Children’s television programming, especially on PBS, is required to have a certain amount of educational content to justify its existence. In principle this is a very good idea, a societal recognition that we all bear some responsibility for the healthy development of the children among us, even on the part of those who merely wish to entertain. This production requirement does not, however, absolve parents or industry watchdogs from the duty to critically reflect on both the medium and the message in children’s programming; the long history of education-exploitation films stands as a salutary warning in this regard.

The popular kid’s show “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a case in point. It is meant to be almost entirely instructive, a modern morality tale that concludes with the problem solved and everyone reconciled, playing nicely together as the camera fades to black. Is it possible, however, that shows such as this – with the best of intentions – are actually helping to create, even in a small way, an emotionally fragile generation?

More is Caught Than Taught

Within a few weeks the parents noticed their child engaging in negative behaviors that they had not seen before in the either the child or her playmates.

A friend related to me an interesting situation in his family. When his eldest child, a bright, kind and obedient five-year-old, was permitted to watch daily television shows for the first time, it was a few PBS selections, such as Clifford and Word World. Within a few weeks the parents noticed their child engaging in negative behaviors that they had not seen before in the either the child or her playmates. Carefully noting the words and tone used, the parents suspected that the newly-introduced programs might be the source. Upon watching Clifford with their child, they noticed almost identical negative behavior in one of Clifford’s dog friends, Cleo.

Further reflection clarified how a few weeks of Clifford could have marred years of diligent moral guidance and instruction: it was a matter of modeling. In a given episode of Clifford there are two major story segments, each about ten minutes long. When one compares the amount of screen time devoted to negative behaviors versus positive, a large disproportion appears. The positive behaviors are largely limited to the moral of the story followed by “let’s play!” This is a dangerous imbalance, for, as the old saw goes, “more is caught than taught.” Eliminating the children’s programming cleared up the behavioral problems almost immediately.

The Medium Changes the Message

One’s critical reasoning faculty is suppressed when watching video images, which is not a danger typically associated with books.

Would the Clifford books (or others, such as Curious George or Berenstain Bears) have the same effect? No, for two reasons: First, a book is more proportioned to the human mind’s capacity to assimilate and judge new information. After all, the words will not enter one’s consciousness faster than one can read, and the book can be put down at any time in order to ponder a point. A television program moves far more quickly and presents more information for the mind to process than just the concepts. Added to that, one’s critical reasoning faculty is suppressed when watching video images, which is not a danger typically associated with books.

Second, the stories as told in children’s books do not spend vastly disproportionate amounts of space (and, therefore, time) on the negative behaviors, each page has roughly the same amount of text, the pictures are roughly the same size and often have to represent a series of events in one image, making hyper focus on negative behaviors less likely or possible.

Instructional shows, or books, do not get a free pass when it comes to content either, even if they explicitly state the moral of the story, as in Larry Boy’s proclamation “God wants us to be nice to people!” Deeper questions must be asked, such as “On what basis is this particular moral value being affirmed?”

More often than not, the justification for a given lesson is on account of the feelings of the persons involved. For children with at least an average level of empathy this will suffice to “get the job done,” that is, provide enough rationale that the child will not reject the lesson outright, while avoiding a firm foundation in objective ethics so that the parents and sponsors will not reject the program. This move is understandable in a pluralist society that can no longer even appeal to natural law as a common public morality, much less biblical revelation.

Retreating to a Safe Space: Poor Emotional Formation

The exaltation of positive emotions as the ultimate right of every person…results in persons who have the bodies of adults but the intellectual and emotional development of toddlers.

But what is the effect on the children? The answer will depend upon many factors, including total time spent in front of the television, the amount of direct ethical instruction received from sources other than children’s programming, especially from parents, and whether there is guided analysis of the programs. Sadly, in the average American home today, one can expect that children receive most of their direct ethical instruction from television programs, even in weekly churchgoing families.

Inductive reasoning is a natural activity for human beings and eventually these children will come to formulate, at least inchoately, the fundamental principle behind all of these televised moral injunctions: do not hurt anyone’s feelings. Ever.

Ethicists, philosophers, and theologians since Plato have consistently identified three major powers of the soul that factor into our moral decision-making: Intellect, Will and Emotions. Up until our own era, it was almost universally recognized that humans are happiest when the intellect leads the will and the emotions follow after. By making the emotions bear the weight of a moral code, we effectively reverse that order. What does this do to human happiness? Since human nature has not changed to correspond with our ideas, it should surprise no one that our ideas are making us unhappy.

One may see a connection between the subjective justification for moral behavior proclaimed in educational programs and an increasingly obvious generational weakness in millennials: the inability to cope with rational argument and the contradiction of cherished ideas. The exaltation of positive emotions as the ultimate right of every person, along with a corresponding atrophy of the intellect, results in persons who have the bodies of adults but the intellectual and emotional development of toddlers. When college students are incapable of listening to a lecture that challenges their assumptions without retreating to a “safe space” complete with cookies, coloring books, and puppy videos, something is gravely deficient in our methods of character formation.

The Will to Look Away

How much easier it would all have been if he had been formed in childhood to act from reason?

To be clear, one cannot attribute this character defect among millennials solely or even primarily to children’s programming. Nevertheless, these programs are one more way that the modern relativistic societal narrative is reinforced in our children, and in advertising (or propaganda) it is not quality that counts nearly so much as quantity.

What is to be done? In one episode of the Simpsons, advertising icons came to life and terrorized the town of Springfield, until someone hit upon the ingenious idea to ignore them since advertising only works when one pays attention to it. The hardest case was that of Homer, a man long accustomed to following his passions. It took the intervention of a number of others to get him to look away from the giant donut held by a massive baker. How much easier it would all have been if he had been formed in childhood to act from reason and had been spared the hours and days’ worth of cultural propaganda flitting past his eyes at thirty frames per second, announced on the news, hawked in commercials and hidden behind a Big, Red Dog?

Image courtesy of Scholastic, Inc.