I'm sending this column up as a tribute to Mr. Rogers, who has gone to forever live in that big neighborhood up in the sky. Who didn't grow up knowing the silly songs and goofy grin of Mr. Rogers? I did, and so has my son. Mr. Rogers has often been made out to be a sugar coated clown or a twisted Saturday Night Live skit, but who else in mainstream media has ever been a true friend to children and an ally to parents? It does seem like I am a bit at odds with myself, praising a mainstream television personality... especially in the context of a radical parenting column! But here is the deal--us radical parents and our offspring don't live in a void. Mainstream media is slick, it is slippery, it oozes into all of our lives one way or another. Part of being a parent is deciding how much of it we let slip under the front door and how to handle it when we (and our children) step in it. Over the last ten years we've always had a t.v. set in our house. Sometimes it has been buried under a pile of books, but it gets used enough. We don't subscribe to cable, but we get PBS and rent and borrow a lot of movies. We love movies! Anyway, PBS is the first t.v. my son watched, and then movies that were pre-approved by me. Basically, I don't view t.v. and movies as some sort of evil. Like anything else in life, you've got to practice moderation and apply critical thinking. Too much t.v., and certain types of t.v., are no doubt to be avoided for too many reasons to list... but I'll just mention low self esteem (which is linked to a low immune system), over consumption and ignorance as a few. Hey, for some great media about the media, check out Michael Moore's documentary Bowling For Columbine (if you haven't already). I think the sort of media you let your kid watch is an individual thing. Personally, I am pretty liberal in the sex department and anti-violence, whereas a friend of mine is quite the opposite. I'd prefer my son to see a couple of people making love rather than blowing each other away...but both of our kids are turning out great, if you ask me. Recently I was discussing the t.v. thing with another mom. Her child is a toddler, and she doesn't let him view any sort of television or media. I think that is great and I support her decision to do so. The one thing that I did have issue with is that I think it is incredibly important to watch t.v. with your children, at least at some point. Like I said, we don't live in a void, and at some point or another our kids are going to encounter it, whether it is at a friend's house or elsewhere. There is a whole lot of bullshit on the t.v. and unless you help your kids identify the smell, they just might step in it. It is just little things, like pointing out that the kids in the toy commercials are getting paid to look like they are having fun, or that those toys were possibly made by other children in sweatshops, or that most of the programs and movies show little boys being brave and having adventures instead of showing girls doing the same. You can express the idea that a person can enjoy a movie or t.v. show without buying all of the products associated with it. From the time my son was old enough to ask for something in a store, I have told him that I will not buy shoes or sweat suits or other clothing items with movie characters on them, because hey, if Disney wants a walking billboard, they should be paying us and not the other way around. The idea isn't just about refusing to support that company so much as that my son is a valuable human being and not a profit margin or a walking billboard--I want him to know that. This is exactly why Mr. Rogers is great! Here is a show that entertains and educates children and doesn't have a product to push in the process. There is no Mr. Roger's Big Movie or Mr. Roger's Cardigan Sweaters sold only at K-Mart. No Mr. Roger's Bobble Heads with the purchase of a Happy Meal, and no Mr. Roger's breakfast cereal. Even other programs shown on PBS have a lot of products to peddle, and the fact the profits go back to the Children's Television Workshop only helps a little. Besides not treating children as a target market for products, Mr. Rogers was all about telling kids that they were special and valuable--just the way they are. Sure, it sounds cheesy to us jaded old grown ups. We know different. We know that if you don't have a certain color of skin or set of plumbing or weren't born into the soft pillow of the upper class that you aren't going to be treated equal. That is why Mr. Rogers' message is so damned important. Kids need some sense of entitlement and self respect going into this world. I just finished reading a piece by John Taylor Gatto that was included in a collection called Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies edited by Russ Kick, which I picked up at my local library. I highly recommend checking it out for that piece alone, which explains and provides evidence that U.S. schools have been strategically designed to create a class of workers to meet the needs of industry. The article will send chills down your spine, I'm telling you. With such clear cut and sinister plans for our children, how do we raise kids to be anything other than mindless drones? I don't have the answers, but I think the first step to take is getting your kids out the public education system and telling them at every turn that they don't have to fulfill anyone else's idea of destiny...Which brings me to another thing I like about the Mr. Roger's show--he showed real people working at their jobs, showing off their skills and talents. Even when he showed us how toothpaste was made at the factory, the people he spoke with were treated with interest and respect. That attitude is something that seemed to go beyond a character and an act, it was something he practiced outside of his t.v. show, as well. His love and respect for others was a source of outrage to some people--such as the Christians who boycotted and protested against Mr. Rogers because the Presbyterian church he was a minister to recognized homosexual unions of marriage.
While I do enjoy movies and such, I feel a certain wariness when it comes to mainstream media. I understand the media's place as both a political and corporate tool. As a parent, I more often than not view it as an enemy, some sort of a monster that has come to snatch away and enslave my child. At the same time, I'm not down with censoring or expecting the media to be responsible in how it deals with children. It is my job to raise my kid...I don't have any expectations of the media or the public school system. I accept that the media is a money market and that people are nothing more than potential revenue. The fact that I have no expectations is what makes someone like Mr. Rogers so special and appreciated. And his approach to children's programming was no happy accident. He was sensitive to the impact negative media has on our children, as well as our responsibilities as parents. After he retired from making the Mr. Rogers show, he made some public service announcements directed at parents following the events that occurred on 9-11. He talked about the importance of not letting our children drown in the media downpour. I've been thinking about his message a lot lately as the U.S. wages war on Iraq, but it seems that the problem I am having as a parent isn't regarding over saturation (for news I generally read the local newspaper and check out independent media websites), instead I am troubled by the fact that this war has had so little impact on our lives. It is hard to explain to a child that this is a very sad time for the entire world when our lives are going on as usual. My son has been aware for years now about events surrounding Iraq--as a matter of fact, one of the first thing we did when he quit school was attend a demonstration against the sanctions imposed on Iraq. It saddens me that this climate of war has been a persistent shadow in our children's lives. I want to make his understanding real, and at the same time I want his life to be full of nothing but happiness. Following the initial bombing of Iraq this time around, we attended a candlelight vigil to mourn the loss of lives that would surely come to pass. Standing in the chilly night air I wrapped my arms around my boy and as I did so, I imagined a mother in Iraq doing the same...not to protect her child from the cold, but to shield him from broken glass, falling ceilings, bullets. The thought was painful...I would do anything to spare that mother her pain, but I wouldn't trade places with her for all the world. This is the contradiction we are living, and it is an incredibly hard one to express to a child. What is there to do? We do what we can. We go to work, we cook dinner, we protest, we talk about things, we try to live our lives with a certain awareness. We're reading the Diary of Anne Frank now, trying to put a face, a name, a body of experience and feelings to something so far away from our own experience.
Living and Learning all the time
Candyce • 2717 Dodson Ave. • Fort Smith, AR 72901 firstname.lastname@example.org
(contact info from 2003, current info in 2011 not available - ed)