Pop culture for kids -- A look at what entertainment teaches the little ones, from ''The Lion King'' to ''Spiderman''

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
August 19, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

For kids who roam freely (and sometimes unsupervised) in a world of TV sets and radios, tape players and video games, VCRs and computers, the messages of pop culture are pervasive sources of information about how the world works. The question is, What, exactly, are kids learning outside of school? And the answer is, Not quite what you probably think.

Parents who have been participating in the summer debate — is the death of Mufasa in The Lion King too upsetting a lesson in random evil and the life expectancy of fathers for young children to absorb? — know that movies and television shows often hit kids pretty bluntly with Major Issues: the ethics of competition, the pain of loss, the unpredictability of fate. Big stuff. Indeed, in a number of this summer’s family-oriented movies — The Client, Little Big League, and Angels in the Outfield, for instance — dead or otherwise absent parents figure prominently, a situation that inspires their children to become responsible little adults.

Important issues, true. Nut young media consumers are not forming a view of the world any more skewed or unreal than that of anyone anywhere who ever watched Popeye as a child ( and thus still deeply believes that spinach leads to strength) and now reads Judith Krantz as an adult (and thus still deeply hopes that shopping leads to sex). In fact, kids are not absorbing cues and implications any more serious or character-forming than, say, the thesis of the dauntingly popular Fox show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — which is, as far as I can tell, that good is better than evil, teamwork beats secretive scheming, and it’s cooler to be a secret martial-arts whiz than to be an openly average school kid. They are not seriously considering the sitcom premise that dads are bumbling and moms are wisecrackers.

Parents should chill. After all, most of pop culture’s current themes are about as old — and as deep — as Barbara Eden’s belly button on I Dream of Jeannie. The secret strengths of the Power Rangers reflect fantasies at least as old as Superman’s first experiments with a red cape. The cute, wise, telegenic young persons who populate Blossom, Full House, and Family Matters can trace their roots to Leave It to Beaver. Any parent logging the tape library of a young video viewer knows that some of today’s most popular titles — Aladdin, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden — tell some of literature’s oldest tales. And any adult who has clamped on a child’s headphones knows that the messages encoded in songs by Raffi and Arrested Development are equally commonsensical, and that even children who mouth the inflammatory lyrics of Snoop Doggy Dogg are statistically not any more likely to become violent than children who have had their Beavis and Butt-head viewing privileges suspended.

Frankly, parents who want to appreciate a child’s more subversive influences should reread the joyfully anarchic books of Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, stories that incite youngsters’ imaginations. Or, for that matter, they should flip through a stack of comic books, including Spiderman, X-Men, and X-Factor. Because that’s where sons and daughters are learning that heroes and villains come in all colors, all sexes, all species, and from all planets. Which is a pretty radical departure from life as it’s depicted on Full House.

The lessons for parents, then, are these: that what seems newest and trendiest ion pop culture often reflects concepts that have been around for generations; that what’s oldest and most enduring is sometimes where the wild thoughts really are. And that it wasn’t Tolstoy who said, ”Happy families are all alike.”

It was Barney.