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The Fallacy of the Parental Fool

Tween TV portrays parents as fools. Parents should fight back.

Parents today face a challenge that their parents did not: The Assumption of Idiocy.

Perhaps idiocy is too strong a word, but dopey or addled would clearly apply.

I am referring to the role that TV parents play in the typical programs children watch. Before I describe them in detail, I would like to take a step back to the TV of the 1950s and 1960s. This was the time of "Father Knows Best", "My Three Sons" and "Leave It to Beaver". In each, the silliness and comic action came from the children while the parents were wise, mature and measured.

Let me be the first to say that this family model rarely happens in reality. Parents are generally not Ozzie and Harriet. In fact, the nature of the American family is very different from this old dream.

It, however, did have one message that I find missing today: parents have insight and wisdom to impart on their children. In reality, parents are not as omniscient as these characters, but they are wiser than their children.

Let us compare this to the images we see today.

The typical child watches shows with the following family model:

  • The parents are buffoons or absentee.
  • The children solve their own problems, often in spite of their parents - certainly not as the result of parental help.

Here are a few examples:

  • "The Simpsons" - Homer is the ultimate buffoon. His wife is tolerant, but still relatively clueless. The wisest person in the home? Lisa.
  • "iCarly" - Three street-wise tweens have their own TV show with a wide following. They deal with tricky situations without adults. The closest thing to an adult (an older brother) is essentially a joke. Parents are continually out of town.
  • "Hannah Montana". Dad is not a complete idiot, but he is certainly less capable than his daughter.

Rather than continue this list, I will suggest an exercise. Watch the shows on Nickelodeon and Disney and try to find an example of a wise parent. In fact, simply find a TV parent who is as capable as his or her tween children.

I completely understand why this is true. Nickelodeon extensively test-marketed all of its programs and wise-cracking children with dim parents tested very well.

I also understand why this is appealing to children.

My worry is that ultimately this message does not serve the children well: losing faith in parents is harmful to children.

Parents are not without fault, but their children should not be looking for these faults.

The human mind creates stories about the world around it and then looks for confirming evidence. Once we form a set of beliefs, we become highly married to them: be they political views or prejudices.

If we inculcate our children with a view that parents are idiots, we set up a difficult family environment where children lack faith in and respect for their parents. As a summer camp professional, I have noticed an erosion of respect when teens talk about their parents now versus 10 years ago.

Addressing this Challenge
The key is to change this underlying assumption. A tween might say, "Why should I listen to your rules?" but she may think, "You, like all adults, are a fool and I am not sure I need to listen to you."

The wise parent must address these assumptions.

I do not claim to know how to de-program hours of television and popular media, but I do have some ideas:

  • Show them some of the old 1950s programs. Sure, they will see them as silly and antiquated, but they will enable you to start a conversation, "these families are not realistic, but neither are the ones you are seeing".
  • When you talk with them, speak with respect and hold them to high intellectual standards. Point out to them that their programs portray adults as idiots. Ask them why the TV programs do this. You may spend some time explaining "test marketing" and pandering, but this conversation will be time well spent.
  • Suggest to them that they are too smart to fall for the manipulation of the TV programmers. Few things appeal to children as much as the assumption that they are capable of real thought.
  • Here is my favorite. Ask them the following: "When do you think you will become an idiot? Since the 13 year-olds have all the answers and the adults are all fools, there must be some point where the stupidity creeps in." This becomes a fun and silly conversation, but it also challenges the child to think critically about the implicit TV message that children know more than adults.

Such conversations are worth the time they require. Addressing their assumptions will help re-establish respect in the parent-child relationship.

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