13 August 1971

Captain Kangaroo
CBS Television
New York, New York

Dear Captain Kangaroo:

This morning I happened to watch your program with my five-year-old daughter. I was immediately struck by the verbal content of the program and began to note down specific instances in which a pre-school child would have difficult in understanding a word. Perhaps you will be interested in my list.

In the opening episode, a conversation with a frog, the following words and expressions were used: attributed, germ of truth, rare, superstition, grain of truth (three times). My daughter, when asked to explain each of these immediately after their appearance, replied simply: "I don't know." The subsequent discussion of superstition and the demonstration of "an old moose superstition" did little to clarify the meaning of the word. The joke of the balls falling on someone who hops three times could be understood only by someone who already understood the meaning of the word. A child would assume that there may be some truth in a superstition - or, more likely, be confused. My daughter Kira began looking through a book during this sketch.

The conversation with the grandfather clock began with the statement: "I hope I haven't startled him." To my surprise, Kira understood the episode of the magic trick perfectly: "He didn't have the instructions with the magic word, because he forgot and tore them up." The episode of Mr. Greenjeans and the chinchilla, while very interesting visually, contained a number of difficult words: incredible, hair follicle, rodent family, rabbit-like fashion. Twice there was an attempt to explain an obviously difficult word which unfortunately made use of another difficult word: "each hair follicle - the part that attaches the hair to the head" and "he's a rover, he likes to roam." Kira understood neither definition.

The yodelling song which followed seemed hardly appropriate for a children's program. It contained these lines without any explanation:

If you're Swiss,
Sing like this...

Eins, zwei, drei... etc.

Kira liked the balloon game (in which two men bat a balloon and say the alphabet, then count to ten). It reminded her of Sesame Street. The episode with the macaw, which closed the show, stressed two ideas: the bird is good at imitating sounds (Kira understood) and at communicating thought (Kira did not understand, which is good because this is not true).

I must mention that Kira did not seem confused at all by the program, but when asked about the above points simply could not give an explanation. Evidently she treats such words as blank spots, which she allows to pass without disturbance. This means that her attention to the show is sporadic - she looks at a book or does other things. As I think about it, most of her experience with adult conversation must be of this nature: there are blank spots. Your program in this respect may be said to mirror reality, but not to communicate with children.

My conclusion (and I have watched your program before) is that you have given almost no thought to the problem of words. You generally try to talk simple talk, and when a big word slips in you try to explain it with another big word. If your program aims to justify itself by some sort of educational purpose (or side effect), it must try to speak to real children. Since it lacks a plot, situation or story line, which children are adept at following, it cannot even claim to be as well understood as "adult" programs.

I understand that there is an established practice of throwing something in for the parents: it is fashionable to have adult and even risque asides in a number of cartoons. The result is that children do not understand and adult morons are amused. The words used on your program sail over the heads of your (ostensibly) intended audience and under the heads of your unwilling audience, the parents.

To forestall a possible misunderstanding: Kira can read easy texts, print the alphabet, count into the thousands, add, subtract, communicate complex thoughts (she understands reproduction and human anatomy) and speak a little Russian, but she cannot be expected to understand words like attributed or explanations like "he's a rover, he likes to roam."


Gary Kern

Assistant Professor
of Russian literature

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