Today one of my young sons (three and a bit) was having a moment of frustration with his father’s stubbornness/stupidity/inflexibility, and trawled through his ever-expanding vocabulary for a phrase that might adequately convey his rage. Eventually, hands balled into determined little fists, he pronounced,
‘You wrote a bad song, Petey.’
I laughed, and then he laughed, and the moment passed, as the childish moments do. For those of you who don’t recognise the line, it’s from the brilliant Wes Anderson film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s uttered by Michael Gambon, to the hapless folk singer (played by Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp fame) and is one of a series of superb moments that lift the film beyond entertainment and on towards art. If those are the sorts of insults my boys are going to settle upon when feeling fraught, I couldn’t be happier.
And that got me thinking about film, and television, and children. (I am aware, by the way, that some time in the distant past I promised my next post would be about free will. I meant it at the time, and fully intended to follow through. And didn’t. Which by itself tells you plenty about free will, I suspect. Another time.) Our home is an increasingly common one, in that we have no television. We’re not anti-television, the likes of West Wing or The Wire have moments to match the very best from the world of film, theatre or literature (sometimes I think that in contemporary terms they exceed it). But one can buy box sets of DVDs, buy films online and use the computer for viewing, and that’s plenty for us. An occasional pleasure, rather than a part of the daily routine; none of the desperate popularity contest that network news has become, and with no idiot screaming out at you at regular intervals to get down to some shop or other and change your life. The balance feels about right.
And, without the big screen as a constant background companion, nothing to suck the young ones away from their worlds of construction and make believe. However, we’re a long long way away form being the sort who see the small screen as some sort of poison which children must be protested from. Quite the opposite. I want my children to engage with story telling in every form. I want them to be read to, I want them to attend the theatre, to have sing-alongs, to spin endless yarns to one other, to improvise puppet shows and yes, watch films and television. Because some of the films being made for children today are simply remarkable. Engaging, challenging, inventive and so, so funny. I think of some of their favourites: Shrek, which is such a smart piece of film making, Toy Story, which somehow kept lifting its game over three instalments (can you think of an adult series that has done the same) Madagascar, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc… If you’re a parent, chances are you know the list.
And, if you’re a parent, there’s also every chance you’ve watched your exhausted children sink into the couch at the end of a long day, while you take the moment to get dinner together, and felt the tiniest pang of something like guilt. Isn’t it wrong to plug your children into the screen in this way? Aren’t we meant to be, you know, playing games with them, making interesting things out of dried pasta and teaching them algebra? Aren’t their studies showing that too much television is strongly linked with under-performance later in life? Isn’t Toy Story 3 the first foot on a slippery slope to neglect and stupidity?
The answer, of course, is not even a little bit. To deprive them of the experience of film would be every bit as stupid and depriving them of the joy of books. Yes, one can watch too much television, and at some point that’s going to make you a fairly sad specimen, but then again one can read too many books, and that’s not going to do wonders for your engagement with the world either. You can do too much exercise and become a self absorbed idiot, you can be too careful with your food and develop an eating disorder… you get the point. Yet nobody suggests letting one’s child eat well, read or exercise is irresponsible. That would be insane. So why do we see television and film differently (and we certainly seem to).
To be honest, I don’t have much idea. Perhaps it’s one part snobbery, one part fear. The great thing about the screen is that it’s accessible to almost everybody, in a way that books, for example, aren’t. Some children struggle to make sense of the words on the page, because they are dyslexic, perhaps, or because the foundations were never adequately established. To be a reader is therefore a measure of one’s success, a way to set yourself out as somehow a bit better than those who don’t. But when Alex the lion bites Marty the zebra on the butt, well any idiot can see that and laugh. And so obsessed are we with comparisons (and here my own obsession shows itself again) that universality becomes code for lack of quality. And in the world of children’s film, that is absolutely inaccurate.
As for fear, parenting seems to hit the ‘what if I’m doing this wrong?’ switch more powerfully than any other human activity. Television, then, is just one of a long list of bogey men, threatening to make disasters of your offspring and so cripple you with a lifetime’s guilt. Yet, to steal an analogy (I think I read it in a Matt Ridley book) child rearing is a little like vitamin C. Everybody needs it, and if you don’t get enough, the consequences are serious. But, almost everybody does get enough, and once the minimum threshold is met, any extra makes little difference. The goal is simply adequacy, beyond that fate will do what it will (free will, there’s just no escaping it). To parent adequately is extremely difficult, of course, but almost everybody manages it. Fretting about the difference between forty minutes of youtube versus and hour is like lying awake at night wondering if five segments of orange in their lunchbox was enough, or should have you given them six? Bonkers.