I swear, shows I watched growing up in the 90’s had so much more depth and life lessons than the ones my nine- and ten-year-old brothers are watching these days. I’ll admit, I only started watching Boy Meets World this year (the rather sad experience of my roommate and I watching every single episode in about four months), but during those four months I think I learned more from George Feeny than I did from all my profs put together. That show taught me the fundamentals of life, the challenges and experiences of some youth who face parental abuse, the experiences of alcoholism in a household, the challenges of a death in the family, and just how much you can rely on your family (or alternatively, your next door neighbour / the only teacher you’ll ever have).
Then, you have a show such as the (not as loving-family sensed) Malcolm in the Middle, which I did grow up watching. Although this show contains a lot more trouble making, yelling, and well … hornier parents, it as well teaches amazing morals to grow up on, such as … well, they’re there. Trust me.
The thing is, these are both live-action shows, and some people wonder if cartoons can have the same effect for even younger children. It’s my full belief that they can indeed. Take for example the episode of Arthur called “George and the Missing Puzzle Piece”, which aired April 5th, 2010. In this episode, George (the moose), meets a rabbit character named Carl. He notices something “odd” with his new friend, some things such as rather straightforward and abrupt honesty, and an occasional inability to handle new experiences. George learns from Carl’s mother, and eventually learns more from The Brain, that Carl has something called Asperger’s Syndrome (which, for those who may not know, is a form of high-functioning autism). After watching this episode, I feel that they handled the topic really gracefully, and in a way that children can learn acceptance of unique circumstances they may not be used to, through familiar characters. As they explained in the show “it’s like being on a different planet, like Earth but different. Although you’re speaking the same language, it may seem like someone is speaking gibberish.” Among with many other tidbits of knowledge related to the world of someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Recently, the long-running, classic children’s show (that both myself and my mother grew up watching), Sesame Street, depicted a new character in a unique circumstance. Their new character, Alex, has a father who’s in jail. Some people, and media outlets, didn’t know how to take this. Some took it rather maliciously, while others praised everyone on the Street, I’m with the latter. To me, it’s just the next step in using children’s media outlets and familiar characters to teach valuable and sometimes difficult lessons. I really don’t feel that having a show such as Sesame Street depicting a character with a parent in jail as anything that oversteps boundaries, seeing as (as a Pew Charitable Trusts report reads),in the United States, one in every 28 children have a child in jail.
I decided to do some research, and found out that the incarceration episode actually has a full tool kit on the Sesame Street website. This kit provides such tools as “tips for parents” and lessons on “expressive feelings.” I decided to take some time and read through some other tool kits, to see what exactly kids were being taught these days. Some I could expect, such as “Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me”, or “Learning [and Math] Is Everywhere”, these basic lessons have always been taught in television, and I’m glad they are still to this day. But then, with the incarceration one, there are others that are more.. unique. “A is for Asthma”, “Families Stand Together” (through tough financial times), and the one that I found the most unique, “Hurricane Kit”. This one, as the name implies uses the Sesame Street characters to show the best way to stay safe during a hurricane, and how to help the community or your family during the aftermath.
Is this lesson needed? Are any? Does youth media have an obligation to teach children lessons? I kind of want to say yes, they do. Although, some ignore this (as far as I can find) unwritten rule and, quite frankly, air what I think is total garbage and call it television. Sure, you have shows on television like South Park (which is animated) and teaches the total opposite of what children should see. But, just because it’s cartoon doesn’t mean it’s for children! The shows actually meant for children, like Sesame Street, Backyardigans or Super Why are the perfect venue to get children involved in ways that can aid even their adult life (as long as that physical activity is squeezed in too)!
Then, there are the shows that are for the slightly older child, such as my previously mentioned Boy Meets World and Malcolm in the Middle (okay, I’ll be honest and say I watch both of those still). These shows, again, don’t need to teach these lessons, but may have an obligation in my eyes. Today, the shows my young brothers are flicking through really have none of the lessons that we grew up with, which to me is a pity. Not to sound old beyond my years, but it seems like they’re being forced to much random garbage for laugh value, or else gore to supplement. I guess in a perfect round about end to this … last week the Boy Meets World spin-off, Girl Meets World, was picked up by Disney channel, with most of the same writers from the original series still present. Maybe, just maybe, there’s some lessons on television left for my brothers yet. Maybe a character will even have a parent in jail, or a friend with Asperger’s Syndrome.