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Skepticism in Children’s Television and Movies PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Michael Blanford   

The BackyardigansAs part of my responsibility as a good parent, I try to be informed about the television shows and movies my son is watching. I often sit and watch them with Atom and we discuss the content. I certainly don’t think kids shows should have to demonstrate a skeptical perspective. It is pleasing though, to occasionally find shows that take on a problem with the tools of science and critical thinking.

I have seen excellent examples of this on Arthur, which has an episode debunking an urban legend and another taking on UFO claims. We enjoy several PBS Kids programs such as Curious George, Cyberchase, and Sid the Science Kid, all of which regularly use scientific thinking to solve problems. The Nick Jr. series Backyardigans (pictured) has a great episode about the Yeti that challenges both extreme credulity as well as knee-jerk skepticism as it lets the evidence lead viewers to the answer. Of course there’s also good old Scooby-Doo, the prototypical skeptical cartoon.

 

Cartoons get it very wrong sometimes too. The above-mentioned Curious George, a program funded in part by the National Science Foundation, featured and episode with a naturopath and a bunch of ridiculous claims. Even the beloved Scooby-Doo has a number of later episodes with supernatural solutions to the mysteries and there are always the elaborate conspiracies to blame when the supernatural won’t do.

Nothing gets it more wrong than the Robert Zemeckis directed animated feature, The Polar Express. I won’t go into too much detail here, as I intend to write an entire post on The Polar Express but it isn’t just a credulous fantasy film. I have no problem with that. Kids do a great job of navigating the line between fantasy and reality. The Polar Express is an outright attack on skepticism. The film takes an intelligent kid with actual evidence that Santa doesn’t exist and bullies him into believing by making him look like a bad person for having doubts. Let me stress that I don’t think kids films should have to be skeptical. They are often intended only to entertain. I just find the core message in The Polar Express to be anti-skeptical and that is a little troubling.

I would be very interested in hearing from others about skepticism and woo in children’s TV and films that they have stumbled across. Perhaps I will compile a list of shows and movies that get it right as well as those that get it wrong.

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Polar express
written by sibtrag, August 19, 2010
1) I see little difference between your dislike of The Polar Express because it doesn't match your world view and the protests of the religious fundamentalists over movies that don't match their world view.

2) However, I think you mis-characterize the movie. It is a great skeptical movie. The kid starts out skeptical until the existence of Santa Claus is proven to him. Scientists were initially skeptical about the existence of microbes until they were proven to exist. And, perhaps eventually the existence of the Yeti will be proven by having one discovered in a scientific manner. (I'm skeptical that one will ever be found, but am ready to change my mind on viewing proper scientific evidence.)
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Misplaced skepticism
written by idfriendly, August 19, 2010
The boy in the Polar Express is initially skeptical about Santa, a proven myth, but is "bullied" into believing the myth anyway. It's a clear triumph of faith over reason. The boy's skepticism is leading him in the right direction--against belief in Santa--but the story goes on to reinforce the idea that he really should have had the simple faith of his little sister. It's an unfortunate trope of kid's programming that adults and older kids don't see the world as it really is, because they are too rational and practical. Only little kids can still see the fairies in the garden (or hear Santa's sleigh bell).
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written by Zoroaster, August 19, 2010
I disagree strongly with Popsaw. First, "steering clear" of popular holidays would mean living on an island with a glass dome over it and second, myth and legend are part of the human experience and trying to shelter children from their existence will only leave them confused about what the rest of the culture is doing. I think the author is using the best approach by maintaining a dialogue with his son and keeping the content and messages of t.v. shows (and presumably every day life as well) in perspective. I grew up on fantasy and science fiction literature and I feel it only helped me to consider things I was told in the context of whether they were probable, improbable, possible or impossible. As I mentioned in reply to Michael's last article, it is important for children and adults to understand the concept of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy playing and telling stories.

Every skeptical parent dreads the day when a friendly youngster approaches their child on the playground and invites them over for bible study with milk and cookies. Telling them to "just say, no" isn't enough. They need to experience both life and culture to help them discern stories from reality.
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and
written by Zoroaster, August 19, 2010
Oh yeah, I was also going to say I think "The Wizard of Oz" has a great message for kids. Not only is the Wizard exposed as a charlatan giving us the classic line, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" but also Dorothy's realization that "There's no place like home!" is a realization that however tempting it may be to escape humdrum life into a fantasy world temporarily, everyone and everything worth loving is right here in reality.
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@Zoroaster
written by popsaw, August 19, 2010
I believe that training young children to spot skepticism whilst teaching myth and legend as truth put the parent in an untenable position. Woo Woo should never be taught as fact to children. they must be told there is no communication with the dead, there is no tooth fairy, nobody has psychic ability and there is no father christmas. Tell them the truth, that the rest of their culture has it wrong!
I agree with the sentiments of the article. Teach to discern truth from the start and if they must embrace religious woo such as Christmas Halloween, let them do so in possession of the facts and not because their skeptic parents have lied to them.
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written by Willy K, August 19, 2010
Myths and legends as entertainment make an interesting world...

Myths and legends as fact make it a dangerous one. smilies/cry.gif
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written by Michael Blanford, August 19, 2010
Well said Willy.
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@Popsaw
written by Zoroaster, August 19, 2010
It sounds like our positions are more similar than different. I would never support teaching myth and legend as fact. At the same time, I think that the parental authority figure simply declaring that certain beliefs are true or false without explaining why people believe these things and how they are mistaken does not encourage critical thinking. Ultimately the child must question even what their parents tell them in order to be skeptical.
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@popsaw
written by SurplusGamer, August 20, 2010
I would never deny a child the fun of Santa Claus and that kind of thing. If anything, these sorts of things can, in the long run be a great skeptical lesson for kids.

Tell them Santa Claus is real. Heck: even provide evidence. I remember my parents faked some reindeer fur one Christmas. At the same time, give them all the skeptical tools that you can give them as they grow, and one day they will surely, inevitably question it, and that's when you can ask them 'well what do you think?' Eventually, they will figure it out for themselves, and they'll have learned something valuable in the process.

There's also the chance that they'll be devastated that you lied to them - I know I was, but I got over it and they will too. I never once regretted having believed in it all for the first ten years of my life, and to this day (at 28 years old, mind!) still my parent fill up a Chrismas stocking for me, and 18 years of knowing that it's all a bit of fun haven't dulled my inability to sleep properly that night.

Bit off topic, sorry, but I think people so far have given some great examples.
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Integrity and skepticism
written by popsaw, August 20, 2010
I put belief in the Christmas in the same bracket as belief in psychic ability. I believe if one is to be shunned from the start so is the other. I am sure that any young child (of a skeptic)that took an interest in Sylvia Browne would be told the truth about Sylvia Browne as soon as the interest manifest itself. The same should apply to any child that manifests an interest in the christmas,as legend.
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@popsaw
written by SurplusGamer, August 20, 2010
I'm not entirely clear on why you put them in the same category because it seems to me that there are some quite fundamental differences.

For example, (practically) everyone eventually comes to the understanding that Santa isn't real, that it is a story told to children. There is no danger that the belief in Santa is going to carry on into later life. With all sorts of other paranormal beliefs many adults mistakenly believe in such things.

Perhaps you are concerned that encouraging kids to believe in Santa Claus will encourage them to be credulous about other things, but I think it's backwards: encouraging skepticism will eventually lead them to question their Santa belief.

Telling them that Santa is real is never going to do long term harm to their belief system as they will always discover the truth and will get a lesson out of it about. Telling them Sylvia Browne really has all sorts of powers may potentially do harm as there will be plenty of people available to keep on reinforcing that belief as a teenager and adult.

I sort of consider the Santa thing as like a mild vaccine, when applied correctly. Because of the nature of the myth, there's no danger of it actually infecting the child with unfounded beliefs (in the long term) but it can be used instructively as a way to reinforce skepticism. Not a perfect analogy, but I hope you see my point.
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written by Fanitullen, August 20, 2010
Could you explain what makes belief in Christmas comparable with belief in psychic events?

Christmas is real. It's a party, one that I myself have participated in dozens of times. I've seen it, I've experienced it, I have evidence for it (photographs, audio, movies). It's real.

If you mean Christmas as a celebration of the Winter Soltice, then again, the sun is real. I've seen it, and I have evidence for it, and we know for a fact that the days get longer after Christmas. The sun is real.

Evidence for phsycic phenomena? I haven't found any yet, and as far as I know, neither has anyone else.

How are they comparable?
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@Fanitullen
written by popsaw, August 20, 2010
Christmas is real as you say but so are psychics. For a skeptical point of view however, both are founded in falsehood. Skeptics quickly dismiss pyschics as fraudulent so why not would they celebrate take part in celebrating the fraud of Christmas. Anyway you look at it it is fraud. Virgin birth on the 25th December? Going further back into the origins of Christmas and paganwinter solstice celebrations. In the fourth century C.E., the prevailing church in the Roman Empire changed the name of the Saturnalia, the pagan Roman festival of the birth of the sun-god, and made this part of Christmas.

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written by Fanitullen, August 20, 2010
But you didn't compare psychics to Christmas. You compared psychic EVENTS to Christmas. In your own words: "I put belief in the Christmas in the same bracket as belief in psychic ability."

Christmas is real. Psychic events are not.

And Christmas is the celebration of the return of the sun. The sun is as real as Christmas. You can't continue to deny it.
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written by popsaw, August 20, 2010
Winter Solstice, Saturnalia and the origins are in sun worship. Sun worship (veneration of the sun as a deity) is not compatible with skepticism. Yes the sun is real,as are Christmas and psychics. It is the celebration of the falsehoods associated with those things that I take issue with. Surely, persons of truth and logic would disassociate themselves from questionable celebrations, founded in paganism and falsehood.
Perhaps not though, perhaps I am exercising skepticism to the extreme!
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written by kaybro, August 20, 2010
There is a great series for kids based on the Richard Scarry Busytown books. It airs in Canada on CBC as "Busytown Mysteries." I don't know if it airs in the U.S., but it is available there on DVD under the name "Hurray for Huckle!" Huckle and friends solve a mystery in each episode by identifying clues and piecing together a logical explanation. A number of the episodes feature apparently supernatural phenomena. Huckle always insists that ghosts and monsters aren't real and proceeds to find a perfectly natural explanation.
My six year old loves the show and has since she was three or four.
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Scooby-Don't
written by Baloney, August 20, 2010
When I grew up in the 1970s, Scooby Doo always had the same gimmicky ending archetype, but it still maintained a skeptical philosophy. The modern incarnation of Scooby Doo, however embraces all kinds of woo chicanery: from aliens, to "real" monsters, to magic. Giants fall hard.
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@popsaw
written by Baloney, August 20, 2010
"...perhaps I am exercising skepticism to the extreme!"

I am not denigrating, but I was going to say that your original arguments were very non-skeptical based upon this statement: "The responsible skeptic parent should steer clear of Christmas, [...] and any other celebrations that are founded in myth and legend." Why would you avoid an opportunity to teach a child critical thinking, which is what skepticism is all about?

"they must be told there is no communication with the dead, there is no tooth fairy, nobody has psychic ability and there is no father christmas." Is that what skepticism is really about?

When my 5-year-old son asks (frequently) if Santa Claus is real, my response is always "What do you think?" and when he answers I always ask "What evidence makes you think that?" If I was just to tell him "No, Santa is fake," it doesn't really seem as though he's any less skeptical; he just wouldn't believe.
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@Baloney
written by popsaw, August 20, 2010
The ability to assimilate 'evidence' varies with young children and I would suggest that most 5 year olds don't even know the meaning of the word evidence, let alone how to gather and interpret the stuff!
Your own child, being advanced in learning, certainly is in a position where he can begin to decide for himself. Until that time arrives, children rely on parents for answers and trust those answers when they are given. I believe the trust should be rewarded with truth.
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@popsaw
written by Baloney, August 20, 2010
I agree with you, but I thought you were talking about skepticism, not fundamentalism.
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@popsaw
written by Baloney, August 20, 2010
Oh, I mean "little F" fundamentalism (as in adherance to strict set views), not "big F" fundamentalism (as in the religious kind).
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@Baloney
written by popsaw, August 20, 2010
I appear to have blurred the lines, having inadvertently raised the question,"should skeptics be fundamentalists" (with a small 'f)?
smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Zoroaster, August 20, 2010
I should probably leave it alone but one more comment.

I originally said that I strongly disagree with Popsaw but now I find myself agreeing with him far more than his detractors. While I did say that children should learn to question and be skeptical even of their own parents, I did not mean that parents should deliberately deceive their children to teach that lesson. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are all inventions for the entertainment of the PARENTS not the children. Adults delight in their ability to trick their children as some way of regaining their own lost innocence while ignoring the devastating betrayal of trust they are committing.

A simple remedy allows everyone to have fun and nobody to get hurt: Tell your children these characters are pretend and that you are making them up as a way to tell stories and have fun. Tell them that there are old, old stories that people tell about impossible things as a way to pass the long, cold winter months and some people take these stories too seriously.

At least where I live, most holidays are celebrated with minimal understanding of their origins or meanings. Folk traditions and rituals survive because they bond families and other communities. I would like to think we don't have to abandon these traditions altogether in order to embrace reason.
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written by Hapax Legomenon, August 20, 2010
While I agree what most of what Zoroaster is saying, there are plenty of ways to bond families and communities without folk traditions that have been co-opted by religious groups. While "most holidays" may be celebrated with minimal understanding of their origins, I would not count Christmas among them. While the pagan/solstice origins may be misunderstood, Christianity has a very clear script about what it wants our children to believe. By celebrating something that is still considered religious by most of those who celebrate it, we are tacitly accepting the religious worldview. We don't celebrate Hanukkah if we're not Jewish, or Eid if we're not Muslim. I would rather make a new tradition on a different day with a different name, with the same joy of gift giving and community.
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written by Hapax Legomenon, August 20, 2010
Back to movies and TV, I have to say I really want to vomit every time I see a movie, children's or otherwise with the "You just need to believe" message, which is surprisingly often.
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A good skeptical show
written by medains, August 23, 2010
I was very happy when my four year old decided that he liked "Guess with Jess" - an animated series in which Jess (a cat) and his animal friends answer the "Big Question" by "asking, testing, find a way". The questions are science or nature led such as "why do spiders build webs", "how can we keep warm", "what do we need to grow beans".

The structure of the show follows the template - friends find a question, come up with theories (usually about 3), try them out, find one that works (or a combination of their theories), celebrate finding the "answer".

It's a shame that it's no longer broadcast by the BBC AFAIK.

Of course, I was less pleased when I found he likes the "Veggie tales" too - animated vegetables telling bible stories. Though to be honest I was more incensed that the production values were low smilies/wink.gif
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Asperger
written by cecitheseasnake, August 28, 2010
I dont't have children myself, but my brother's son, who has Asperger's syndrome (or however you spell it), was very agitated when he learned, inevitably, that the reyes magos (in Spain and elsewhere, the three kings purported to have visited little Jesus in the manger to offer him presents) did not actually exist. From there, to the horror of my relatives, he jumped to the conclusion that god doesn't exit either. Mighty brain, uh? I wonder if the idea of sharing a socially accepted falsehood "for your own good", even while being a child, holds any water at all. Yes, we're talking of a very special case here, I've found that the child (now fourteen) seems to be incapable of understanding the concept of "lies", but... Personally, I', an atheist, I say it just so people are not misled by the idea that I might think losing faith, ypung or old, is in any way a pity. He just arrived to the (brilliant I'd say) conclusion that "revealed truth" (and maybe his parent's) is not trustworthy.
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Hector The Friendly Collector
written by Hector, December 01, 2010
I am trying to put together a socially responsible children's animated TV series concept, and I would love any independent critiques...

Please take a peek at Hector The Friendly Collector...

I would really appreciate any feedback, comments or suggestions (good, bad, or indifferent).

Thank you.

Regards,

Hectors Creator smilies/smiley.gif (Marty)
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