Is The Cartoon “Arthur” Teaching Your Child To Behave Badly?

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Children’s movies and TV programs often show their characters behaving badly, in order to teach children a lesson at the end of the program. But young children watching these shows may pick up on the bad behavior without connecting it to the intended moral, finds a study in the latest issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. The news service ScienceDaily reports:

“‘Children who spent more time watching educational programs increased their relational aggression toward other children over initial levels,’ says Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. Since children between the ages of 2 and 5 do not typically understand the plot of shows, Gentile said they do not know how the beginning of a story relates to the end.

‘Even though educational shows like Arthur have pro-education and pro-social goals, conflict between characters is often depicted with characters being unkind to each other or using relational aggressive tactics with each other,’ Gentile said. ‘Preschool children really don’t get the moral of the story because that requires that they understand how all the parts of the show fit together. You need pretty complicated cognitive skills and memory skills to be able to do that, which are still developing in young children.'”

Gentile suggests that mothers and fathers help make sure their children understand the intended message: “Parents can watch with their kids and help them to understand the plot. Parents can comment along the way and then explain the message at the end. They explain how the insulting behavior or the ignoring behavior was not appropriate. This will help children interpret and get the message and help them learn to watch it for those messages,’ Gentile said.” (Read more here.)

It makes sense that very young children may not be able to put the pieces of a show together in the way the program’s creators intend (even if the moral seems head-thumpingly obvious to adult viewers). This is more evidence that it’s important not only to choose your children’s media carefully, but to be sure to talk about it with them during and after they watch it.

Have you ever noticed a child picking up negative behavior from a program intended to impart a positive lesson?

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8 Responses to “Is The Cartoon “Arthur” Teaching Your Child To Behave Badly?”

  1. Iram says:

    I have always thought this was true of “Arthur” in particular. My student teacher recently made the mistake of reading “Arthur’s Valentine” to our Kindergarteners and it backfired. That will be the last time she reads a book to a class without pre-reading it herself! Whenever “Arthur” is playing on TV, I make sure I am sitting with my 5-year-old to make sure he understands what is going on. It seems like such a harmless show, but you are right, young children need help digesting it.

  2. I’ve always been suspicious of the effect Curious George has on kids’ thinking–that monkey gets away with everything with no consequences!

    • Gretchen says:

      Melanie, you have touched a raw nerve of mine! Curious George basically has the developmental age of a toddler/preschooler, whom we wouldn’t leave alone to make decisions that are way over their head and could lead to danger.

      So if you want to talk about someone who gets away with everything with no consequences, look no further than The Man With the Yellow Hat who never gets it that George needs supervision (where is MPS – Monkey Protective Services). At least George is acting developmentally appropriately while his guardian is out to lunch!

  3. Rebecca says:

    I think the same thing happens with older kids too, when they are exposed to media that is too complex for their social/emotional development. When the movie Mean Girls came out, some of our 5th grade girls were allowed to watch it at a sleepover. They promptly made their own “burn book” like the bullying characters in the movie, and wreaked havoc in the 5th grade girls’ social world. They got the message to do whatever it takes to be “popular” but not the message about how others would think that those behaviors would make others dislike them. I immediately thought of this situation when I read the study. Ironically, the prevention lessons about bullying and relational aggression that I had taught previous to this incident, and the interventions that I put into place in response to it were based on Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabees, which was the inspiration for Mean Girls.

    • Leanne Strong says:

      I’m with you on the fact that the media can have a negative impact on older kids’ behavior as well. Mean girls (or any movie that involves popular kids and not so popular kids) didn’t teach me to do anything that looked like it would hurt me or anyone else. And yes, I did watch movies like that. SpongeBob SquarePants, however, did teach me to do something negative.

      I watched this one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where Spongebob’s BFF, Patrick (starfish, because they live underwater) goes to boating school with SpongeBob. During class, Patrick draws an angry, fat version of the teacher (Mrs. Puff, blow fish), and writes “BIG FAT MEANIE” on top, and gives it to SpongeBob. SpongeBob tells Patrick off, which catches Mrs. Puff’s attention. Mrs. Puff sees SpongeBob holding the “BIG FAT MEANIE” pic, takes one of SpongeBob’s good noodle stars off the board, and then sends him to a dirty, worn out looking desk in the back of the room.

      When I was in 4th grade, I had a transfer bus driver (I was in a private school at the time, and private school kids sometimes transfer buses) who, after a while, started making everybody sit in the front of the bus, because SOME KIDS were throwing wrappers around in the back. I preferred the back, because I couldn’t stand the noise from the engine at the front (I’m very sensitive to sensory stimulation, because of my Asperger Syndrome). I also felt like the bumps were felt more strongly in the back of the bus. I found that the G-force was also felt more strongly in the back. One day, I drew an angry fat version of my transfer bus driver and wrote, “BIG FAT MEANIE,” on top. Only I actually gave the picture to the bus driver myself, instead of giving it to someone else and them saying, “BIG FAT MEANIE?! Leanne you can’t do that, she’s the bus driver!” And I didn’t draw those little things on the lower left side of the pic and write, “poo poo.” Instead, I drew an arrow pointing to the pic and wrote her name, “ROSE.” I thought, “well, Mrs. Puff told SpongeBob to go to the back of the room because of the big fat meanie picture. If I do that to my bus driver, maybe she’ll tell me to go to the back of the bus.” It didn’t work for me, though. She just talked to my parents about it when we got to my parents’ farm, and they made me apologize to her.

  4. I’m not so sure. I think kids have an natural instinct to know what is right or wrong in the moment even if they don’t get the plot. There was a new study on this recently but I can’t remember who did it. Sorry. :/ As long as the show doesn’t condone the bad behavior I think it is OK.

  5. Steve S. says:

    These are all examples of Hollywood (and PBS equivalents) allowed to police themselves by assigning their own ratings and deciding what they think is ok for kids to watch. I’ll never forget how terrified my kids were because I was tricked by a G rating and Disney into watching The Lion King with them. Fortunately, I actually did watch it with them (and a lot of parents don’t.) We now screen movies on sites like Kids-in-Mind.com which gives you a really good idea of what goes on in the movie despite the “rating”. The whole Hollywood rating concept needs to be scrapped and replaced by an independent, unbiased, consumer-driven system.

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