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Norwalk Neighbors Notes: No Laughing Matter

NORWALK, Conn. — When my son was in first grade, we had a SpongeBob SquarePants birthday party. The invitation was a spoof on the show’s theme song. “ Who lives in Norwalk, close to the sea?  ChrisHard SquarePants.” The playroom walls were covered with blue tablecloths and paper sea creatures. There was no mistaking this for anywhere else but the bottom of the deep blue sea. One party game was flipping crabby patties. All of the guests received live goldfish in plastic bags for the party favors. (Except for one little girl who apparently had issues with goldfish.) So, when the news came out this week that SpongeBob SquarePants is bad for kids, I gulped. Oh, dear was I a bad mother? Is it time to hang old SpongeBob out to dry?

How could a show with its cheeriness and optimism be bad? Could silly Patrick Starfish who earnestly searches for north, south, east and weist be steering our kids down the path of poor “executive functioning?”

Lauriston Avery of the Five Mile River Nursery School in Rowayton says that executive function skills are vital to success in academics and in life. “The ability to self-regulate and make decisions is critically important for self-management. It starts at birth. Everything a child does sets neuropathways and the brain will shed them if not properly developed. A child needs to play outside, play with objects like building blocks. Kids need to interact with their environment and with human beings. They need to make their own decisions and not have media do it for them. More exposure to fast-paced TV, cell phones and computers is not ideal. But even SpongeBob can be used as an opportunity, if it is watched with an adult and there’s interaction.”

So is SpongeBob SquarePants bad for 4-year-olds? Hard to say. I prefer Rubber Duckies in my water and have for more than 35 years. What can I say? I'm biased, said Sonia Manzano , better know as the beloved Maria on "Sesame Street."

Lisa Sullivan of Holiday Drive has a bright daughter who plays violin and gets good grades. Did Elise watch SpongeBob? “No, she didn’t. She didn’t really like the show. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t watch TV, she did, just different shows. I think the show may have more appeal to boys more than girls.”

Not so, according to Mary Molano of Grey Hollow Road. “ My daughter grew up watching SpongeBob and still enjoys the show.” (In fact, she was one of the guests at my son’s party 10 years ago.) Upon hearing that the show might be bad for kids, Mary said, “Oh, now they tell us. Maybe that’s why my kids aren’t always the best test takers. So, it’s because of SpongeBob! We’ll vilify him and wipe the floor with him! Actually, I don’t think it had a negative effect on them. Compared to their peers, I’d said that they perform right at level. Surely, they have enjoyed a few great laughs, and I enjoyed it, too.”

Dr. Marcia Eckerd , a psychologist with a practice in Norwalk, said, “Even the person who did the study said there were limitations to the research. Kids can't do certain tasks immediately after watching fast cartoons. It doesn't say anything about an hour later. There are many other factors like video games, surfing the net, texting and other media impacting how kids think. To reduce this problem to a cartoon is missing the big picture.

"Yes, the study should make parents consider what their children are watching and what they have to do immediately afterward. But let’s not just pick on poor, old SpongeBob. SpongeBob has teachable moments. With parental help, kids can apply what they see in SpongeBob to their lives. Even a little child can see that Squidword is always mean to SpongeBob and that Mr. Krabs is selfish. As an example, this can lead to a discussion of what friends to choose for those kids who keep going back or being hurt by the same child. Looking at the big picture, how our kids attend and work is being changed, but not just by one cartoon. It's happening even if you turn off SpongeBob.”

Dr. C. Alexander , a psychiatrist in Norwalk, said, “This study has its shortcomings. For example, a pretest would have assured people that the differences didn't already exist before the TV show was watched! A wise man once said ‘Things happen in a vast network of causes.’ The experiences I have, what I expose myself to, what I eat, watch, think, everything I do influences and modifies my brain. What we pay attention to is important partly because it changes the physical architecture of the nervous system. It seems redundant to advise people to pay attention to what there children are watching on TV. But the idea that even some older and accepted shows may have evolved to a point where they are overstimulating and are no longer ideal watching has to be considered.”

In the words of SpongeBob’s driving instructor, “Take it slower, SpongeBob!!”

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