"Are you trying to turn her into a weirdo?" my sister asked me.
Define "weirdo." Define "trying."
All I said was that I was planning to take my nearly 3-year-old daughter to see the downtown Dragon*Con parade, back in 2005. Marching platoons of Jedi Knights, Klingons, superheroes and nonfranchised monsters – what's not to like? Plus it's free, and the Saturday morning outing includes a ride on the endless escalator at the Peachtree Center MARTA station.
My sister's qualms focus on the occasionally kinky participant, but the fantasy costumes too revealing to be G-rated tend to be the exception rather than the rule, at least on Peachtree Street on a Saturday morning. Now 4-and-a-half, my daughter has seen the parade twice and just calls it "the people dressed up."
To me, the Dragon*Con parade marks one of those rare places where culture for youngsters and grown-ups more or less intersects. After being a parent for four-and-a-half years, I've found that only occasionally can you share the things you like with your child, like the time last month when my daughter and I watched one of the Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie "Jeeves and Wooster" episodes from "Masterpiece Theatre."
The vast majority of the time, however, you hang out on your kid's level. Comedians, commentators and chronicles of parenting – such as Neal Pollack's recent book Alternadad – describe a new parent's exposure to kid's entertainment in terms comparable to a sudden drop through Dante's nine circles of hell. Baby Einstein videos and the Wiggles serve as lesser demons, with Barney the Dinosaur occupying Satan's place at the center.
The likes of Boobah and Caillou grate on me as much as the next parent, but my perspective's a little different. As a pop-culture critic, I've always been interested in cartoons, puppetry and comic books, both the "mature" and kid-friendly versions. I'm sort of a volunteer on the front lines of children's media, rather than a draftee.
Sometimes the critic's job conflicts with the parental duty. For instance, Pixar Studios, creator of the best family-oriented products on the planet today, releases its rat-in-the-restaurant animated film Ratatouille June 29. But should I take my daughter to a screening I'm covering as a critic? What if the film's too intense or inappropriate? Usually, I'll go see such a film solo, to take notes for review while vetting it for my daughter – but I have to keep it secret.
It wouldn't be cool to say, "Guess who saw Ratatouille while you were at swim class, sucka?"
I don't care much about being a "cool" Alternadad-style father, and I don't maintain illusions about how much I can control what my daughter will like or discover, especially as she gets older. Mostly I try to introduce her to things that fit her interests, while filtering and running interference against some of what I've discovered to be the Seven Deadly Sins of Kid Culture. As long as we guard against them, we can enjoy our time together and discover cool new things – without, one hopes, her turning into a weirdo.
One of the first cultural tests for a parent is realizing that material that agonizes you may be good for your kid. Before my daughter was born, I was shocked to learn that my sister was Barney-tolerant – but she pointed out that it's a benign, trustworthy show, and researchers from Yale call it "nearly a model for what a preschool program should be."
Baby-oriented shows such as "Teletubbies" seem similarly toothless. The problem stems not from their sexual preferences, which are clearly nonexistent, but the show's implicit purpose to teach babies to watch TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television or other electronic media for children under the age of 2, yet shows such as "Teletubbies" or the BabyFirstTV channel seek to train infants to be TV watchers. The concept scares the bejesus out of me, and fortunately my wife showed admirable discipline at turning off the TV.
The Smart Parent's Guide to Kids' TV opposes using television as a babysitter (or what we call in our household "The Neglect-o-matic"), but defuses some of the knee-jerk alarms against television for kids. Since our daughter was born, we gave up cable TV, keeping her choices (and level of commercial interruptions) to a minimum.
It was a revelation to me that even innocuous, insipid shows on PBS Kids might not all be equal, particularly when I compared "Clifford the Big Red Dog" with "Dragon Tales." At first I preferred "Clifford," because I liked the books when I was young, and the late John Ritter voiced the pachyderm-size pooch. More shrill and saccharine is "Dragon Tales," the maddeningly inane adventures of human kids in candy-color Dragonland, featuring guests such as Princess Kidoodle of the Doodle Fairies.
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