When my daughter was done with Dora and Scooby Doo, I let her graduate to G-rated shows on Disney and Nickelodeon. I knew a lot of them had episodes about dating and “crushing,” but so did programs like the Cosby Show and Diff’rent Strokes (remember Willis and his “foxy mama” lingo?), which I watched religiously at her age, so I felt prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the rudeness that I soon found is par for the course on today’s kid channel comedies. If your child is over 7, you likely know what I’m talking about. One character says, “You know what I’m going to do today?” and the other says, “Demand a refund from your hair stylist?” Or they make fun of the butler for his weight, a girl for her (lack of) style, a boy for being a nerd. (This is all in between anti-bullying PSAs that urge kids to respect each other’s differences, natch.) It was all pretty troubling, but what really got me was when the school principal on one show said something like, “You know what really upsets me?” and a student said, “That you’re still single?” And no one—not one character—acted like there was anything wrong with talking to an adult (or anyone, really) like that.
“That was really mean,” I commented to my daughter. She kept watching, so I hit the pause button. “I can’t believe what that character just said to the principal. Do you think it’s okay to talk like that?”
“But the principal is really mean to the students, too,” my daughter pointed out.
It was true. The principal was mean. But was this really what society was coming to—repartee based on personal attacks between principal and student?
“Well, I think that’s just outrageous!” I said in a huff as I pondered what to do.
I thought about doing nothing. Maybe I was overthinking things. TV, by nature, is over the top. Otherwise it would be boring. Right? But no. Something felt wrong about ignoring it.
At the other extreme, I thought about outright forbidding these shows, but I worried that that would just make their pull stronger, and make my daughter a freak among friends. (I once made a 90210 reference to a girl in college, who looked at me blankly and then explained, “Oh, I never watched TV. My parents didn’t believe in television.” Clearly, we had nothing more to say to each other.) Besides, Disney isn’t the only place kids will encounter rudeness. Better to teach them how to deal with it—and to avoid engaging in it themselves.
So I did the unthinkable: I resolved to watch the shows with her. Not all the time, mind you. After all, the whole point of television for kids is giving parents some moments of peace (isn’t it?). But every couple of weeks, I sit down with a cup of Maxwell House International Café (my mini indulgence) and join my daughter for an episode of her TV show du jour. Sometimes we discuss the bad behavior, but sometimes I see her sneak a look at me when a snarky comment is said, and I know that just my being there is enough to make her think twice about the appropriateness of the remark (okay, and sometimes I passively-aggressively mutter an indignant “Oh my goodness!”). And here’s the best part: When my daughter is fresh to me in real life, I’ll look at her pointedly and say, “You’re sounding like a Disney show character. If it keeps up, you’ll have to stop watching those shows for a while.” Guess what? It works! I have had to ban the shows a couple of times, but the need to do so has become less frequent. Sometimes all I’ll have to say is, “Think very carefully about how you want to respond,” and she knows exactly what I mean. And sometimes she even stops herself.
Besides, I found something else out when I sat down to watch: These shows aren’t all bad. When doing laundry and selectively hearing a rude remark every once in a while, these programs seem abominable. But when you really watch them, you find some really funny stuff. And, of course, there’s almost always a good, Growing Pains-esque lesson in the end (See, TV references come in handy. Admit it, you knew exactly what I meant by that!) Some are really funny, some are really bad, and some are in between…. You know, like grown-up TV.
So, every couple of weeks, put down the laundry, step away from your laptop, grab your personal equivalent of MHIC, and do the unthinkable. Discuss the rude parts, laugh together at the funny parts… and don’t be too ashamed when you find yourself days later saying, “OMG, that was just like when….”