For the DVD release of Sesame Street: Old School – Volume One (1969-1974), the folks at Sesame Workshop felt obliged to slap a warning on it, namely that it was “for adults only” and that it “may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”
“For adults only.” Why were the contents suitable only for grown-ups who wanted to relive their childhood? Why was this television show that had been produced specifically for preschoolers no longer appropriate for them?
Well, for starters, in one episode Gordon takes a lonely little girl by the hand and brings her to his wife, who feeds her cookies. Obviously a dangerous pedophile, and setting a bad example for the youth of today, who, upon being approached by a stranger, should blow their danger whistles, whip out their mobile phones, and dial 911.
Cookie Monster, of course, with his insatiable appetite for fat-laden baked goods, is an objectionable role model for today’s obese youth. Worse still, in his persona of Alistair Cookie as host of ‘Monsterpeice Theater,’ the puppet swallows his pipe, which would obviously lead to children indiscriminately ingesting tobacco products. The segments were in fact eliminated altogether from the DVD version. (In a related incident, for the 20th-anniversary release of E.T., the rifles that police are holding when Elliot and his alien buddy escape a roadblock were digitally removed and replaced with bouquets of daffodils – okay, they were actually replaced with walkie-talkies. Seriously, I’m not making this stuff up.)
Oscar the Grouch? Too nasty, negative, and unpleasant in those early episodes for the fragile sensibilities of young children today. So your DVD comes with a warning.
Which leads me to a question. At what point did we all go stark raving mad?
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I wrote about in a previous post, Steven Pinker writes that “the historical increase in the valuation of children has entered its decadent phase.” (His book is about the history of violence, not of parenting, but he touches upon the subject to demonstrate just how far we have come from a past in which children were routinely subjected to cruel punishments.)
Now that children are reasonably safe from the dangers of yesteryear, “experts have racked their brains for ways to eke infinitesimal increments of safety from a curve of diminishing or even reversing returns. Children are not allowed out in the middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick cake batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs).”
I’ll give you a first-hand example. When I was teaching, we would have a school camping trip at the end of every school year. There was always a handful of parents who would not allow their kids to attend, out of fear of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBE is “the most common arthropod-transmitted viral infection of humans in Europe and central and eastern Asia [Of course, the competition among arthropod-transmitted viruses isn’t all that stiff.]; each year, 10,000 TBE patients are hospitalized.” So out of a population of roughly 2 billion, 10,000 people are hospitalized, and of those, 1-2% die, or 100-200 people. In other words, if you live in Europe or central and eastern Asia, your chances of being stricken down by TBE is 0.0000001 percent.
You have better odds of being gored to death by a rabid goat on a homicidal rampage than you do of of contracting TBE, but parents routinely pulled their children from a week of nature walks, team building exercises, birdwatching, ROPES courses, and camp fires in order to keep them in the much safer, healthier environment of downtown Budapest.
Pinker provides some examples of our desire to shield children from violence run amok. “In Chicago in 2009, after twenty-five students aged eleven to fifteen took part in the age-old sport of a cafeteria food fight, they were rounded up by the police, handcuffed, herded into a paddy wagon, photographed for mug shots, and charged with reckless conduct.” You handcuff and book an eleven year-old for tossing a hotdog?
A six-year-old Cub Scout who had packed an all-in-one camping utensil in his lunch box was threatened with reform school.
Expulsion awaited a 12 year-old girl who had used a utility knife during a school project to cut windows out of a paper house.
An Eagle Scout was suspended for keeping, among other camping gear, a pocketknife in his car. In his car. A pocketknife. The list goes on and on, and while it’s easy to cherry-pick anecdotes to prove your point, the zero-tolerance policies imposed in most schools today have slipped from the legitimate to the ludicrous.
Safety precautions are important. Car seats keep our kids a lot safer than they would be sitting on the open back panel of a station wagon, dangling their legs, as my siblings and I did when we drove on country roads thirty years ago. Bike helmets are great, and I insist that my kids wear them. Taking precautions, such as wearing long pants and applying tick repellent when you go for a hike, is a good idea.
Yet we don’t prohibit kids from ever crossing streets, even though crossing a busy street can be a dangerous proposition, with over 5000 pedestrians killed by cars each year in the US. We don’t punish them for standing up in the tub, although in 2008, 159,818 people were seriously injured in the bath in the US, nor do we whack a helmet on their heads every time they enter a kitchen, even though annually in the UK roughly 43,000 children aged between 0-4 years suffer injuries in kitchens.
As Pinker concludes, “The movement over the past two centuries to increase the valuation of children’s lives is one of the great moral advances in history. But the movement over the past two decades to increase the valuation to infinity can only lead to absurdities.”
Absurdities. Like warning parents that old episodes of a beloved children’s program are not suitable for children.
I always thought that Big Bird was a pretty shady character.