents and media professionals alike. Many abhor cartoon violence and commercial advertising aimed at children, recognizing that children are vulnerable to these influences. Yet many of the same people applaud the exploitation of this vulnerability when it comes to so-called children’s programming. Educational TV is an ideological “smart bomb” which can hurt our children when we may not even know they’ve been hit.