Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2003 / 28 Shevat, 5763

Barry Lank

Barry Lank
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Consumer Reports

A baby can learn a lot from TV | I know I don't have a baby, but suppose I did. And suppose the state let me keep it. So there's my baby, lying innocently in its cradle, able to set things on fire by looking at them. And I need to have him raised quickly and easily while I'm busy with my life's mission of getting drunk and phoning radio stations. What am I supposed to do?

I should do what normal people do, of course, and plunk the kid down in front of a television until he's old enough to get up, button his own shirt and join a longshoreman's union. Why not? My theoretical child seems happy enough - staring at the screen, clapping his little hands, playing with the channel changer until he finds a rerun of Goodfellas.

But now experts in child-rearing - who apparently got together and decided that parents still have some self-confidence left - have said this is bad. They tell us that children may learn the wrong things.

In a study published in the journal Child Development, a research team led by Donna Mumme, assistant professor of psychology at Tufts University in Boston, concluded that babies are influenced by the emotional reactions of actors, just like they are by their parents.

Basically, a baby doesn't know how to react to a lot of things emotionally until it sees what people around it do. If a fire breaks out, it's really neither here nor there to a baby until it sees its parents get upset. A toddler will think, "Say, that Donovan McNabb looks like a pretty fair athlete," until it notices that all the adults nearby are running around waving their arms in shock and panic.

Well it turns out that a 12-months-old child who is watching television will look to the actors for the same kind of cues. If characters in a drama react with suspicion and fear to veteran actress Lesley Ann Warren, a baby will do the same, and perhaps continue to do so throughout its life, leaving Ms. Warren with an eerie power over a generation of children who happened to have caught her on one particularly tense episode of Columbo.

But the way I see it, how can learning be "wrong"? How can knowledge be "bad"? Huh? Tell me that.

Not only are many important lessons available on television, but many of them are only available on television. These are things your child might otherwise not learn about life, even by observing life itself:

Twelve laws of TV land

  • You can tell good people from bad people because bad people are usually played by actors who have played bad people already.

  • You will never be bored, because life goes by in quick but confusing jump-cuts.

  • Advanced Grease Formula Pine-Sol can take care of all your day-to-day kitchen spills, bathroom grime and high-traffic area dirt cleaning needs, while leaving a fresh, long-lasting scent.

  • You're too fat.

  • It's easy to kill a man. Just snap his neck, and it's done.

  • There is a point to life. It all leads somewhere. Also, events occur more or less when they should.

  • Radioactivity won't kill you. Heck no. It'll make you invisible.

  • If you meet someone of the opposite sex whom you find attractive but with whom you have nothing in common, don't worry. Circumstances will continue to throw you together. This continuous chance association inevitably will lead to romance and not to charges of rape or stalking.

  • Apartments in New York City are huge!

  • When you move to a new town, your next-door neighbor will be eccentric but lovable and will bring color and adventure into your life, rather than, for instance, borrow money from you and continue trying to borrow more until you learn to ignore him.

  • You're divorced. Your life is empty. You're a hopeless curmudgeon to whom life has been bitterly unfair. You know what you need? A monkey.

  • Girls who look a certain way are considered attractive and pleasant whereas girls with a different kind of nose and hair are considered ugly and mean. You resemble one of the ugly ones.

JWR contributor Barry Lank is an editorial writer and humor columnist based at the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, NJ. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Barry Lank