The children's television bill that Congress approved in October made me think of lawn darts. A while back, "60 Minutes" ran a story about a man whose son had been killed in a lawn-dart accident. The tragedy moved him to begin a nationwide crusade against the game. At the very least, he argued, the government should require manufacturers to label the equipment with a clear warning of its dangers.
His implicit assumption—that parents need the state to tell them that tossing long, sharp, metal objects can be hazardous to children—was a striking example of the extent to which government regulation has encouraged the abdication of parental responsibility. These days the news is filled with such examples, from the hullabaloo about mandatory record labels to the lawsuits in which parents try to pin their children's suicides on Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne.
Ever quick to pick up on a trend, Congress now wants to limit commercials on children's television shows and require broadcasters to provide educational programming for kids as a condition for keeping their licenses. "It's an issue of choice," explains Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. "For the parents who do not want their children to see violent cartoons or Looney Tunes, there should be a choice."
There is. It's called changing the channel, or, alternatively, turning off the set—or even not buying one to begin with. (A VCR adds further choices.) For parents who have come to depend on television as an easy way of keeping their kids occupied while they attend to other matters, these may not seem like realistic options. But that's because they have already implicitly decided that, whatever damage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may do to their children, it's outweighed by the inconvenience and conflict that might ensue from trying to exercise control over their kids' viewing habits.
"We all know that televisions are on for six or seven hours every day in almost every household in the United States," says Rep. Edward Markey (D–Mass.), as if this were an immutable fact, as if parents were helpless against the invasion of electronic signals carrying mindless entertainment and stirring up evil consumerist impulses.
While some people look to government to help raise their children because they (understandably) feel overwhelmed by the plethora of negative influences confronting them, others feel up to the task but nevertheless want the government to save the neighbors' kids from the perils of incompetent parenting. This desire to meddle is part of the motivation behind the restrictions on children's television. It is even clearer in Memphis, Tennessee, where a new ordinance not only forbids promoters, performers, and venue owners from exposing minors to concerts that include "harmful material" but also prohibits parents from allowing their children to attend such concerts.
The ordinance, which has been challenged in federal court, defines harmful material so broadly that the term might cover a host of things—from Elvis Presley's pelvic thrusts to the suggestive lyrics of various pop songs—that many parents would not consider a threat to their children's mental health or proper upbringing. Which is precisely the point—both of the law and of the objections to it.
Supporters of the ordinance compare letting kids attend a heavy-metal concert to beating or neglecting them. But unlike actions that physically harm a child, the very existence of such "moral abuse" is a matter of opinion. In a free society, it is the parent's opinion that must prevail.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Big Mother".