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Television as the third parent

Mom used to work late into the day when I was a kid. School usually ran from 8am to 1pm for me in Mexico, so I was alone at the house from 1:30pm to about 4pm or 5pm if my grandmother wasn’t there. Juarez, Mexico, was a whole lot safer when I was growing up there. I’d get home, turn on the television, grab some lunch (none was provided at school) and work on my homework. If I did my homework on time, I could go outside and play until dusk (later on the weekend).

One of the big reasons why I picked up English at a young age was that we got television signals from El Paso, Texas, and there were many times when the cartoons played on American broadcasts were dubbed to Spanish and played on Mexican television, albeit some months later. My young brain became very good at understanding what was going on in shows like “The Cosby Show” or reruns of “The Brady Bunch”. Television was so good at teaching me English that I didn’t have much trouble becoming fluent at it by the time we permanently moved to the States.

Television also taught me something that I didn’t know it did until I was in college. One of the political science classes that I took had a lot of required reading. The professor was a big Liberal White guy who wanted us kids to see how big forces were at work in our upbringing, hidden forces that worked in the background of our everyday life. One of the books he had us read was a book about television as a “third parent” in the family structure. (Though it was more of my second parent since my parent were divorced.) The main thesis of the book was that television taught us a lot about the world, things that parents used to be in charge of teaching children.

The one question that sticks in my mind from our discussion about television was something like, “How do you know what is right and what is wrong?” While some in the class tried to say that it was their parents’ guidance and advice that taught them the difference between right and wrong, the professor asserted that it was television shows. (He made the same claim for movies, but it was more about television.) He explained how shows followed a formula where we learned what was wrong, what was the right thing to do, and how doing the right thing had positive outcomes for the protagonists — and it was all delivered to us in 30 to 60 minutes several times a day.

That discussion got me thinking about my perspective of the world. For example, I remembered an episode of “The Cosby Show” where “Vanessa,” one of the Huxtable’s teenage children, gets drunk. Her parents teach her a lesson by talking to her and then by playing the same drinking game (with tea instead of alcohol) and tricking Vanessa into thinking that the smallest child was also going to drink. From that episode, I learned about peer pressure, drinking, and how underage drinking was a no-no. I never got such a lesson from my parents. If anything, underage drinking was rampant on both sides of my family, but it was the television shows of the time that told me it was a bad idea to drink while underage, and that drinking in excess had really bad consequences associated with it.

I learned from the show “COPS” that running from the police just doesn’t work. They have helicopters with infrared cameras, and dozens of cops can converge on me if I try to run. Never did they show any police pursuits that ended in the cops backing off (something that happens often when the pursuit might get bystanders in trouble). Seeing all those people being belligerent and trying do “fight the law” (and failing miserably) probably influenced my approach to police in a big way. You see, my parents never really had a talk with me about how to behave toward police. On the few occasions that mom or dad were pulled over by cops, the whole thing got resolved through a warning, a ticket, or — two or three times that I remember — a bribe (and not just with Mexican cops, by the way).

A lot of my scientific point of view was also developed through television. I remember watching in awe as Carl Sagan, with his voice dubbed into Spanish, told me all about the cosmos. There was also a French cartoon, also dubbed into Spanish, that talked about the human body:

I remember very clearly the excitement I felt as I looked through the microscope at a drop of blood and could see in real life all those cells represented in the cartoons. I could see white blood cells of different shapes, with different nuclei, all designed to take care of the body in different ways. It was spine-tingling stuff. I don’t doubt that I got two or three answers right on biology exams because I watched those television shows.

Would my life be any different — or would I — if I had not had television in my life? I think so.

The fondest memory I have of my maternal grandfather is sitting with him on his bed as we watched Looney Tunes. He’d curse the Roadrunner for getting away from Wile E. Coyote. (He wasn’t allowed to curse around me, but he’d do it anyway. I’d follow suit.) Even as I write this, I remember that moment even though it happened when I was three years old. (I also remember the smell of the antiseptic used around him. He had advanced cancer and would die soon after.)

Some of the fondest memories I have of my paternal grandparents are from them sitting together to watch Mexican “telenovelas” (soap operas) while grandpa did the day’s accounting. Sometimes, I’d sit on grandma’s lap up until I was ten or eleven years old. Then I got too big for her skinny legs. Other times I’d play on the floor as they watched television and marginally watched what was on the screen.

Now that I’m an adult my television watching is much more varied, and I don’t think that I learn much from the shows that I watch. I think that I’m more aware of the entertainment value of television than to read too much into it. Of course, there are some shows that catch my attention and I probably read too much into them. (I was an enormous fan of “Smallville”, and you can probably see in some blog posts how I base what I’m writing about on the plot of some of the episodes.) The same goes with sports on television. While I love watching soccer, baseball, or American football, I don’t really worship any of the players. They’re not my heroes like they were when I was a child because I know that they’re overpaid prima donnas with dozens of skeletons in their closets. (My heroes are more flesh-and-bone nowadays, people I work with or learn from in school, or personal friends, or interesting people with great accomplishments against all odds.)

All of this has made me wonder how many of us are children of television, having learned good and evil from watching television shows. How many of us chased unrequited love because scripts written for a 30-minute show told us that the good guy always got the girl? Or how many of us stay in bad relationships because the same shows tell us that “love conquers all“? And, if we didn’t have television, would we learn the same “lessons” from books or plays? Who or what would be our “third parent” if there wasn’t any television around?

Most of all, I can’t help but wonder if social media on our portable devices will become the “third parent” of today’s kids. Imagine that, a generation learning right from wrong by what they see on their Twitter feed or Facebook wall. I shudder at the thought like I’m sure my grandparents did when they heard I watched television for hours a day when mom wasn’t home yet from work.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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