"Barney & Friends" vs. "Sesame Street": A Comparison

By Aimee Yermish

I knew something was odd when I heard two little children behind me in the supermarket singing the "I love you" song, together, in unison, in this dreamy little tempo, no life, without being prompted by an adult. I also knew something was wrong when one of my friends, who has two Barney-aged children (3 and 5 -- Hi, Lin!) started complaining about the show. Gee, I always liked children's television, and I'd never seen those kind of reactions. That's strange. But hey, I didn't want to pass judgement on something I had never seen.

Well, I've got the flu, and there are two public TV stations near me, which means I have been able to watch two episodes of Barney a day. I watched Sesame Street also, for comparison, and also to help get the bad taste out of my mouth. Mister Rogers didn't seem to be on (which is a real pity), so comments on that are based on somewhat more distant memory (but I have watched it plenty of times since I was six).

I'm not a psychologist, but I'm also not stupid. Barney is *not* innocent, wholesome, good-for-rug-rats fun. It models "good" behavior, but only if you define "good" in a certain way. The main subtext of the show appears to be that all negative emotions should simply be denied so that we can all be happy, and that we should all conform to the group and accept the leadership of other people instead of using our own ideas. If I had children, I would forbid them to watch it, just like I would forbid them to watch pornography. The values it teaches are *not* the ones I would want my children to learn.

The children in Barney never admit to a single bit of jealousy, rivalry, anger, tension, fear, or any other bad feeling. Well, that's not true, precisely. On *extremely* rare occasions, they do say things like, "I want to go next," "No, I want to go next," "Let's go together!" All with a stupid grin on their faces that shows that there was never any real argument. The situations can *always* be solved immediately, care-bear style, so there is never any real tension.

The problem is that even stupid childless people like me know that children's real lives, even at age three (*especially* at age three!) aren't like that. Learning to share and take turns and such is not so easy, and there are usually plenty of tantrums and fights on the outside, and plenty of upset feelings on the inside. For instance, one of the Sesame Street episodes I watched recently had a situation where Cookie Monster was playing with a friend, and they went to get a snack, and there was only one cookie left. Of course, Cookie Monster wanted to eat it, but then he saw that he would hurt his friend's feelings. So he went through a song (which, by the way, is much more musically interesting and educational than the ones on Barney) where he weighed all the fun he had with his friend against the momentary pleasure of a cookie, and decided that he would rather give the cookie to his friend. On Barney, even if the situation came up (which it clearly wouldn't, because there are *always* enough treats to go around), they would have just smiled and immediately broken the cookie in half. Well, from Cookie Monster, they learn that those feelings of selfishness are perfectly normal (why do you think so many of the muppets are "monsters"? Children are very afraid of their "bad" emotions), that even if there isn't a simple solution, that by weighing the various sides of an issues, they can decide what is truly important to them. From Barney, they learn that good children don't have bad feelings and that all problems have easy solutions which don't involve giving up anything important. Mister Rogers doesn't show kids interacting with each other that much, but his make-believe and his songs send the message that you are a good person even when you have bad emotions, and that intelligence can be applied to difficult problems to find good solutions. Barney says that you are only a good person when you have good emotions, and that problems don't exist -- a very bad message to send.

Another disturbing facet to the show is the leadership role Barney takes. The children ask him what they should do to have fun, and he tells them. They ask him what they should do when they're not sure what to do, and he tells them. They paint the pictures, and instead of asking them to use their picture to add to the growing story, he takes over and tells them what their pictures mean, decides on the title and cover and doesn't even put their names on it. They can't have fun until he's there, and they can't have fun until he tells them how to do it. They don't make believe without his telling them what to imagine. Their own ideas are subjugated to those of the leader, who doesn't even ask for input. This is not a good model of creative play, nor is it a good model of teamwork or of leadership. In Sesame Street, by contrast, the adults are viewed as resources, but the children drive the action. Every episode has a running plot where a few monsters have a problem to solve (Zoe's aunt tickles her, the fish called Wanda doesn't want Wolfgang the seal to eat her, Big Bird and Rosita want to learn enough about babies to play family with Elmo, etc), and they come up with and try a variety of solutions to each problem, with varying degrees of success (Zoe tries wearing a tiger suit to scare her aunt, but the aunt isn't scared. She thinks about staying away from her aunt, but realizes that she would have to give up spending time with her, which she very much enjoys. She carries a pineapple around so that the spiny leaves protect her chin, which works, but she gets tired after carrying it all day). The adults don't muscle in to the action, but offer advice or other help (at one point, Gina is practically wrestling with Wolfgang to give Wanda and Big Bird time to implement the successful idea they came up with on their own) if asked. The adults' ideas are generally good, but they don't force them on the monsters. Instead, the monsters model good information-gathering and decision-making skills.

Another thing which is disturbing about Barney is the choreography. These kids always do everything in unison. They dance to exactly the same steps, and do not a half bad job at it. They mimic what they are shown exactly. In the episode on individuality, they did a song and dance about how boring it would be if they were all identical robots, and the sick thing was that it was basically the same as when they were kids. In Sesame Street, kids get the same body awareness practice through dance, but the instructions are much vaguer and the kids are each doing their own thing. The subtext in Barney is that it's good to do everything identically with everyone else; the subtext in Sesame Street is that you can have fun with other people while each doing things differently, that in the world of fun, there are very few "wrong" answers.

In the Barney episode about individuality, each child named something that they liked doing, on the grounds that liking something different from other people was why you were special. But then, Barney made them all do those things together. That's counterproductive -- it shows children that something gains its definition of good if everyone else likes doing it too, not if *you* like doing it. On Sesame Street, Ernie and Bert demonstrate very well how you can like other people without having to like all the same things (one of the shows I watched had an episode where they treated exactly that issue, we like different things and we love each other).

In line with the idea that the children are taught to deny their basic differences, somehow all these kids on Barney, whose ages I estimate at 8 - 16 (or maybe older, Lucy is pretty big), not to mention the grownups who show up on some episodes, pretend that they are all the same ages as the kids watching the show (2 - 5?). All people, regardless of age, react to Barney and the proposed activities in the same way -- that is, at the developmental level of a toddler. But the viewing kids aren't stupid. They know those kids are older than they are. And the real older kids (and grownups) they deal with don't react to things at toddler level. Real adults may get annoyed at noisy or messy play or constant singing of the same song. A toddler seeing the modeled behavior of older kids and adults on Barney would be very disturbed to find that his parents and siblings don't act like Barney says they're supposed to. Are my parents bad parents because they don't play the way Barney says they do? Am I a bad person because my parents get angry at me sometimes? On Sesame Street, by contrast, the characters react realistically to each other, while still maintaining the safety net that just because you do something that annoys someone doesn't mean that you or they are bad people. Tully and Rosita wander around one episode playing with a pair of cymbals, and Luis (a grownup human) makes no secret of the fact that he finds it too loud and wishes they would make all that noise somewhere else.

There were lots of other things I found disturbing on Barney, but these are the major points so far. Remember, nothing is a no-option when a kid is watching -- they learn from everything they see. And I'd rather not have any kids I've got responsibility for learn from that show. It's false in a very dangerous way.

Okay, so I do have a soft spot for Sesame Street, I was born in 1968 and grew up with it. But I really did my best to try to give Barney a chance, to view it in the most positive light I could, and I couldn't find anything worth keeping.