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by William H. Benson

March 1, 2001


     A couple of weeks ago in her Newsweek column, Anna Quindlen wrote about the importance of pre-school education.  “Children, it turns out, begin learning at an astonishingly early age. . . . Toddlers are constantly seeking out new stimulus and information, their brains working away. . . .What kids learn between infancy and the time they begin kindergarten is, most scientists believe, the bedrock for all the rest of their intellectural development.”

     I think that we would all agree that “readiness” before stepping into kindergarten is a key ingredient for success in school; however, Quindlen goes further when she points out that many poor and middle-class children are today being dropped off at day care centers or propped in front of the televison at home.  “A lot of toddlers are in front of the TV, a lot of moms burned out.”  

     What is the solution for working parents–single or double–to adequately prepare their kids for school?  More government funding for pre-school programs?  Or is there another way that is less costly?

     When Barbara Bush’s husband George was President in the late 1980’s, her program was “Read to Your Kids”.  She thought it important that parents read at least once every day to their children, and she spoke out to parents encouraging them to do so. I would agree.

     March 2nd is Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and the day has become a quasi-holiday, a day for reading–especially to your children.  In 1957 Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote and illustrated “The Cat in the Hat”, combining fanciful illustrations with simple and yet clever verse to describe the antics of a fantastic cat who makes a mess of a house and then magically puts it all back in order.

     The same year he wrote “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, featuring the mean and wily Grinch and innocent little Cindy Lou who live in the town of Whoville.  After decades of the cartoon version on television each Christmas, Hollywood finally obtained permission from Dr. Seuss’s widow to produce a movie version that opened last Christmas, starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch.

     And then Dr. Seuss wrote a model of persistence and salesmanship when he wrote, “Do you like ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ Sam-I-am?”

     These are stories, and I believe that Anna Quindlen and Barbara Bush would agree, that all parents of pre-school children should read to their kids.  All children should experience the magic that only the Cat in the Hat can produce and the amazing things Dr. Seuss could do with words.

     It is ironic though that Dr. Seuss wrote these stories about the time when television began encroaching upon a family’s reading time.  Is television that bad of a stimulus for small children?  It depends upon what is watched.  Those growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s all watched a lot of television at a time when the comedies were truly funny and the mysteries were terribly dramatic.  But at some point some of us realized that we had to drop the huge chunks of time that television demanded and seek out at the university a higher quality experience that television could never offer if we wanted any degree of success as an adult.

     An English professor offered the following critique.  “Television does not always provide all that it is capable of.  It is all too often an easy escape from the hard work of thinking about genuine intellectual or moral complications.  Television only occasionally rises to provocation, complexity, or full dimension.  Story-in-print asks the reader to assume feelings, voices, and postures of narrator and characters.  The story on the tube invites the viewer to disengage.”  That is why it is called chewing gum for the eyes.


     And so we pause on Friday this week and think about a cat, a hat, a grinch, green eggs, and ham, and we will do our kids a big and well-deserved favor.  We will turn down the television, and we will read to them.  Because they are always learning–either from books, from us, or from the television.