Let’s get real

Last week, I attended Prix Jeunesse New York. What really opened my eyes was the realization that most American kids' programming is so sanitized, so politically correct, so idealized, it falls years, if not decades, behind the power released by Prix Jeunesse winners.
January 16, 2013

Last week, I attended Prix Jeunesse New York, curated and led by David Kleeman, President of The Center for Children and Media, and co-hosted by the Children’s Media Association and UNICEF. True confession: Sitting a darkened room for hours on end watching a big screen conjures up caffeinated memories of Art History exams. Luckily, David’s presentation of international children’s television was so riveting, the yawning flashbacks never came. What really opened my eyes, however, was the realization that most American kids’ programming is so sanitized, so politically correct, so idealized, it falls years, if not decades, behind the power released by Prix Jeunesse winners.

Stories about war, autism, degenerative diseases, friendship, and even death were told with compassion, humor, and reality. All conveyed in ways that are completely appropriate for children. Or at least for children outside the US. Can you picture our kindergarteners using real saws and hammers? Or a rambunctious boy picking up a piece of scrap and pretending it’s a gun? What about a boy in middle school crying because his friend is leaving? Or 13- and 14-year old girls living on their own for a month à la The Real World? I can’t remember any show not led by Linda Ellerbee that lets the voices of children drive the content into such taboo territory.

We in the US think “we know kids,” albeit some channels more than others. But our views leave little to the imagination. Writers, researchers, and strategists (of which I am all three) set the tone. Parents, lawyers, educators and advertisers create the rules. They would have had a riot in the UNICEF auditorium.  Among the 30 international shows and clips that were screened, kids’ everyday thoughts were key in every single one. Adults were rarely in the picture, not even peripherally, like a Rugrats‘ mom. Emotions such as guilt, which we often convey via a child waiting to be caught doing something “wrong,” was tenderly rendered in a Nertherlands’ show about a girl who cut her sleeping grandmother’s hair. Rather than focus solely on her actions, the spotlight was on her complex emotions, played out by her facial expressions. Similarly, types of creativity, from making a self portrait to taking apart a scale, to literally thinking about design, were prime examples of the medium is the message. What was described as a “daring film for Lebanon” showed the feelings of a girl, denied the privilege of riding a bike. (Spoiler: her smile at the wheel was worth 1000 words.)

All of these “maker moments,” with the real kids doing real things, were both inspiring and sobering. Why don’t our shows have them? Do our brilliant ideas always have to be animated? Do we ever get real? I’m not advocating changing our culture (well, maybe a little), but talking with kids instead of to them, showing tenderness and empathy in real situations, trusting kids to understand deep thoughts, in essence– taking risks—is what media can do. Movies do it. Youtube does it. Even really old-time TV shows like The Little Rascals did it.

Let’s get down and dirty to make TV relevant in 2013. Mud pies are the essence of childhood.

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