So this morning, my kid is watching game-play videos on YouTube. Which he does pretty regularly, and whatever. Today’s choice is a game of Doc McStuffins, a Disney show that features a little girl who works as a “doctor” for stuffed animals, who of course are mobile and sentient in the ways of such shows. That’s fine; at least this one is pure game play and not someone obnoxious talking over it. There are a few channels he’s forbidden to watch if I’m around because I just can’t take the narration. But what struck me this time around is that the show doesn’t seem to have a clear handle on how medicine works and treats everything as an illness, diagnosing a stuffed hippo with “missing glasses-itis.”
On the one hand, well done for knowing the medical suffix “-itis.” On the other hand, a couple of problems, here. One is the obvious “but ‘-itis’ means ‘inflammation.'” (Obvious? Well, anyway.) But the bigger problem is of course that not everything is a medical condition, and in this case the actual medical condition is whatever led to the stuffed hippo’s needing glasses in the first place. A stuffed dinosaur had a scratch and was said to have “scratch and scrape-itis” or something. An injury framed as a disease for no good reason other than to make it sound all fancy and medical when the term “abrasion” is right there.
I’ve already defended letting Simon watch a lot of TV, or YouTube, or whatever, and I’ve defended the universal childhood need to watch garbage. This? Yeah, not defending this. A lot of the stuff he watches talks down to him, and I find that pretty much offensive. It isn’t just “my kid is smarter than other kids,” for all he’s four and starting to read and add and things. I think most kids are too smart for this, and I think these videos are actively harmful to their further intellectual development.
Part of it is that you then have to now teach the kid that whatever-it-is is wrong and then teach them what’s right. But even when the cartoons don’t involve active misinformation, I think there’s a danger to intellectual curiosity in spoonfeeding the way some of these shows do. They assume your kid is stupid, it seems to me. Oh, so okay, I find the pauses in a lot of these shows for your kid to fill in kind of annoying, but that’s fine; these shows aren’t for me, and he does really seem to enjoy knowing the right answer. And after all I’m old enough to remember Bill Cosby encouraging us to write on our TV screens.
No, this is different. This is actively assuming that your child doesn’t know the answer. Much as I dislike Special Agent Oso, it gives your child the chance to be the smart one. (Not that it’s difficult to be smarter than Oso.) Good children’s programming assumes that your child has some intelligence. It then works to advance that intelligence by providing your child with information that’s accurate to a child’s level of understanding, so the kid comes away from the show more knowledgeable than they started.
A caveat, before I get into the two ways shows miss that. In the Science of Discworld books, authors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen use the term “lies to children” to mean “way of teaching a thing that isn’t true but is true enough to start the process of understanding.” Like the solar system model of the atom—atoms don’t work like that, but it’s close enough to how they do work to start the process of understanding without having to try to teach a kid something super complicated. So I’m not always annoyed by information in these shows that isn’t quite right, because of course it isn’t; what kind of lunatic expects a four-year-old to understand the Pauli exclusion principle?
No, what I’m talking about is beyond that. My kid likes Little Einsteins. Which is, obviously, trying very, very hard to be educational. But the two episodes I’ve seen most are one about the rings of Saturn and one about Mount St. Helens. We live near-ish to Mount St. Helens, probably next summer we’ll take a trip to the visitors’ center and start teaching him the history. But it’s entirely possible it’ll freak him out, because Little Einsteins taught him that the mountain routinely erupts with no warning. It probably won’t have a major eruption for another five hundred years.
Did the show mean to teach that? I doubt it. I think they just wanted to build suspense in a dumb story about a stolen baton. But they’ve accidentally taught my kid that, and that going to Saturn is a trivial jaunt that you can do with one of the planet’s actual rings in your rocket, and weird things like that, because they are presenting major misinformation in a show that is very clearly intended to be educational.
There’s also this idea that, because your thing is for kids, it doesn’t need to be good. Bigger-budget stuff is the obvious example, but a lot of YouTube videos feed into it as well. Yes, my kid has just reached a stage where bodily functions are incredibly funny. He’s four; what do you do? That does not, however, mean that those should be the only jokes he gets in his cartoons. A four-minute video where the only joke is “ha ha Elsa from Frozen has gas” insults him, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. He’s smart enough to get more subtle jokes—and there are few jokes less subtle than “ha ha [character] has gas.”
There’s no switch you can flip to make your kid’s taste in entertainment stop being lazy, and to me, laziness is probably a bigger sin than just being bad. It’s one thing to genuinely make the best entertainment you’re capable and be bad, and it’s another thing to think, “Eh, this is good enough.” “It’s just for kids” isn’t a defense for bad art, even if I believe in kids’ needs to be into bad art as kids. They also need to consume art that teaches them that there’s better out there, not stuff that encourages lazy consumption.
We’ve now moved on to a show where a panda gets a horrific stomach illness from not washing his hands before he eats. So yeah. Entertainment for kids, huh?