• If I never hear Big Red Car or Stampy’s migraine-inducing laugh ever again, it will be too soon. (Blend Images/Getty Images)
Should your children control the main television remote control in your house? Sunil Badami questions the sensibility of parents being forced to watch what their kids watch: migraine-inducing children's entertainment.
By
Sunil Badami

31 Oct 2016 - 3:41 PM  UPDATED 1 Nov 2016 - 9:31 AM

Like most parents, I know more about the Wiggles and Pokemon, Dora the Explorer and Stampy Longnose than I ever imagined I would. If I never hear Big Red Car or Stampy’s migraine-inducing laugh ever again, it will be too soon.

I know I’m not the first – or last – parent perplexed by the things that entertain their children.

They call it “family entertainment” but while there was some specifically child-oriented entertainment like Play School and Sesame Street, when you look back – at least as far as the Seventies and Eighties when I was a kid – how much entertainment was specifically dedicated to children – or even a specific age group?

But today, the tables have turned, and it feels as if we spend most of our time having to watch what our kids watch.

In those days (and yes, I know how old that makes me sound), the “media landscape” was very different. In a world unimaginable to my children, all we had to entertain us was a television, radio, record playerand a few books. Later on in my younger years, we may have even received a cassette recorder, or if we were really lucky, a VCR: we watched the same movies recorded off the telly over and over again.

There were, for those of us in capital cities, four television stations (maybe two in the bush), and so on Saturday mornings, we’d watch old cartoons like Looney Tunes or Mighty Mouse that our parents had enjoyed as children; we’d read books before bed like The Famous Five or adaptations of books like Great Expectations that they’d read; and on Sunday arvos, we’d all gather round the telly to watch old Elvis movies and Abbott and Costello movies that our parents loved at our age.

And the rest of the time, we’d have to watch whatever they wanted to watch.

But today, the tables have turned, and it feels as if we spend most of our time having to watch what our kids watch. Partly because the Internet is an unclassified minefield and mainly because, with a family trip to the movies now costing up to $100, the only trips we make to the Cineplex are for kids’ movies in the holidays.

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We’ve got so much choice that some critics call this the age of peak TV – with too much good TV to ever watch. This means that rather than all of us sitting down together to watch Countdown at the same time, every Sunday evening, all of us can watch what we want, when we want, where we want, on whatever we want.

But for all this increased connection, there seems to be an increasing disconnection. 

We’re connected by the stories we tell each other, and when we stop sharing them with each other, what do we lose? 

It’s not just that I don’t get what my kids are into, but they often don’t want to know about the things that I love that have shaped me.

With so much to entertain them, they don’t need to. And while we don’t need to enjoy the same things our parents did in order to define ourselves, expressing our growing individuality and connecting to like-minded friends, that doesn’t lessen the nostalgic pain of seeing the books I loved as a kid, books I saved for and hoped to share with my future children, sitting neglected on their bookshelf. With so much new stuff constantly being pumped out, will my children ever return to the classics, let alone age-targeted favourites that are now, according to them, “too babyish”?

It’s not just that I don’t get what my kids are into, but they often don’t want to know about the things that I love that have shaped me.

As the Australian-born child of Indian immigrants, I often found my parents’ culture perplexing and confusing. The drone of Carnatic music and the terrible acting in Bollywood movies had the same effect on me as the Wiggles and Minecraft play videos. But while I didn’t understand their appeal anymore than I did the slokas Mum made us sing at puja every morning, of course, now, I’m incredibly grateful that she shared them with us.

In sharing her favourite things with us – as well as older, more traditional stories and songs, films and customs – we grew to know her in the same way we got to know our friends and ourselves: through the things that we love, and the things that speak to us and for us.

But more importantly, in following traditional stories, we were introduced to the same concepts that are often missing in purely children’s entertainment: death, infidelity, betrayal, jealousy, horror, sex, disappointment – and more. Even our fairy tales and kids’ films were terrifying – from the horrors of the Brothers Grimm to the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d never take my children to Last Tango in Paris, the way my father did when I was four, angrily shooshing me as I asked why the man and the woman wrestled so much and what he was doing to her with the butter.

But like many long-suffering schoolkids – who will be throwing their much studied copies of Shakespeare and Keats away with liberating joy with the end of their final exams this month – the best way to turn someone off something you love is to force it on them.

Perhaps one day my children will be interested in new things, even some of the things I love and dream of sharing with them.

What makes art great is not its appeal to particular demographics but its sense of universality: a connectedness to each other, everyone before us and those who seem, at least at first glance, the least like us. The universality of art forces us to look inside ourselves by looking beyond ourselves.

There’s a danger that our children will never acquire that sense of universality because in this age of targeted advertising, Spotify playlists and Netflix recommendations, where, like pretty much every kids’ movie we’ve seen in the last 10 years, they’ll only get more of what they’ve had, rather than anything that might just change their perspectives, if not their lives.

Perhaps one day my children will be interested in new things, even some of the things I love and dream of sharing with them.

I still hold hope that’ll happen – and I’m not abandoning them to their own (WiFi-enabled) devices yet. We have lots of books and films and records around the house for them to explore one day. I can't wait when they do.

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