Politics & Policy

The Professor and Mary Ann (and Your Children)

A physicist explains how time can be reversed in modern popular culture.

I’m a child of the ’60s. No, not the ’60s of Woodstock, Vietnam, and urban riots — those were distant events, flickering images on our small black-and-white TV. I grew up in the twilight of post-war suburban America, the last few years when divorce was still rare, when drug use was largely a countercultural phenomenon, and when my parents could safely let me watch television without supervision, or take out books from the library without anyone checking the contents.

But the popular culture that our children experience has changed dramatically. To call modern television comedies “crass” is to insult the adjective. The televised baseball games I used to watch as a child are basically unchanged, but now they’re peppered with commercials for erectile-dysfunction drugs, a topic considerably more difficult to explain to a small child than the infield fly rule. And young-adult novels? The typical protagonist is saddled with divorced parents, an abusive stepfather, a drug-addicted sibling, and a friend who’s just committed suicide, along with a vampire or two. I won’t even let my children wander into the young-adult section of the bookstore, much less read those books. Sadly, even the greeting-card aisle of the supermarket is off-limits until my kids are old enough to spell “double entendre.”

Many parents simply throw up their hands in dismay and give up. After all, kids will be exposed to all of this popular culture eventually, so why try to shelter them from it? But the key word here is “eventually.” You do have control over your children’s earliest cultural experiences, and you can determine what they watch and read until they’re old enough to understand the cultural cistern in which they are swimming. And precisely the same technology that has produced so many of these problems can be used to counteract them.

Our first step, when our children were young, was to train them to mute the television whenever a commercial appeared. This has become so reflexive that I’m not sure they even realize now that commercials come with sound. When they were first learning to read, we looked into comic books. But these are really aimed at adults nowadays — they’ve become far too dark and disturbing for young children. No problem! A quick check of Amazon revealed an eight-volume set of the comics I grew up with: the 1960s Legion of Superheroes, enough for an entire childhood of comic-book reading. This had the added benefit of allowing me to catch up on the comics that my own parents severely rationed back when I was a kid.

Eventually we gave up on cable TV entirely and set our children’s television clock back by 50 years.

What about real books? There’s no reason for parents to confine themselves to books published recently when the online market provides access to almost any book ever written. Our rule of thumb is that pretty much anything published for kids before 1970 is safe — after that, the books require parental inspection. But wait — don’t kids want to read about modern children who are just like themselves? No, they don’t. They want to read about dragons, magicians, talking animals, and space travel. And children whose lives resemble the characters in a current young-adult novel probably need professional intervention more than they need a good book.

Eventually we gave up on cable TV entirely and set our children’s television clock back by 50 years. (Thank you, Netflix.) So our kids know exactly what “Danger, Will Robinson!” means, and one of them endeared herself to her teacher by writing, “Sorry about that, Chief” at the top of an exam. Now that my children and I share the same popular culture (mine), it’s something that brings us together instead of pulling us apart. As of today, we’re watching old episodes of Gilligan’s Island, which has aged surprisingly well. But I’m still curious to see if those castaways ever manage to get off that island.

— Robert Scherrer is the chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and a founding board member of the Society of Catholic Scientists.


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