My youngest son, Lindell (the youngest of three boys, remember) watches too much television. Granted, he’s not in front of it all day long, but he watches more television than I ever allowed my oldest son, Ford, when he was 3 years old. (I also combed Ford’s hair and wiped crumbs from his mouth before he left the house.)
Lindell’s television habits do weigh on my conscience, though, even as I realize that it’s sometimes necessary to occupy him while I do the 582 other things expected of me in a day. In this way, the third child often symbolizes the delicate balance between all your previous parenting philosophies and real life, which seldom comes from the pages of a parenting book.
Happily, those commercial-free, preschool-on-television channels are Lindell’s favorite. This makes me feel better. After all, “Yo Gabba Gabba” does tell him not to bite his brothers (“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t bite your friends!”), and without “Wonder Pets,” how would he know what a pangaroo is? (Wait, what is a pangaroo?)
One day, Lindell was watching his favorite channel while I folded laundry. At the point in the show where there would have been a traditional advertisement, there was a public service announcement (I’m convinced) disguised as a Martha Stewart-like homemaking segment for kids. A mother and two children appeared on the screen. They were standing in a clean kitchen with fresh sunlight coming through the windows. I was only half-listening, but I knew what the mother was about to do. She was about to make me look like a bad parent. I might have dived for the controller to intercept, the way I sometimes do before an imminent profanity on my older boys’ TV shows. But the controller has been lost for days.
The television mom announced the craft: frosting cupcakes to look like Dora the Explorer. Everything from the plaid valances in the background to the way the mother said “template” with a crisp accent emphasizing the “p” annoyed me. According to the instructions, children and their parents should melt chocolate, place it in a zip-lock bag, and snip (there was that crisp “p” again) one of the corners to form a makeshift pastry bag. Next, the mother made an outline of Dora’s hair with the melted chocolate. Her zip-lock pastry bag never busted open. Nor did any chocolate spill out the other end and down the sleeve of her shirt.
Lindell watched with interest that bothered me. He didn’t even move his eyes away from the screen when he reached into the bowl in front of him, picked up a goldfish cracker and stuck it in his mouth.
Sure, the craft looked easy enough — if you had someone buy the ingredients and set them on the kitchen counter for you in an orderly way. Oh, and also if your children calmly wait for instructions instead of sucking the melted chocolate out of the bag first. In the ad — and to be sure, this bit was selling something — the children didn’t grab, whine, bicker or knock the bottle of food coloring onto the floor.
The segment was over in less than two minutes. But in that brief period of time, the producers had managed to change my son’s perspective: Moms are supposed to spend their whole day doing crafts with their children, not studying for grad school, going to work, folding laundry, cooking dinner, or maybe, just maybe, having some free time for themselves. They were setting the bar too high.
Surely creators of segments like this know that first-born children aren’t watching it. No, first-born children are actually doing crafts with their mother. It is second- and third-born children such as Lindell, the ones with moms who are spread too thin to consider crafts, who are the creator’s captive audience. They also happen to be the same children who already have a chip on their shoulder about skinny scrapbooks and too many hand-me-down clothes. Playing on mothers’ emotions through these children is like poking a stick in a fresh wound.
After the segment was over, Lindell looked at me expectantly. With his eyes he made his thoughts clear: “Shouldn’t you spend the rest of your day doing that craft with me? Clearly other moms are doing it. I bet every other mother in this city is doing that craft right now.”
I talked back with my own expressive eyes: “Look, kid, I’ll call every mom I know. Not one of them is doing that craft.”
At the next commercial break, there was another “ad” that announced, “We’re not perfect, we’re parents.”
“Did you hear that, Lindell?” I wanted to say. “Huh? Did you hear that I’m not supposed to be perfect? Didn’t I already take you to the library and on a walk? Didn’t we just do 12 puzzles together? Don’t I sing you to sleep at night?”
Thanks, children’s programming, for pitting me and my son against each other. As if raising human beings wasn’t hard enough.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor.