In Strasburger’s essay on children in the media, he points out that “children younger than age 6 spend more time watching TV and videos than they do reading (or being read to) or playing outside” and that “digital technology is altering the very nature of media experiences”. It is a shame that much of children’s entertainment nowadays is highly digitized and often lacks the moral lessons that “classic” children’s books continue to offer.
For example, the popular children’s series Clifford the Big Red Dog contains stories of the adventures of a gigantic red dog that belongs to a young girl named Emily. One book in particular, Clifford’s Good Deeds, contains a significant moral teaching that children should always try to perform good deeds. This book captures the attention of children initially because its main character is an impossibly huge, endearing red dog that has many traits of a human though it does not talk. His struggles in the book are relatable in many circumstances. Emily and Clifford meet a friend, Tim, who informs them that he tries to complete good deeds every day and that he could probably complete more good deeds if he had Clifford’s help. However, every time Clifford completes a good deed in the book such as helping paint a fence, fixing a flat tire, and saving a kitten from a tree, his benevolence backfires somehow and he ends up making a bigger mess of things. Most people can relate to the feeling—you try to do something good, but somehow it goes wrong and you don’t want to make the effort after that in fear of screwing things up. However, Clifford’s Good Deeds ends with encouragement as he successfully saves two children from a burning house and puts out the fire by using water from a swimming pool nearby. He is rewarded in the end with a big medal that says “Hero”. The story depicted in the book seems to be on a level that is perfect for children to understand. The words are neither too difficult nor too “dumbed down” for children to understand, and it does not seem to have any underlying themes of sexism or egocentrism.
Clifford’s Good Deeds somewhat embodies the ideas of childhood that we discussed in class, but the moral itself is a little bit different. In some of the literature we discussed, especially John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, the morals presented lean more towards the conduct of children in terms of manners and how parents should raise their children rather than their development as good Samaritans. Locke suggests that parents ought to lead by example rather than with lectures on good manners and orderly conduct when he says, “manners…are rather to be learnt by example than rules; and then children…will take a pride to behave themselves prettily”. Perhaps he is suggesting that using books and stories such as Clifford’s Good Deeds may not be the best way to teach children how to act.
William Blake may disagree with the idea that children should be shown what to do by example rather than by words. In his introductory poem to Songs of Innocence and Experience, he meets a child who delights at his ability to play the flute and write songs and poetry. He says, “And I made a rural pen, / And I stained the water clear, / And I wrote my happy songs / Every child may joy to hear.” Here he is suggesting that children will find joy in written works. From this, perhaps it can be assumed that children can also learn lessons effectively from written works. Unfortunately in the modern day children are straying from written works whether for instruction or entertainment, just as Strasburger suggested, but Clifford’s Good Deeds shows that valuable lessons can still be learned from reading picture books.