July 19, 2009

For a while, after Mr. Rogers and Mr. Dressup died, their children's shows were aired in indefinite repeats. I always found this a bit ghoulish. The aim was to protect children from this particular reality by keeping it seamless; and the children never did learn -- at first -- that they were being enthralled by a dead man. We never did think to ask what effect this way of finding out might have on them; and now this generation of children is coming of age and it is too late to find out in the abstract. The stop-gap experiment has already blurred into the here and now. Effects, if any, are already a permanent part of this new generation, and will thus be a formative influence on the next one.

Mr. Rogers, Mr. Dressup, the Friendly Giant, and several other authoritative mentors in children's programming all date to the same period of early television and one-income families. Family fathers were away at work, and the children's airwaves eagerly embraced the substitute father figure whose neighbourhood was always kind and safe because it was his. He gently told people what was expected of them, and they did it.

Children's cartoons began and ended with entertainment. The best of them were so multilayered and deep that learning to see new things in them could take a child all the way to adulthood: but this very depth moved them into the darker realms of the Grimms brothers' fairy tales.

In contrast, Mr. Rogers represented reassurance, guidance, and a perfect security. When he died, that perfect security was shaken to its roots. Children's television has never completely recovered.

Perhaps we had learned too much. From his origins as an adult-oriented stage comedy creation not unlike Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, Pee-wee Herman briefly became a transitional figure between the father figure and the slightly bratty older kid. That part of his empire came crashing down when Paul Reubens was caught masturbating in an adult theatre. Men bring other children into existence behind closed doors. Modern men who entertain children must never even seem to be sexual beings at all.

(What would a modern world have made of a Lewis Carroll and his relationship with Alice Liddell?)

Unknown substitute father figures were no longer safe. Uncles were definitely not safe, because adult men were no longer safe. Yet to place a woman as a television television mentor might acknowledge more about the current state of two-income families and latchkey kids than anyone wanted to face.

Instead, television looked to the older sibling, just old enough to be a reliable role model to younger brothers and sisters while still being young enough not to be perceived as a sexual threat to those children. Modern children's programming is filled with hip young people who are having fun discovering the world and playing make-belief with puppets and younger children. In the process, the authoritative "tell, don't show" substitute father figure vanished entirely, to be replaced by a modelling approach by teens who were more wished-for friends than parent substitutes. The assumption continues to be that children will imitate those they admire.

Children are often more intelligent than we give them credit for. This generation of children has also noticed that no one seems to be telling these hip teens what they should and should not be doing. They happen to choose to do interesting educational things -- but they could equally well choose to do anything else they find interesting. Older siblings are on the threshold of autonomy, with the world full of possibility: but they are not parents.

Why do we expect that they should be?

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