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Readin’, writin’ and Sesame Street

Food For Thought

Before I get into this subject any further, I want to say I’m not denying Sesame Street is a wonderful program. It helps kids learn, not just one, two, three and A, B, C, but a lot of other important stuff, as well; things like tolerance, diversity, acceptance, cooperation, patriotism, honesty, and a few dozen other valuable things. I’m simply wondering if there shouldn’t also be room for silliness, fantasy and just plain fun.
It’s been quite a few years since I had even a grandchild young enough to watch “Sesame Street” or any of the other “educational” children’s programs. Which is the same as saying any program designed for an audience consisting of preschool and elementary school age children. Because of that, I hadn’t sat down and actually watched any of those programs for many years. One day, I happened to leave the television set on while out of the room, and when I came back, some time later, I was treated to the sight of a gigantic red dog in my living room. Now, Clifford was one of my daughter’s favorites when she was a little girl, and I decided to see what he was up to after 40-some years, so I sat down and watched.
I must admit I was disappointed. Clifford has become boring and predictable. I admit, when he and Emily were much younger, his unique characteristics were entertaining because of their novelty but he seems to still depend on the same old shtick and I would have expected him to move into the 21st century, along with the rest of us. Each generation of children is different from previous ones– the same old programs aren’t necessarily relevant. Curious, I made a point of catching some of the other children’s programming over the next days and weeks, and came to the conclusion all the programs aimed at the younger audience are incredibly boring. Any parent who reads to their youngsters with any regularity has long ago discovered the best children’s books are not only entertaining and informative for the children, but they’re entertaining for the adults reading them, too. We have learned any lessons or morals included in the story are cleverly blended so as not to damage the entertainment value of the story itself.
With today’s “educational” programs, the lessons are too frequently painfully obvious with about as much subtlety as a used car commercial. And this, I suspect is where the fault lies. I learned the campaign to make children’s television programs educational began with research that showed children responded most readily to television commercials, so that is the approach that was adopted. “Sesame Street” and its fellow programs became hard-sell commercials, using all the slick techniques discovered and invented by the world of commercial advertising. Our children are not only being bombarded by these “educational” commercials, but are also being thoroughly brainwashed to make the desired responses to commercials. I suspect we are training a generation of super-consumers who will respond maximally to any and all ads thrown at them during their lifetimes. Scary.
And what happened to the fun? Today’s kids don’t know what a good Looney Tunes cartoon is. They’ve never seen Wile E Coyote smacked up against a rock cliff or hovering in mid-air. And they’ve never giggled at the mystery of how one character can paint the entrance to a tunnel on a mountainside and escape through it while his pursuer flattens himself against the painted surface. Nor have they heard the warning “beep-beep” just before the Road Runner flashes past. Animated cartoons were a regular feature at movie theaters when I was growing up. Adults and children alike expected and enjoyed them, along with Pathe News of the Day and “selected short subjects,” as we sat in the darkened theater awaiting the start of the feature film.
When television came along, we continued to enjoy many of those same cartoons on Saturday mornings or tacked onto after-school local programs. It took a while before animated cartoons were created especially for television viewing and we enjoyed “The Flintstones” and their creator’s version of stone-age modern conveniences. The reverse occurred when we were treated to the futuristic world of “The Jetsons.” We saw many of our familiar comic book characters come to life, portrayed by real actors and imaginative camera work. These programs not only entertained adults and kids alike, they encouraged imagination and contained lessons in fairness, right and wrong, good citizenship—in short, the same values today’s “educational” programs strive to teach. But even without those things going for them, what was wrong with just having a little fun once in a while? What about that old adage, “All work and no play...”