arthur
Adults often ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. A teacher. A firefighter. A ballerina. The list of career choices is endless. I like to tell my kids that they can be whatever they want to be. As a parent, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the long run what they do isn’t nearly as important to me as who they become. And research shows that the television shows our kids watch may play a part in our children’s process of “becoming.”

We’ve all heard the phrase, “the moral of the story.” Books, fairy tales and fables all seem to have a moral to the story, or a lesson that the story tries to convey. TV shows for kids often have morals too, yet when media researchers study kids and TV, we seem to rarely study whether or not kids internalize the intended message. Researchers, however, recently did this very thing and discovered that one PBS show has the ability to help support kids’ moral development. Or, as I like to call it, their process of becoming.

Researchers at University of California-Davis and Wake Forest University brought 101 kids ages 4 to 6 into a research lab. Each child watched one of two episodes of Arthur, the PBS KIDS series based on Marc Brown’s popular children’s books.  One episode contained a moral: a lesson about the importance of taking the perspective of others. The other episode related to music appreciation and served as a “control” condition. Researchers found that children who watched the episode with the moral lesson scored higher on measures of perspective-taking. They were better able to think about how another person might feel and to take those feelings into account in their own decision making. 

This is particularly important because perspective-taking is essential to developing empathy. Empathy involves imagining what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond in a caring manner. Over time –  and with support –  young children begin to grasp that the people around them have thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes that are different than their own.  Perspective-taking helps kids understand that their actions affect the emotions of others.  For example, if they take a toy away from a friend, that friend might feel sad or frustrated.

If that were all the study found, that would be pretty amazing –  a TV show that promotes empathy skills! But the study went a step further by asking kids about the rightness or wrongness of the motivations of a violent character. The study found that kids who watched the Arthur episode with the moral lesson, and who thus exhibited a greater perspective-taking ability, also exhibited higher levels of moral reasoning. They were more likely to say that acting violently is bad because everybody is a human who deserves respect (the high end of moral reasoning) compared to saying that acting violently is bad because you could get in trouble (the low end of moral reasoning). In other words, kids exposed to a moral lesson in Arthur displayed higher levels of moral reasoning.

When my kids grow up, I hope they find something to do that is rewarding to them. But more than that, I hope they are kind. I hope they value all humans, regardless of differences. I hope they learn that happiness can be found in helping others be happy and that devoting time to focusing on others needs’ is time well spent. Ultimately, I hope they become the kind of person who values the humanness in every person they meet.

Parenting is tough. Sometimes it’s all we can do to get our kids out of bed, fed and off to school on time. And instead of trying to develop great human beings, I think we sometimes feel like we’re doing our best to simply not screw our kids up too much. We need all the help we can get to raise kind kids who do the right things for the right reasons. Fortunately, our homes already have access to resources like shows on PBS to help us in these all-important efforts.

 

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About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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