Saturday, January 3, 2004

What's It All About, Elmo?

I don't get Elmo... what's with the high-pitched freak voice? Why do children relate to that? I remember watching Sesame Street as a kid and feeling lulled and comforted by PBS children's programming, where everyone talked slowly and distinctly and kindly to each other. I lived for Mister Rogers, he was so calm and quiet and kind. And then Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were my favorite characters on Sesame Street, you could fall asleep to their voices.

But now Sesame Street is just as shrill and enervating as The Electric Company was, with Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman screaming across the stage every five minutes. And apparently every male creature has a female counterpart now, either a wife or a girlfriend or a sister or a mother, when in the olden days of my childhood almost all the puppets were comfortingly male or neuter. The whole world's going to hell in a handbasket, I tells ye.

The funny thing is, none of the children I know watch Sesame Street, ever. My little cousin Alex has the Hokey Pokey Elmo, which "Santa" brought him for Christmas, and he plays with it all the time (that voice — "oopsie, I fell down!" — it's driving me mad), as well as every other retail incarnation of the shreiking red monster; but he and his sister Jessie spend the entire day watching Disney Channel and Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon (channels 55, 54, and 53 respectively). They never, ever watch PBS. They can't even be bothered with Discovery Channel or the Learning Channel or any of the seventy other channels on Comcast Cable Oakland. Jessie turns to the Lifetime Network at prescribed times of day to catch The Golden Girls and The Nanny (though I can't imagine why, she's too young to catch two-thirds of the jokes), and sometimes they come in here and play The Sims on my computer, but otherwise they're glued to those three children's channels sixteen hours a day... none of which offers a single drop of educational value (actually, Nickelodeon and Disney do offer educational programming, early in the morning, but that's when Jessie switches over to Lifetime).

As a result, they are both functionally illiterate and yet quite depressingly histrionic in their speech and mannerisms. Alex is six years old and can barely read a kid's menu, but he can swivel his head and roll his eyes just like all the slapworthy brats on That's So Raven (okay, that's pretty cute, but still). Jessie has perfect recall of every episode of Sister Sister and has memorized the rotation so she never misses the episode where Tia (or is it Tamara? it really doesn't pay to care) sings "Stormy Weather," but doesn't know her own mailing address or telephone number.

It will be interesting to see what fruit this will bear when the children become adults. I mean, all the educational programming that was shoved down my generation's throats from cradle to puberty doesn't seem to have engendered a super-race of happy intellects... mostly we're all too smart for our own good and it leaves us cynical and dissatisfied with life (and unable to remember anything unless it's set to music, à la Schoolhouse Rock and Time for Timer).

The generation of my parents were a generation of people disappointed to discover that there's no such thing as the families they were brought up to believe in by Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet; the programming that was meant to entertain as well as instill specific moral values created a whole Baby-Boomer generation of dissatisfaction and rebellion. Maybe this coming generation of Disney-programmed automatons will be more focused and productive and content than we poor Baby-Boomers and Gen-X-ers seem to have turned out, programmed as they are not for morals or intelligence but merely consumerism.

On the other hand, with today's generation of children I have a rather skewed sample available to me... the offspring of single mothers who shouldn't have been given custody of a houseplant, much less a child. There is another type of tot that is somewhat hidden from my view, the home-schooled or private-schooled children of dedicated (perhaps even overly-so) parents who aren't allowed to watch television or who are directed with the modern equivalent of the educational television I was brought up on, like Reading Rainbow, or Veggie Tales which apparently teach nutrition as well as Bible stories, or Blue's Clues, none of which any child of my acquaintance would be caught dead watching.

I know that out there in the great world there are children whose parents take parenting very seriously, taking classes and an actual interest in the well-being and proper training of said children, who are't allowed to eat refined sugar and processed foods, who are disciplined according to the latest in psychological methods. My more distant cousins, I've heard, are like that, and elsewhere in my yuppified neighborhood are children who spend every waking moment being taught something by their au-pairs and pre-school teachers and home-schooling moms and carefully limited television exposure and supervised play-dates and so on and so forth.

Those children are even more frightening to me than the sugar-bombed illiterates in my family. Perhaps they'll be the ones telling the Disney-addicted kids what to do, the new aristocracy of the coming century, set apart and empowered by their organically-fed bodies and strange ability to think original thoughts that aren't based on an old episode of Lizzie Maguire and to survive for more than twenty minutes without electricity. It boggles my mind to think about it.

But then, I am somewhat detached from the question, since none of these children are mine. The benefit of childlessness is a fascination with what might happen to the entire world twenty years from now, rather than what will happen to a particular individual twenty years from now. While I do of course care how my niece and nephew and cousins and what-nots will fare in the coming years, it's really more of an intellectual question than it is for their parents, who have a personal stake in, and biological focus on, that outcome.

In the meantime, though, I think I'll sneak the batteries out of Hokey Pokey Elmo's ass (hee-hee-hee, THAT was FUN! it screams). It was cute for a couple of days but now it's just irritating. But I'll leave the television alone, I don't want any kids detoxing around the house because I took away the electronic heroin. That's just not pretty. Pray there are no blackouts.

Today's episode was brought to you by the letter C.

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