Before I had children, I had this idea that, along with sparing them too much junk food, I wouldn’t cram their minds with anything too cynically marketed at them. I wasn’t going to go the Baby Mozart route, but neither would I shove Barney the Dinosaur down their throats or aim any of the other shows I considered too garish, or condescending, or badly made – badly made! – at their delicately poised sensibilities.
Obviously, two years in and that purism has long since gone out of the window. More depressingly, I have discovered a fact about children – or at least, about my children – which is that they fall head-over-heels for the very worst stuff. Stick a down-on-his-luck actor in a chicken suit and they will watch it as if it’s Citizen Kane. No show is too shoddy, no ploy for their attention too bald that they won’t watch it and demand to watch it again.
The worst is on YouTube. There’s a children’s entertainer called Blippi who has racked up more than 100m views – many millions of which emanate from my house – by dressing in Timmy Mallett-type garb, jumping up and down and squeaking at the camera as if his viewers were idiots.
And they love him. How they love him. “Blippi!” I hear, 25 times a day. On the way to nursery, we sing Blippi’s Garbage Truck song (“Garbage trucks / Garbage trucks / Driving through the town”). On the way back, we sing his Fire Truck song (“Fire truck / Fire truck / I wish I could ride a fire truck”). And we sing the “yummy yum pizza song”. I see Blippi’s face and my hand forms a fist.
So it was this week that I put on The Wizard of Oz for my kids and prepared to be disappointed. The black-and-white opening, all those expositional scenes and the fact it doesn’t pander to a cartoonish idea of infancy would, I thought, kill it for them. What I had overlooked was that compared to their usual anodyne fare, the emotions in this movie are shockingly savage. They didn’t understand all the dialogue, but when the witch threw a fireball at the Scarecrow and threatened to kill Dorothy, they understood that the tone was not something they’d been getting from Blippi.
For two hours, they sat in front of the TV, agog. I hadn’t realised quite how much Dorothy screams in this movie, or cries – not just cries, sobs – to the utter delight of the children watching, who, I guess, saw reflected on screen and for the first time, something of the insane range of emotions they go through every day. This morning – hallelujah, no Garbage Truck but a lot of Toto and melting witches.
It used to be my playground
Any nostalgia I have for the way things were done when I was a kid can be nipped in the bud by a trip to an evil little park a 10-minute walk from my house. It is marketed by the city as a “classic” playground – which means that, save for a few coats of nobbly black paint and some spongy floor tiles, nothing about it has changed since the 1980s.
By modern standards, it is almost hilariously lethal. Relative to the height of those climbing them, the monkey bars are as tall as a skyscraper. The see-saw is a giant monstrosity of a kind I remember being “bumped” from as a child, when whoever was on the other end decided to hop off while I was 10 feet in the air. The kids sniffed the danger and instantly loved it. But for all my big talk about over-protective parenting, I didn’t have the nerve and yanked them away.
America first, indeed
The inspirational Quote of the Day on Forbes magazine’s homepage this week was, I noticed, by Charles Lindbergh: “I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead.” This was probably the result of ignorance on the part of whichever intern compiles the quotes, but the effect was chilling. From a certain angle, it looked like the inevitable revisionism flowing out from Donald Trump’s White House.