Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Unattainably Playful
by Kim DeLauro

A child plays shadow puppets in her room. Lamplight shines on a white sheet. She giggles. But wait. Is that Dad peeking into the room with a smile on his face? Yes! It is Dad. But does he tiptoe from the room, proud of his daughter's imagination and independence, yet seizing the moment to return to the kitchen to watch ESPN and load the dishwasher? Of course not. He smiles again before jumping into the game with a shadow puppet of his own! And over their excited voices, we hear a message: "Be a Nick Jr. Playful Parent!"

Welcome to Nickelodeon's guilt-inducing Playful Parent advertisements. Squashed between Little Bill and Huggies commercials, the "Nick Junior, Playful Parent" series subtly reminds us that, having just lured our preschooler into the living room and planted his little butt in front of Dora The Explorer with a bag of goldfish crackers, we are once again missing the perfection mark. By failing to demonstrate Nickelodeon-style playfulness twenty-four hours a day, we can add yet another complaint to the extensive list of things our children can moan about on the therapist's couch.

Nickelodeon's Playful Parents don't squeal "Out of the kitchen, I just mopped that part!" Nope. A Playful Parent would welcome her child into the kitchen with a smile and provide a container of frothy bubbles from which the child can draw numbers and letters upon the floor, thus paving his way to Harvard.

Not me. No, I tend to redirect my kids into the living room and threaten to turn off Dora if they don't either build me a Lego robot or serenade me with the "back pack" song. Why else do I pay $60 a month for satellite? Someone has to mop the kitchen floor and sometimes that person wants to get the mopping over and done with. Fast. And okay, with that attitude, maybe I should feel guilty. And just for the record, anytime I pawn off my children to the television, even for a half an hour, I do feel guilty.

I grew up with parents who scorned the TV, calling it the "boob tube," and only allowing my brother and I to watch certain PBS shows with an occasional Dukes of Hazzard episode thrown in for balance. I learned early that TV rotted your brain. Minutes of your life ticked away as you watched someone else live. Heavy stuff that I grew to agree with. Before I had children, I ranted about the evils of television and how, when I had kids, I wouldn't even have a TV in the house. Amen.

Then, of course, I did have my own kids. Real kids. And I'm a real parent. Not that there aren't real folks out there who eschew TV completely (and once, in a fit of parental neurosis, I went two entire months without turning it on at all) and I say, good for them. May their children become rocket scientists. But for the most part, I limit TV viewing. My kids rarely watch more than an hour a day of appropriate programming, with an occasional entire-family viewing of Fear Factor thrown in so we can watch people eat bugs. My kids are smart, imaginative, funny... and I'm not even bragging. I'm absolving myself of Playful Parent-induced guilt.

It's not that Nickelodeon has the wrong idea about what parents should do with their children. Parents who play with their children show that they value them, that they enjoy being with them. Playing helps parents bond with their children. Parents who play with their children also talk to them, which is an important habit to cultivate. But are they telling us something we didn't already know? I need to be told these things? Besides, I have my moments of playfulness, too. I frequent my kids' restaurants. I sit bunched up on a Little Tykes chair and munch blocks while offering my compliments to the chef. I sing the ABC song. Once, I even sang it fifteen times in a row while dodging cars through the downtown Dallas mix-master, adding variations in tone and inflection with every round a little staccato here, a bit of vibrato there to keep it interesting for all involved. That way, I wouldn't go insane and start banging my head on the steering wheel.

Guilt comes naturally to me. I don't need any help from Nickelodeon. What is the point of these advertisements anyway, if not to induce guilt? To demonstrate that Nickelodeon is a family-friendly company concerned with the entire child? To dig its heels into the slopes of educational television? Or worse, do they think most parents perform so badly that they don't know how to play with their children? That parents need tips such as "when your child is playing shadow puppets, feel free to join in (or at least include them in your mopping, Ms. Slacker!)!"

Whatever the reason, the Playful Parent ads demonstrate the impossible standards of parental perfection society imposes on us. From diaper commercials to magazine articles, we are told subtly or not that we need to do more. We need to do better. We need to be cheerful, playful and calm at all times because that's what good parents do.

The floor had better sparkle, too.
Kim DeLauro is a self-declared imperfect mother living in Dallas with a husband and five small children, ages seven, five, three (twins) and two. She write either late at night or in short spurts between cleaning up potty accidents or pouring juice.