After watching months of children's television with my grandchildren, I was surprised by the paucity of responsible adult role models. I admit that most programming is high quality, politically correct, educational, motivational, visually attractive, and the soundtrack has an upbeat faux rock musical tempo. But most of the lessons are taught by peers - not by responsible adults. The primary message is clear: Kid Power Rules! Help your friends. Don't give up too easily. Work hard and you can do or be whatever you wish. Good job Samantha. You did it! You did it! But where are the other life lessons? You can't always do what you want to do. Respect your parents - and by proxy- authority. You won't always agree with them, but maybe they can keep you safe or teach you something worthwhile.
While Dora is leading kids on an expedition and Mickey (an adult who isn't really an adult) is summoning magic tools to get his buddies out of a jam, there are no responsible parents, teachers, clergy, or police officers supervising their play or offering advice. These kids can do it on their own! Peers are serve as role models while adults and adult-like characters are often portrayed as bumbling or clueless. Even worse, adult characters who do try to impose their will on children are portrayed as a villainous Captain Hook, a witch, or some other scary folks.
Parents who watch television with their children need adult role models too. During forty years as a community pediatrician, I witnessed a gradual shift in parental priorities. An over-reaction to the abuses of "children should be seen but not heard" led some psychologists to overshoot their mark so that parents might now believe they should "honor thy children" instead of the other way around. The distinction between being a mentor who supervises a child's growing-up and the desire to be their child's best friend has become very fuzzy. Given the choice between bringing dinner to a sick grandma or driving Jennifer to a pizza party she "has to get to" on time, the pizza party is likely to win. "I'm sorry mom. I will be an hour late because something important just came up." Grandma will just have to wait. "Honor (there is no requirement to actually love) thy parents" is rapidly becoming a cliché.
A heavy dose of Kid Power helps explain why children tell their teachers "I know my rights," but rarely say, "I know my responsibilities." The consequences are not insignificant because the stakes have been raised. During past years, the older established generation protected themselves and the younger generation from falling victim to unintended consequences of impulsivity and inexperience. Now, younger folks use powerful tools that allow them to bypass that buffer: They can develop profitable start-up companies overnight; threaten to quit high-paying high-tech jobs with impunity; terrorize others using YouTube instructions to make bombs from kitchenware; and create political mayhem by releasing government secrets covertly downloaded onto a thumb drive.
When the Chinese government recently legislated fines and even prison terms for adult children who fail to visit elderly parents, we should take note. Despite snickering responses, it is a warning that a culture that was once steeped in tradition and respect now feels it has lost control of its youth. It will not be necessary for me to report my adult children if they don't come to visit - my own parents mentored me in the art of inflicting guilt. Quiet afternoons spent watching competent adult role models on PBS's Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood are long past. But as we look for ways to reverse a trend where children and young adults believe that societal energy should only flow in their direction, perhaps we should rethink the message they are being taught by the media. Competent and responsible parents, teachers, clergy, police officers, - even an occasional honest politician, should be become role models once again. Learning to follow directions is important because life isn't all fun and games. The confidence created by "Kids Rule" is great - until it becomes reality.