34. Television

When I was a child, my parents unknowingly hired a bunch of teachers for me and my siblings. These teachers had never worked in schools, and didn’t know much about child development or curriculum. They were great at classroom management; in fact, we were spellbound, hanging on their every word. My two favorites were Popeye and Zorro.
Popeye taught me that spinach is good food. Zorro taught me that it’s exciting and noble to work for justice. Spinach is still my favorite vegetable, and working for justice is one of my favorite pastimes.
I think I was a discerning child. I could have focussed on the importance of bulging biceps, or gotten in loads of trouble for carving the letter Z on people’s clothes. I think my parents may have been concerned about some of the effects of television, but it was new, we enjoyed it, and we weren’t turning into monsters. Besides, all the other children got to watch television. It would have made us feel deprived and resentful if we hadn’t gotten to be part of Howdy Doody time, the Mickey Mouse Club, and all that.
And I played an early video game: Winky Dink. You put a plastic sheet over the TV screen, and drew the items Winky Dink needed. Then you quickly erased them before the villain got to use them. It all seemed so right. And it was fun.
I don’t know to what degree the destructive influences of TV affected me. As I said, it was a new medium, and it could well be that Madison Avenue hadn’t yet figured out how to have maximum impact on consumers. I remember many of the commercials. For a long time, I brushed with Crest, because it had been shown to be an effective decay-preventive dentifrice, etc. It seemed so much more scientific than zonking Mr. Tooth Decay, or doing what Bucky Beaver told you to do. Now, I brush with Tom’s, but I’m not sure my teeth even know the difference.
Later, as parents, my wife and I were concerned about what we perceived TV doing to our children. At first, we sought out positive images. We pinned hopes on Wonder Woman, because she was a strong woman who used a combination of wit and power to make good things happen. But she also used violence, and that bothered us.
When TV was trying to captivate our children, we worried that they would grow up thinking they needed various expensive things, bodies that were the “right” size and shape, men who would be big, rough, and tough – all the images TV supplied in heavy daily doses. Occasionally someone would say, “I like you just the way you are,” but usually that was on public television, which wasn’t trying to sell images. I think our children were more influenced by us than by TV. I hope so.
I guess about all we can do without knocking our heads against a wall is try to make non-video life as positive and engaging as possible, do what we can to keep public TV alive and well, and be the kind of consumers who can’t be manipulated by the wrong images.

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