Thursday, December 18, 2008

Do You Know Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the Sea? Do your kids?

Mine do.
His name is Spongebob Squarepants.
Danielle recently hosted a little forum on her blog about families allowing his sponginess' presence in their homes. (Danielle allows him.)
There were a lot of moms who said no. Some had objections to content. Some to tv in general. But a few confessed they (and their kids) watched and liked him.

One mom states they were an anti-Spongebob house for a variety of reasons. Then they had an autistic child who responded to the yellow kitchen sponge who lives in a pineapple, has a pet snail and works as a fry cook. They found they could engage their child in ways they were never able to previously through Spongebob. And they became an SB household. In recent months, in speaking with several specialists (speech therapists, play therapists, OTs, psychologists, etc) who work with autistic children I have found that Spongebob is a rare character that seems to engage many autistic children. I learned that there is even a study as to what about this one particular character seems to reach kids that so often will respond to nothing else.

The objections were many, and a lot of moms said they didn't like the "ickiness" of the characters. I have a co-worker who disliked the cartoon for the same reason and told her kids that Spongebob was too "repulsive looking" for them to watch. A few weeks ago, she came to work VERY upset. As it turns out she has a new neighbor who has a daughter her daughter's age. The neighbor's child has severe facial deformities. After a few meetings between the families, the neighbors invited my co-worker's daughter for a play date. When the co-worker asked her daughter if she would like to go, the little girl said, "No. She is too repulsive looking, just like Spongebob." My co-worker was mortified, even more so because two other neighbors were over at the time and heard the exchange. I understood what upset my co-worker most is that she greatly underestimated her four-year-olds ability to translate her mom's dislike of a character into a dislike of real people. In a way I understood her, but I also felt like it was all to easy to make an assumption that kids wouldn't understand what she "really" meant.

Kids are pretty savvy. They understand a lot more subtleties than we truly give them credit for. We act shocked when a child repeats profanity, but what do we really expect. If they hear it being used, they assume it is okay for use. Especially if the person saying it is a parent, older sibling, grandparent or other trusted adult. And we make it worse when we pass it off as, well, they don't really know what they are saying. They may not be sophisticated thinkers, but small kids can make inferences. In fact, that's how they learn about a lot in their world.

You can ban Spongebob, you can allow him. Same with any other cartoon. One does not make you a better parent than another. And while we should be honest with our children in our decisions, we should also be clear. Had my co-worker explained to her child ahead of time that this is a cartoon character, not a real person, perhaps the child would not have turned the rationale on another human. But, then again, children crave consistency and it gets sticky with the world of make-believe.

A mother at daycare recently told me she did not allow her children to watch a locally produced show that included martial arts because of the violence. The show actually is about empowering kids and shows how kids should use discipline. In fact, most people don't put their kids into martial arts programs to exercise a violent outlet, but for the discipline these eastern arts teach. But I digress. I could understand this woman's initial resistance until she added this statement, "I only allow my kids to watch Boomerang, and Looney Tunes." I hope she did notice the look I gave her when she mentioned Looney Tunes. I love Bugs Bunny too, but if violence was her objection, what about "Duck Season, Rabbit Season," Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, or the endless anvil dropping. I mean, is it okay for a duck and a rabbit to suggest that Elmer Fudd shoot one over the other? This violence is acceptable because it's animated creatures, or because it wasn't a big deal when mom was a little girl and her parents allowed her to watch it? I have only caught the local martial arts program a few times and it mostly includes kids breaking boards and bricks, talking about how the "program" helps them to focus in school, and even has included a few segments about students being bullied and finding a non-violent way to stop it. Yes, there are some scenes of sparring with pads on under the tutelage of an instructor, but we aren't witnessing kids "jumping" each other on the playground. It struck me that unless this mom's kids pointed guns at each other yelling, "duck season! Fire!" she probably wouldn't realize the violent nature of the animated creatures.

There are no hard and fast rules for allowing one program over another with most children's progamming. And while we should all be aware what our children are watching and the lessons they are learning, there has, in recent years, developed a generation of "super-hyper-vigilant" parents who reject much of the programming they see that is new while allowing much older programming that often extols the same "values." It doesn't help to harbor under the delusion that older is always better.

And there is the temptation to get rid of the television altogether. I understand this sentiment as well. We very often feel we will build a better, smarter, more skilled, more Catholic child with no television.

The bottom line is, good parenting is good parenting, tv or no tv, Spongebob or no Spongebob. Good children will come out of homes that don't own a television and those that do. Productive citizens will have grown up watching Nickelodeon and just not. Good Catholics will be made from kids who only watched EWTN kids and those that might not have.