Tune In, Turn On, Spit Up

By Alexandra Hall | Boston Magazine |

“I want Miffy,” Genevieve half pronounces, half pules. The curly haired brunette isn’t one to mince words; at two and a half years old, she doesn’t have enough of them to waste. Her every finger flexes board-straight, and her hands start to quiver in tandem with her bottom lip. “I want Miffffff,” she bawls, falling to her knees. It’s a predictable process of eruption—any parent has his or her own toddler’s memorized. But when the meltdown involves Miffy, Genevieve’s favorite morning television show, things get even more emotionally charged.


“I want Miffy,” Genevieve half pronounces, half pules. The curly haired brunette isn’t one to mince words; at two and a half years old, she doesn’t have enough of them to waste. Her every finger flexes board-straight, and her hands start to quiver in tandem with her bottom lip. “I want Miffffff,” she bawls, falling to her knees. It’s a predictable process of eruption—any parent has his or her own toddler’s memorized. But when the meltdown involves Miffy, Genevieve’s favorite morning television show, things get even more emotionally charged.

Not that you can blame the kid: Frankly, it’s been a long morning. She and her dad were awake at 6 a.m., playing for an hour and a half in her room. Then her bleary-eyed mom woke, nursed the family’s five-week-old boy, took a hurried shower, made Genevieve’s lunch, got her dressed for preschool, brushed her hair, and doled out oatmeal and juice.
“It just wouldn’t be possible to get through most mornings without TV,” says Vanessa, Genevieve’s mom. “Without it, I used to have no way of making sure she was safe while I was trying to get everything done. But then she started watching Miffy.

Suddenly I could take a shower without worrying that she was writing on the walls.” This morning, however, someone forgot to turn Miffy on. Meltdowns, and headaches, ensued.

Vanessa, it should be mentioned, is no absentee parent. She’s a stay-at-home Newton mom and a dedicated follower of the latest parenting theories. So she’s aware of the nationwide flap—one started here in Massachusetts—over whether toddlers should be allowed to watch TV. In an exasperating twist for parents, the myriad household perils looming over their kids—the teetering frying pan, the gaping electrical outlet, the large-fanged family pet—have been joined by a new one: Miffy and her cuddly cohorts.

“There are so many things that we can feel guilty about as parents,” Vanessa says. “But on nights when I need the freedom to make a healthy meal so we, as a family, can sit down together? Then yeah, I’m going to use TV.” That doesn’t mean Vanessa isn’t occasionally conflicted. “Obviously, TV is addicting,” she sighs. “When she doesn’t get it, she really misses it.”

KIDDIE TV MAY SEEM A HARMLESS TOPIC, full of furry puppets and merry jingles. The likes of Poppy Pig and Mrs. Pepper, though, have spurred heated debate recently. An odd development, maybe, but it’s not the first time it’s happened: Back in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, claiming Sesame Street was a waste of taxpayer money, waged what would become known as the war on Big Bird. Hordes of angry Grover-loving devotees quickly rose up across generations, his campaign to cut public funding was quashed, and Big Bird lived to flap another day.

The latest foray might not be so easy to fend off. Today, the most concerted attacks on Big Bird come not from right-wing ideologists, but from a group of left-leaning academics. This spring, Sesame Workshop released Sesame Beginnings, a DVD aimed at the toddler-and-under set, and a cluster of child-health experts went on the offensive. Luminaries like Cambridge pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, Tufts professor David Elkind, and Harvard’s Alvin Poussaint, all allied with Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), have since embarked on a national publicity blitz, essentially accusing Sesame Workshop of using the DVDs to peddle Tickle Me Elmo dolls.

And so the universe of Ernie and Bert, a place of diversity and cooperation, where speaking Spanish alongside English is considered easy but being green is not, finds itself once more under the gun. But it isn’t just the Street. The CCFC has also lodged complaints against Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein, and the new BabyFirstTV satellite channel. Far from being educational, say their detractors, these shows impede kids’ development.

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended since 1999 that children under the age of two not be exposed to TV, research on the topic remains inconclusive. One study has found possible links between attention disorders and TV watching, while others suggest that TV boosts kids’ language skills. Poussaint, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, insists that TV can interfere with sleep patterns and stifle creative play. One recent study showed that about 4 in 10 children under age two know how to use a remote control. No one has yet been able to indicate whether this is better or worse for a child than gumming a raisin box for two hours straight.

Where does all this leave parents? At a loss, mostly. Setting aside the tube’s much-abused role as a babysitter, is it realistic to expect exhausted parents to boycott it entirely? Some say yes—and have the resources, time, and inclination to do so—but others argue TV isn’t as awful as it’s often made out to be, that somewhere between banning it and launching 24-hour baby networks, there lies a happy medium. “Turning off the TV entirely just doesn’t make much sense to me,” says Nicole, mother of 18-month-old Sophia. “I have fond memories of certain shows I watched growing up, and I don’t think they ruined me as a person.”

HARVARD PSYCHOLOGIST SUSAN LINN wasn’t always anti-TV. “In the ’70s, I worked as a ventriloquist with Fred Rogers,” she says. Yet today, as a cofounder of CCFC, Linn is one of those leading the charge against telly for toddlers. So what changed? “Back then, kids were able to watch TV that was commercial-free. Now it’s also designed to sell them stuff.”

In a turnabout that would give Weekly Standard readers goose bumps, the ongoing liberal revolt against Sesame Street was shaped in part by none other than Newt Gingrich. Over the last 12 years, the old right-wing warhorse has slowly browbeat Congress into cutting PBS funding. The result, as Linn explains, is that “PBS and Sesame Workshop have turned more and more to brand licensing to earn their way.” It’s this “rampant consumerism” that CCFC was first organized to combat in 2000.

“Children don’t understand what an advertisement is until age eight,” says Poussaint. “They see something that tells them that a candy bar will make them jump for joy, and they believe it. So then they nag their parents for the candy bar, and don’t understand why on earth the parent would say no. The companies know this, and it’s exploitive.”

Fair enough. But what’s all that got to do with furry puppets? “There’s an issue here in terms of branding,” Poussaint continues. “If you buy a Happy Meal, and you get a Teletubby, of course the child wants it. Or they put SpongeBob on a box of Mac ‘n’ Cheese.” Linn takes this argument a step further. “One of the goals for videos like Sesame Beginnings and Baby Einstein is to get babies hooked on the brands in a primal way, and then use them to sell all kinds of other things,” she says. “Did you know you can get BabyFirst birthday packs? A one-year-old does not need a birthday party that’s branded.”

More galling to the CCFC crowd is the fact that these shows’ commercial aims are shrouded in pedagogical jargon. Baby Einstein helps parents and babies “discover the world together.” BabyFirstTV makes the tube “an interactive and educational tool.” “It’s the duplicity that’s distressing to us,” Linn says. “Have you noticed that almost every toy these days is supposedly educational? It’s manipulative, and it’s not true.”

The people at Sesame Street have been around long enough to know how to deflect such criticisms. “Research indicates that children learn best when experiences are shared with a loved one,” states Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of education and research. While the call-and-response skits in Sesame Beginnings are indeed intended to be shared by children and their parents, there’s no guarantee that the videos will be used that way. “Co-viewing is good,” says Poussaint. “But what about the kid plopped in front of the screen without a parent? These companies have to address the reality, that that’s how the greater percentage of parents have their kids watch TV. And that’s not educational. That’s just parents alleviating their own guilt by putting kids in front of something that’s supposedly good for them, instead of spending one-on-one time with them.”

CONFESSION TIME: As I write this, my one-year-old son is watching Sesame Street. I’m a work-at-home mom, and sometimes there are deadlines to be met. That means he watches about two to three episodes per week. Though in truth, it takes him only 15 minutes before he gets bored with Elmo and starts flailing madly on my keyboard or squawking at the cat.

Still, like most parents I know, I grapple with whether I should let him watch TV at all. More and more, it’s a question that dominates our play dates. “I’m so paranoid about Attention Deficit Disorder,” says one friend about her six-month-old. “So we’ve limited him to watching video footage of himself.” Others have less trepidation. “Barney helps teach her to pick up after herself; she cleans up when I sing her the show’s song,” says the mom of an 18-month-old. “I’m not putting her in front of the TV all day long, but I don’t think TV is making her any less intelligent.” But even if you’ve decided some TV is okay for your toddler, a question remains as to how, exactly, you quantify some. Is an hour good? Less? More? Not even Linn has a definitive answer to this one. “If you’re putting your baby in front of a TV to calm them, or because you’re stressed or need a break, that’s one thing,” she says. “But remember it’s a slippery slope. If your child’s watching two to three hours a day now, it’s going to mean you’re fighting with them to turn the thing off years later.”

Another confession: My son isn’t only watching Sesame Street because he likes it. The truth is, I like it. I grew up in the Golden Age of commercial-free PBS, relishing the Street’s bohemian antics, picking up bits of Spanish, grasping the concepts of up and down, and learning life lessons like tolerating others’ bad moods (thank you, Oscar), cooperation (Ernie and Bert), and prizing imagination (Snuffleupagus). So if, years from now, it’s Sesame Street rather than Blood Hungry Robots from the Planet Hell that I’m yelling at my son to turn off, I’ll be one thrilled mom.

Has the Street changed over the years? Absolutely. It may still be sponsored by the number 5 and the letter Q, rather than McDonald’s and Exxon, but keep watching after the show, and you’ll see commercials for such corporations. Step into a toy store and your senses are bombarded by products plastered with Elmo’s million-dollar smile, all of them vying for your tyke’s adoration, and your credit card. These are the side effects I grudgingly accept every time I expose my son to what I believe to be a still-superb, creative show that just may help him become a better person. So be it. Even armed with all the research, time, money, and sound advice on the planet, parenting is still a vaguely absurd experiment, with no flat answers, eight-step programs, or videos guaranteed to land your kids at Harvard—or even keep them out of jail.

The fact is, being a conscientious parent is more dizzying now than ever. For every nugget of folk wisdom about how best to raise our kids, there are two or three books doing the same, earnest and insistent voices telling us to co-sleep, or never co-sleep; to practice elimination communication, or potty train later; to quit your job and give them constant attention, or socialize them at daycare. And now the great TV debate has entered the fray, adding yet another layer to the babble. There are moments it’s enough to make you feel like little Genevieve—pissed off, confused, yelling for a simple answer about what to do next.