Is Big Bird good for kids?

November 12, 1995|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- As budget conferees huddle in back rooms, it is clear that Big Bird has survived the ax. The idea that Republicans would consider tampering with subsidies to ''Sesame Street'' was greeted in the nation's editorial pages and TV studios as evidence that the Hottentots had arrived.

Leaving aside arguments about the proper scope of the federal government, Kay Hymowitz, writing in the Autumn edition of the City Journal, argues that ''Sesame Street'' does not deserve its status as educational icon. Far from preparing young children for school and the wider world of learning, ''Sesame Street'' grooms its charges only for more television.

Kindergarten teachers have long complained that 5-year-olds are showing up with deficient language skills. This cannot, of course, be blamed entirely on one TV show. But ''Sesame Street's'' creators endlessly tout its supposed beneficial effects. The children who watch are said to be more cooperative, more school-ready and more likely to show signs of emerging literacy than those who don't watch.

But the studies that purport to show this do not, Ms. Hymowitz notes, take into account the fact that parents who urge their children to watch ''Sesame Street'' tend to be more attentive in general than those who plunk their youngsters in front of ''Power Rangers'' and leave the room.

In fact, ''Sesame Street'' doesn't glorify learning at all. It glorifies television and the youth culture. In-jokes and references to other television programs are endless. And while they can be extremely amusing to adults -- Alistair Cookie is my favorite -- they soar above the heads of preschoolers. ''Sesame Street'' spoofs soap operas, game shows, cultural fare like ''Great Performances'' and, most of all, commercials. Indeed, ''Sesame Street'' is consciously modeled on commercials, with fast cuts, jazzy music and very, very short segments. If your child cannot concentrate for more than 30 seconds, ''Sesame Street,'' unlike other programs aimed at preschoolers, like ''Barney'' and ''Mister Rogers,'' reinforces that.

Ms. Hymowitz recalls that ''Sesame Street'' got its start during the turbulent 1960s, when the show was extolled as a vehicle to improve the academic performance of poor children. This ''high-minded, public-service image provided the show with TC Teflon coating to which no criticisms -- though they have trickled in over the years -- can stick.''

Video surfing

The show improves familiarity with letters and numbers, but, Ms. Hymowitz argues, ''identifying the letter A is about as central to reading as defining shortstop is to playing baseball -- necessary but wildly insufficient. Reading requires a complex mix of concentration, persistence, the linking of concepts.'' Far from teaching concentration, ''Sesame Street'' schools viewers in video surfing, short takes on everything from addition to shapes and sounds.

And then there is the matter of content. The cultural tone of ''Sesame Street'' is politically correct through and through. All families are fine, kids are instructed. Some have one daddy; some have two. The worst behavior on the part of a child is not pouting, hitting or cruelty but wasting water.

Though ''Sesame Street'' is undeniably clever and carefully crafted, it does little to stimulate children's imaginations. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has shown that traditional fairy tales -- especially those featuring witches and danger -- serve important functions in the imagination of the very young child. Cinderella, for example, resonates with every child who has ever felt isolated or ill-treated (that is, all). It teaches the importance of hope and punishes envy and spite. It has been a classic for hundreds of years.

But the ''Sesame Street'' retelling, like its treatment of all fairy tales, is barely recognizable. The prince, holding Cinderella's glass slipper, seeks not the woman who captivated him at the ball but the other slipper --- so he'll have a matched pair.

Enchantment gets short shrift on ''Sesame Street,'' where the tone is smart-alecky and worldly wise. ''Hip'' and ''cool'' are the favorite words and the preferred mood. It is all image and flash, little depth or emotion. Sometimes fun for adults, it teaches preschoolers all the wrong lessons.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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