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The Bad News About Barney
(Parents Magazine, February 1994)

Whenever parents of preschoolers happen to meet, the mere mention of his name elicits one of two reactions: unadulterated adulation or utter contempt. I am referring, of course, to Barney the Dinosaur.

Let me put my cards on the table: On most days, I'm in the second camp. But my reason for being anti-Barney & Friends (which, in case you've been too engrossed with Jurassic Park to notice, is a PBS program for preschoolers with over five million adoring fans) is not because the show is overflowing with:
  • unnatural giggles and empty-headed phrases like "super-dee-duper" and "yummy-tum-tummy"
  • annoyingly saccharine, sing-song voices
  • exaggerated gestures and facial expressions
  • amateur camera work, obvious lip-syncing and mediocre lyrics
If those features exhausted my list of gripes (gripes shared by millions of parents), I would merely conclude that Barney is irritating to us grown-ups and let it go at that. But after much thought and many hours of observation (yes, my kids are among the smitten), I have decided that Barney is more than irritating; he's downright dangerous.

What's so dangerous about Barney? In a word, denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.

"Using denial as a primary coping strategy," confirms Dr. Lisa Korman, a child psychiatrist practicing in New York City, "means that, in stark contrast to PBS luminaries like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, Barney & Friends does not help children learn to tolerate sorrow, pain, frustration and failure."

I can just hear a million parents coming to Barney's defense. What about the recent Yale University study which concluded that Barney & Friends prepares children for school success? Who could ask for anything more? I could. School success is important; but emotional success is more important. And, as I see it, Barney & Friends falls short in this regard. To illustrate:
  • Kathy is feeling sad and jealous because, unlike her friends, she has no siblings or father. "Oh, Kathy," Barney promptly responds in a loving yet chiding voice, "you have a mother and grandmother who love you very much. That's a wonderful-size family!"
  • Tina woefully announces, "I'm having a really bad day." Immediately, Barney replies, "Well, I think your day will get much better now that we're all together!" Although Tina has a chance to list and sing about her mishaps, her older sister Luci says just moments later, "Try not to worry..., Tina. Maybe if we sang a happy song, you'd feel better!"
  • Barney trips on a toy and crashes to the floor. He is bruised and in throbbing pain, or so we infer from his words and the pulsing red circle superimposed on his purple tail. But throughout his ordeal, he giggles.
  • Kathy is scared to visit the doctor and get a shot. Barney immediately tries to convince her that there's nothing to be afraid of. He becomes "Dr. Barney" and when Kathy gets her make-believe shot, she exclaims, "You're right! That didn't hurt too much!" As the show concludes, Barney asks, "Now, are you still scared to visit the real doctor?" When a jubilant, incredulous Kathy replies, "I'm not scared!", Barney and gang explode with cheers.
  • Shawn looks at his easel in dismay and says, "I'm not a very good painter." Luci replies, "Oh, I wouldn't say that, Shawn." Moments later, Barney says, "Luci's right, Shawn. Your painting of me is terrific! You're a wonderful artist!"
  • Tina accidentally drops some records and they shatter on the floor. "I'm sorry!" she exclaims. "That's okay," says Barney, "I'll take care of it." "But how?" Tina asks woefully. "With a little imagination..." he replies, and the broken pieces magically become one big record.
These vignettes fly in the face of principles established by child-rearing authorities like Dr. Haim Ginott (Between Parent and Child). Barney's instant interventions distract children from their pain before they have had a chance to examine it, respect it, stay with it and, ultimately, watch it evaporate. His often manic attempts to rescue a youngster from distress ("What can we do to make Kathy happy?" "Are you still scared?") teach his young audience to resist or flee painful emotions, an approach that only guarantees their persistence.

"Children can't learn to walk without falling. If you always carried them to prevent the inevitable scrape, both their muscles and social skills would be severely underdeveloped," says New York City family therapist Jeanette Hainer. "Similarly, sugarcoating painful moments can diminish a child's ego strength."

I can just hear two million parents coming to Barney's defense. Mr. Rogers has a Neighborhood of Make Believe, doesn't he? What's wrong with offering children a safe, magical world for 30 minutes a day? Here's what's wrong: Children need to know that the wonderful things that happen in the Neighborhood of Make Believe (or, as Barney would say, "in our imagination") don't always happen in the real world. Mr. Rogers makes this point regularly; Barney does not.

Am I advocating the assassination of Barney? Not at all. My children would never forgive me and, in all fairness, the big guy does offer age-appropriate laughter and love to millions of kids, many of whom crave the cuddling Barney dispenses so freely. Am I advocating the transformation of Barney? You bet. All it requires is a little script revision:
  • When Kathy is depressed about her family, Barney can say, "I guess it's lonely without a Dad or a brother or sister."
  • When Tina announces, "I'm having a really bad day," Barney can say, "Please tell me about it."
  • When Kathy is afraid to visit her doctor, Barney can say, "Thank you for telling me. What scares you the most?" And when Kathy gets her make-believe shot, she can say, "Barney, it did hurt, but only for a second."
  • When Shawn says, "I'm not a very good painter," he can be told, "You know, sometimes we don't like our picture but we can still like painting."
  • Last but not least, when Barney crashes to the floor, he can say, "That really hurt!" without giggling.
If Barney's creators take these steps, they will send parents and children a priceless message: The notion that childhood should be filled only with perpetual smiles, giggles and euphoria is as extinct as, well, as the dinosaur.

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