My 6-year-old likes to claim that his favorite show is Teen Titans Go! but it’s really Diff’rent Strokes.
The shows of my childhood have created a surprising bonding experience during the inevitable screen time we share. My son knows that if he’s really lucky, we can have a Diff’rent Strokes night, a Facts of Life night or a very special Saved by the Bell night. So why is this working out better for us than the Cartoon Network?
Of course, I, like most parents, loathe the new normal of children’s television, especially when my children get to the age where they’d rather watch Uncle Grandpa than Super Why! It is mind-numbing torture, and it is impossible to engage with your children when they go into a SpongeBob trance.
One day a couple years back, my son came into the room when I was watching Diff’rent Strokes on some random channel that airs ’80s reruns peppered with informercials for used car lots. He asked if he could join me, and I said of course he could. It was a great opportunity to answer questions about race, adoption and different family dynamics.
Then the storylines started to get interesting. Sure, we all remember when Kimberly’s hair turned green after washing it with acid rainwater. But did you know that episode is mostly about the show’s random eco-activist, Aunt Sophia, trying to get Mr. Drummond involved with an effort to address pollution?
Aunt Sophia also plays crucial roles in other ahead-of-their-time episodes, like one where Mr. Drummond demands that the junk food vending machines be removed from school and Aunt Sophia reads the list of chemical ingredients off a candy bar wrapper.
Of course, Diff’rent Strokes wasn’t the only sitcom that was ahead of its time. You might remember Becky, the duck from the oil spill episode of Saved by the Bell, but did it really occur to you at the time that these students were holding a fracking protest? Did you know that Charlene on Designing Women used cloth diapers because she was concerned about the landfills?
These shows are a virtual treasure trove of environmentally minded life lessons painted now with a topcoat of nostalgia and a laugh track.
Recently, we were at the park and some kids were fighting with their parents over some gnarly-looking multi-colored candies, and Sam whispered to me, “It’s all Arnold Drummond’s fault.”
That Arnold, always the pawn to really drive the point home.
But for now, we will skip the Very Special Episode about pedophilia. I’m saving that for when he’s 7.