You might think that parents have a huge impact on how kids feel about themselves and their place in the world. But here in the Gelles household, the almighty television takes its rightful place in molding young minds.
All hail popular culture!
Philip is fascinated by math and science. At this early stage—halfway through fifth grade—that mostly means he gets to scornfully criticize game show contestants. Last night, for example, a woman on Family Feud was asked to name a slow-moving animal. She smiled nervously and answered, “Elephant?”
Philip smacked his forehead. “Elephant?” he repeated. “Elephants can run!”
The buzzer sounded, signaling a wrong answer. It was now the other family’s turn.
“Frog!” boomed a middle-aged man.
“Frog?” asked Philip. “Are they kidding? What about sloths?”
A family elder clenched his teeth into a hopeful smile. “Snake!”
“SLOTH!” yelled Philip. “SLOTH! WOULD SOMEONE SAY SLOTH?”
When the host finally revealed that the missing answer was “sloth,” Philip collapsed on the sofa and raised his defeated gaze toward the ceiling.
It’s terrible to see a child’s loss of innocence—the utter destruction of their belief in the innate intelligence of their fellow humans. Sometimes I suspect that I may one day get to witness a small child having a heart attack, and it will be all my fault because I allowed that child to watch family-friendly game shows.
On the other hand, watching late night talk shows (on demand) has given Philip’s twin, Henry, an exuberant sense of what is possible for him. Henry wants to be a stand-up comedian, do comedy specials on HBO, and host the Daily Show after Trevor Noah grows old and dies. Trevor Noah is only thirty-two, but I guess as compared with being eleven, the poor guy is skidding along a slick, downward slope.
Henry’s latest comedy routine is to respond to everything I say and do with a single phrase: “I hate you now!”
Of course, given that Henry is a tween and beginning to find the presence of his parents somewhat irritating, it may be that his comic riff has some truth in it.
But I choose to believe otherwise. He’s just practicing for a glorious future.
“Henry,” I’ll say, as bedtime approaches. “It’s time to brush your teeth.”
“I hate you now!”
In the afternoon, after school: “Henry, are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat.”
“I hate you now!”
At least this routine is somewhat less alarming than the one that preceded it. That one involved Henry taking a cane we had lying around the apartment and naming it Sir Smackie. It turned out that Sir Smackie was grumpily fastidious about the way I spoke, moved, and existed. Sir Smackie never actually hurt me (or anyone else), but he liked to lean menacingly against the wall while Henry and I argued about the relative merits of Star Wars and All About Eve.
But watching Trevor Noah poke fun at the Republican and Democratic primaries has finally gotten to Henry. This afternoon he got home from school, dumped his backpack on the floor, and wailed, “I’m missing my moment!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I’m eleven! I’m eleven while Donald Trump is running for president! There’s no way I’ll get this good a chance when I grow up to be funny about someone.”
“Yes, you will,” I said. “There are always fools out there. Always have been, always will be.”
“But not like this! I mean, can you think of anyone else who has ever run for president who has no political experience and is racist and sexist?”
“Well,” I began, uneasily.
“Look,” I said. “In the 1980s, there was this couple named Jim and Tammy Bakker.” I began to describe their despicable greed and hypocrisy, and her false eyelashes, and his Ken-doll smile.
“But they weren’t running for president!”
“No, they weren’t,” I conceded.
“Donald Trump wants the same job that Abraham Lincoln had! He wants to sit in the same seat! He wants to put his ugly ass in the same chair that Lincoln sat in. You know what? I’m going to write a children’s book. It’s going to be called, Henry Is A Chair Who’s Afraid Of Donald Trump’s Ass!”
“That’s charming,” I said. “Maybe you can keep your voice down, though, because I think that the people in the hall who are standing by the elevators can probably hear you.”
“You’re asking me to quiet down?” asked Henry. “I hate you now!”
Maybe it’s a good thing that the boys are paying attention to the world beyond their school and their video games. I was in fifth grade during the presidential election of 1972, and I had only the haziest understanding of what the various candidates stood for.
I remember my teacher, Mr. Furer, distributing to the class a “fact sheet” that compared McGovern and Nixon. Everything stated about McGovern was laudable, and everything set forth about Nixon was grim.
After the students took turns reading the various facts aloud, Mr. Furer asked that everyone in favor of McGovern raise their hands. All hands save mine shot up. When he asked those in favor of Nixon to do the same, mine was the lone hand raised weakly aloft.
“Susan!” breathed my shocked classmates.
Mr. Furer, with his long blond hair, and his hangdog mustache, gave me an inquisitive look. “Why do you like Nixon?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I knew that my parents planned to vote for Nixon—but who wanted to hear about that? Anyway, I had no idea why they favored him. But more relevantly, I was suspicious of that fact sheet. It couldn’t possibly be the case—could it?—that one guy running for president was all bad, and the other guy was all good. Maybe I didn’t know everything about the candidates, but without ever having heard the word, I could smell the rank odor of propaganda.
“I just like him,” I said.
The class groaned.
And imprinted on my memory for the rest of my Democratic life was the moment that I childishly stood up for the Republican scoundrel, Richard Nixon.
Nowadays, kids don’t have to rely on school to tell them about the political process and world events. To quote from Fiddler on the Roof: It’s a new world, Golda. Thanks to the modern television and its 1,000-plus channels, my sons know why they like Hillary Clinton, and why they’re urging me to get them passports in the event of a Trump presidency. They also know that Ted Cruz looks like Grandpa from The Munsters, and that Chris Christie must feel deeply depressed.
And they know that sometimes grown-ups forget the basic stuff, such as the fact that sloths are exceptionally slow.
Bow before the magnificent TV!
Photo credit: a multi-media portrait created by Jason Mecier