I Refuse to Feel Bad About Letting My Children Watch TV

Pop culture, even "low-brow" entertainment, paves the way for appreciating the classics, and it'll help my kids connect with people who aren't just like them.
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Flickr / Lars Plougmann

With winter break upon us, parents face a multitude of decisions. Will we let our kids watch TV? How much? Which shows? Play video games? Which ones? Watch sports?

If your answers to these questions range from “of course” to “don’t worry about it,” you might’ve missed the movement, particularly active in crunchy liberal locales, to campaign against the “commercialization” of childhood and all manner of “screen time”—even shows, apps, and video games that would seem harmless.

As an on-again-off-again Waldorf preschool parent, I understand the argument. Children should be playing—with other kids, with wooden toys, with musical instruments, within the great outdoors—instead of staring at screens. Most of what Hollywood offers is crap: violent, deadening, possibly contributing to ADHD or worse. We should be filling our kids’ minds with classic stories, high culture, and idyllic visions of what the world could be.

I’m good with all of that. And yet, I let my sons watch kids’ TV shows, and not just the PBS variety. Currently it’s all about Legos in our house, and not the building-block variety. Ninjago. The Legends of ChimaMr. Rogers these are not. 

But these programs offer something valuable nonetheless. Many of them portray valor, heroism, and bravery, all within story lines akin to the world’s great epics. I’m particularly smitten with Star Wars—a child of the ‘70s am I—which, I think, deserves its place in the panoply of great epics right along with the Iliad and the Odyssey, or more recent creations such as the Lord of the Rings.

And that’s central to my thinking. I absolutely want my sons to read masterpieces like the Odyssey someday. My belief is that an introduction to other epics—even via pop culture—will lay a sturdy foundation that will make their engagement and enjoyment of the classics that much more likely. Cognitive science has shown that knowledge builds upon knowledge—and I’m betting that my sons will better connect to high culture someday by relating to familiar themes from pop culture.

If that sounds like a rationalization—or very long-term thinking—I have more practical concerns in mind, too. Frankly, I don’t want either of my sons to be that kid, the one who can’t carry on a conversation about Star Wars, or Wii, or the NFL, on the playground. Perhaps if I planned to cloister them within a home-school community of like-minded families until they were 18. But not if they have to navigate the social world of public school. Maybe some pop-culture will seep through to them regardless of what we do at home, but I don’t want to take the chance that they will miss important cultural touchstones.

Here’s one more argument, this one macro-political. Everyone knows America is “coming apart,” with the most affluent, and generally best educated, 10 or 20 percent of families living very differently than everybody else. We eat different foods, shop at different stores, watch different shows, enjoy different movies.

Introducing our children to some pop culture, then, makes it more likely that they will grow up to be able to transcend these class divides. When my boys are in their twenties I want them to be able to hang out with (and respect) kids who didn’t go to college, who spend their Sundays watching football, who would never dream of going to a drum circle. An appreciation for pop culture, I believe, will help. And a pop-culture blackout—which is likely to become an upper-middle-class phenomenon—might actually hurt.

So in between wholesome Christmastime activities, I’ll probably let me kids watch a little Ninjago, or Star Wars, or play a little Wii. We’ll catch some football games—and play some catch, too. And we’ll read a Clone Wars chapter book before falling to sleep. And I refuse to feel bad about any of it.

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Michael J. Petrilli is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank, and the executive editor of Education Next. He is the author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma.

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