Friday, March 7, 2008

Knowing is Half the Battle

In the late '80s, cartoons were based on toys like Transformers and Thundercats. At about the same time, public service announcement segments starring the characters were tacked on to the end of many shows, such as G.I. Joe (here's an example) and He-Man, warning them not to call 911 as a prank or hide in abandoned refridgerators. It was as if these shows needed to preemptively counteract arguments that it, was inspiring violent play among boys by doing some social good, but the segment had little to do with the story itself

These days, you'll find that that children's cartoons are usually completely devoid of even these tacked-on lessons. They are either arty cartoons on Cartoon Network, or anime based on a card-trading games in which the only virtue being extolled is persistence to become, say, a Pokemon Master and "catch them all" (i.e. the persistence needed to pester your parents for money to buy the latest card deck for your collection).

However, the cartoons put out by Disney are completely geared around lessons. At least, this is what I gather. I was at the gym on a Saturday morning and happened to catch two Disney cartoons on the TVs in front of the treadmill, The Emperor's New School and The Replacements, and both featured a moral.

In The Emperor's New School , boy emperor Kuzco steals a robot to cheat on his science project, but it promptly goes on a rampage. His friend convinces him he has to take responsibility and build a better robot to stop the one he let loose. Moral of the story: don't cheat, take responsibility.

In The Replacements, tomboy Riley wants to be popular and liked by a cute boy so she gets glammed in a full makeover, but only gets attention from the class bully and is pushed into a fountain by the popular girls. The dunk ruins her hair and makeup, but it turns out, the cute boy likes her better without all that. Moral of the story: just be yourself.

The hipster in me thinks this is hopelessly square, but really, I'm glad that there are cartoons that teach lessons in an entertaining way without being completely preachy. While I would personally prefer to watch cartoons with more sophisticated storylines, I say this because I recently read a New York Magazine article by Po Bronson called "Learning to Lie."

This article highlights several studies about how kids learn to fib. In one, kids are given the opportunity to lie in order to get a prize; some do, some don't. Another set of kids are presented with the same scenario but are read one of two stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf (in which the boy who lies gets eaten by a wolf) or George and the Cherry Tree (the apocryphal story of George Washington confessing to cutting down his father's cherry tree).

Surprisingly, although 75% of people surveyed thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf would be more effective in deterring cheating, in reality, that story increased the rate of lying. On the other hand, the story about George Washington reduced lying by 43 percent. Why? The researchers speculate that kids already know lying can evoke personal punishment, but don't really think about how lying affects their relationships with others, a fact the Washington story highlights. In fact, kids who are threatened with punishment tend to lie better and at an earlier age.

So if kids are watching TV rather than reading Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues or getting socialized by Mom and Dad at the dinner table, I'm glad they are getting a dose of morals from somewhere. In fact, I hope that the writers of these cartoons are keeping up on the latest in child psychology so they can do it even more effectively. Children's networks like the Disney Channel has a sacred trust with society --we let them keep hawking food and toys during the commercial breaks if they will teach our kids wholesome, white-bread values (though woe to the cartoon on PBS that dares to go beyond white-bread).

Cartoon lessons are even keeping up with the times. In another episode of The Replacements, Riley's brother Todd is addicted to keeping up his social network on "Fleemster", so his parents confiscate his computer. He lies about needing to go to the library to play shuffleboard but instead logs onto the public computers to get his fix. Nothing will convince him to give up his online activities until he stumbles upon a pale, oily figure in the library basement--the mysterious, friendless founder of Fleemster. Moral: turn of the computer.

And on that note--

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