How Kid Culture Tells our Children Lies and Destroys the Future of Science

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Some parents, especially those with writerly or scientific tendencies, cope with the shock of having reproduced by chronicling every twist and turn as their progeny move from mewling rage ball to drooling tyrant, and beyond. Not for the me the introspection and fearless truth telling of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, or the abstracted observation of Charles Fernyhough’s A Thousand Days of Wonder: A Scientist’s Chronicle of his Daughter’s Developing Mind.  I much prefer to embrace nature’s memory-wiping balm of exhaustion, distraction and confusion.

In short, I’m usually too busy being a parent to have any time or energy left over to write about it. But moments of excess metal capacity do occasionally arise—during the 9th consecutive reading of one of the new, not-so-edgy Curious George stories, say—when the adult brain kicks in. And the writerly, scientific blood begins to boil.

You see, I don’t much mind the cloying, the trite or the repetitive. But children’s literature and song are also riddled with innumerable errors of fact and possibility. I’m not fretting the tall tales or magical this and thats—I’m as happy to have a talking cat with a striped hat as the next guy. But spend enough time listening to kids’ songs and reading their books, and you’re left with just one question: why are these people lying to my child?

Exhibit A:  “Ranky Tanky

“Old lady come from Booster
Had two hens and a rooster
The rooster died, the old lady cried
She couldn’t get eggs like she used to.”

This old folk song was on my son’s first CD, and he fell in love with it. It’s got a good rhythm, a nice rhyming pattern – and a biological untruth so obvious and unapologetic you’d think you were listening to a super PAC attack ad. I’m sure the old lady did indeed regret the demise of her rooster, but it wouldn’t be for the impact on egg production. As anyone who has contemplated backyard agriculture or investigated malfeasance in the egg industry knows, the single coolest thing about laying hens is that they DON’T NEED a rooster to lay eggs. So long as they have at least 14 hours of daylight, and preferably 17 or so, healthy hens will keep on laying, about once every 26 hours. (Having a rooster would lead to fertilized eggs, and if you really want to cry over a rooster, try cracking one of those into your omelet pan after it’s been left out too long.)

Exhibit B: “Slippery Fish

This one comes with charming hand movements, and starts out properly enough, with an octopus gobbling up the eponymous slippery fish. I’m still on board when the octopus is thence eaten by a tuna and, if we can agree it’s one of the smaller tunas, I have no problem believing that the tuna is subsequently devoured by a great white shark. So why, why, why does the song’s author have to end on an outrageous lie? That great white shark was most certainly not eaten by a big blue whale. The pups are already 5 feet long at birth — about, say, an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE larger than the krill that blue whales prefer almost exclusively. And it makes me cry like the old lady from Booster just to imagine the havoc a thrashing, 20-foot great white could cause to a filter-feeding whale’s delicate sheets of baleen.

Exhibit C: “Water, Water, Everywhere

The worst crap always comes into your house unexpected, typically stuffed into the bottom of a bag of hand-me-downs by parents who couldn’t find the courage to burn what needs to be burned. This type specimen of towering inanity is no exception. It’s a product of the gawdawful Baby Einstein series, and features a lurid blue octopus (again with the cephalopods!) pointing out all the different places a baby or young toddler might find water. Sprinklers? Check. Oceans? Check. Octopus tears? Well … I’ll let that one go as a stand-in for tears generally, though I trust more than one LWON reader will let us know in the comments whether mollusks really do have lacrimal glands. I’m comfortable assuming not, since tears essentially replicate seawater.

Besides, the real problem is with the following page: “Bubbles blowing, bursting — POP! — A wondrous, wet refrain…” I’m sorry, bubbles? A generation of parents had better hope this isn’t what their children remember should they find themselves stuck in the desert with nothing to drink. Oh sure, there’s a thin layer of stabilized water at the core of any soap bubble film — about a MICRON thick. How many cases of dehydration this hydrologic half-truth may have caused already, I can’t say. But my trust in the written word is irredeemably damaged.

If only, I sometimes think, my full mental capacity were not required simply to outwit an infant into sleeping for longer than 20 minutes with out crying, retching, shitting, or all three at once. I wouldn’t waste my time chronicling the breakthrough — whatever worked this time wouldn’t the next, anyway — but would instead throw myself into writing, and fact checking, my own kid lit, just to save others the pain. Er, you do feel the pain, don’t you?

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Image: “Seifenbläser” Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, mid-18th century. Via wikimedia commons.

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16 thoughts on “How Kid Culture Tells our Children Lies and Destroys the Future of Science

  1. Are you really implying that African Americans from the 19th and early 20th century didn’t understand poultry anatomy? I think you may be underestimating both their agricultural skill and their sense of humor. Put another way: only in modern suburbia would you need a song to explain to your kid where eggs came from.

  2. I’ve always wondered what species Curious George is, as I thought tail-less primates were apes, not monkeys.

  3. @Geoff, I know, I was disappointed in the Gullah, too! But what is this sense of humor you speak of? You’re not suggesting I’m missing something, are you?!?

    @Cameron, seriously! He looks like a cross between a spider monkey and a juvenile chimp. I suppose he must be the latter. And since he’s been around for more than long enough to grow into a mature male, it’s more than a little surprising we haven’t seen “Curious George and the Enraged Disemboweling of the Man with the Yellow Hat” yet.

  4. Love this.

    I have the same pet peeve.

    But isn’t it FOUR orders of magnitude, not just one?

    Unless I shouldn’t do math first thing in the morning, the little krill is about 1 gram (according to National Geo’) and a 4-foot great white shark is about 20,000 grams (according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium).

  5. Good point, @Jennie! I was thinking length, not mass, but still it would be at least two orders of magnitude, from 2 cm to 2 m, more or less. Clearly I shouldn’t try to do math at midnight :)

    @Tim, I’ve also often wondered whether little lambs eat ivy, too. Anyone know?

  6. And are spiders really capable of climbing up a water spout? Again?

    More investigative science reporting needed from you, Father Tom!

  7. Tom, In the good old days of nursing my daughter at bedtime in a comfy upholstered rocking chair, my mind would calm and my eyes would wander. Next thing I knew I’d be seething about the six-pointed starfish on her otherwise cute -and-soft bedroom rug.

  8. I dunno, Geoff – I think since the majority of us live either in suburbia or urbia proper, we do need to be reminded that hens lay eggs regardless of the presence of roosters.

    I have chickens and I get this question *all* the time. My favourite response is “I ovulate regularly without a man around – chickens do too”.

  9. Within the cephalopods, I can only find reference to anything lacrimal for myopsid squid (the group that includes most familiar nearshore species, like market squid). As Norman and Lu write, “Myopsid squids are muscular animals characterised [sic: Norman is Australian] by eyes entirely covered by a transparent cornea which is fused with the orbit. The eye cavity communicates with the exterior through a tiny hole (the lacrimal pore).” If you really wanted to stretch the definition of “tear,” you could argue that the seawater passing through this pore counts. Octopods, however, have a completely closed cornea–no lacrimal pore and no contact between the eye and seawater. So perhaps the line should be changed to “myopsid tears.”

  10. Wow. Angry much? I’m not a parent but I love cartoons and regularly find kid shows preferable to day time tv. There is always something wrong and misleading in kid shows. So my advice TURN OFF THE TV! You have control over the media your child consumes.

    As for everyone else, hate to break it to you but if the other parents aren’t smart enough to notice then their kids probably will grow up not caring too.

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone – I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one who is outraged – outraged! – by the lax fact-checking standards in kid culture. And @Danna, I’m so glad you showed up, I was counting on you for that, and you totally delivered! Myopsid tears, indeed.

    And @Magoonski, I promise to assume you’re joking if you’ll grant me the same courtesy! Besides, my kids have actually never seen a television set turned on – well, my son did see one turned on to a soccer game once when he was about 18 months, but that was in a bar so it hardly counts …

  12. “In short, I’m usually too busy being a parent to have any time or energy left over to write about it.”

    Amen. And, as writers, we then feel absurdly guilty for not chronicling said adventure and stare enviously at the parenting tomes of people who do, somehow, manage to write about the experience. (My guess is au pairs!)

    As for the kid’s lit, don’t get me started on the fact that “Sammy” is a sea lion (yes, yes, sea lions are pinnipeds and basically seals with ears, but let’s call it what it is) or that Danny’s dinosaur almost certainly did NOT walk on its hind legs…but the absolute worst is a book where a mother porcupine says something to her babies but the picture is of a HEDGEHOG! Sweet lord, I can correct it now, but once Brynn can read, that books outta here!

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