Wherever parents of preschoolers happen to meet, the mere mention of his name elicits either unadulterated adulation or utter contempt. I am referring, of course, to Barney the Dinosaur.
Let me put my cards on the table. On most days, I'm in the second camp. But my reason for being anti Barney and Friends is not just because the show is overflowing with unnatural giggles and empty-headed phrases like "super-dee-duper," annoyingly saccharine voices, exaggerated gestures, amateur camera work, obvious lyp-syncing and mediocre lyrics.
If those features exhausted my list of gripes, I would merely conclude that Barney is irritating to grown-ups and let it go at that. But after much thought and many hours of observation (yes, my kids are among the smitten), I have decided that Barney is much more than irritating, he's downright dangerous.
What's so dangerous about Barney? In a word, denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.
"Using denial as a primary coping strategy," confirms Lisa Korman, M.D. a child psychiatrist in New York City, "means that, unlike PBS's luminaries such as Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighbourhood, Barney and Friends does not help children learn to tolerate sorrow, pain, frustration and failure.
I can just hear a million parents coming to Barney's defense: "What about the recent Yale study claiming that Barney and Friends prepares kids for school success? Who could ask for anything more?" I could. School success is important, but emotional success is more important. And, as I see it, Barney & Friends falls short in this area. To illustrate:
These vignettes fly in the face of principles established by child-rearing authorities like Haim Ginott, Ed. D, author of between parent and child (Avon Books). Barney's instant interventions distract children from their pain before they have a chance to examine it, respect it, stay with it, and ultimately, watch it evaporate. His often manic attempts to rescue ("How we can help Kathy feel happy again?""Are you still scared?") teach his young audience to resist or flee painful emotions, an approach that only guarantees their persistence.
"Children can't learn to walk without falling. If you always carried them to prevent the inevitable scrape, both their muscles and their social skills would be severely underdeveloped," says NYC family therapist Jeanette Hainer. "Similarly, sugarcoating painful moments can diminish a child's ego strength."
"But," parents might say, "Mister Rogers has a Neighbourhood of Make-believe, doesn't he?""What's wrong with offering children a safe magical world for 30 minutes a day?" Here's what's wrong. Children need to know the wonderful things that happen in the Neighbourhood of make-believe (or as Barney would say, "in our imagination") doesn't always happen in the real world. Mr Rogers makes this point regularly, Barney does not.
Am I advocating for the assassination of Barney? Not at all. My children would never forgive me, and in all fairness, the big guy does offer age-appropriate laughter and love to millions of children, many of whom crave the cuddling that Barney dispenses so freely. But am I advocating the transformation of Barney? You bet. All it requires is a little script revision.
If Barney's creators take these steps, they will send parents and children a priceless message: the notion that childhood is filled with perpetual euphoria is extinct as, well, the dinosaur.