When Discovery announced the cancellation of “MythBusters” after 14 seasons, I sent a wistful email to my 24-year-old son, alerting him that one of our former favorite shows was approaching its final experiment. He responded somewhat less nostalgically: “I can’t believe that show is still on! How can there be any myths left to bust?”
And indeed, it turns out that by the time the series is complete, “MythBusters” will have conducted 2,950 experiments to test the validity of 1,050 myths. But if my son wasn’t elegiac in his response, I, for one, will be sorry to see “MythBusters” go, reminding me as it does of my days as an active father.
My wife and I were traditionalists. We were the kind of parents who worried about the deleterious impact of video games on young minds, so we limited our son’s screen time to the seemingly more brain-nurturing experience of watching mass-market television. It’s not as easy as you’d think, however, to find age-appropriate television programming when your kids outgrow “SpongeBob Square Pants” but are not yet ready for “The Walking Dead.”
Since we only had the one son, lived in a compact house, and never permitted a television in his room, my wife and I were generally able to monitor my son’s viewing habits through the simple process of watching TV with him.
Some of the shows we watched together were scripted programs: “Seinfeld” reruns (an absolute must), “Malcom in the Middle,” “Bernie Mac,” and other shows that featured tween kids. Somehow my wife even got him watching “7th Heaven,” CW’s wholesome family soap opera, which I could never stomach.
As the dad, I particular enjoyed watching three reality show created by men, featuring men, and apparently targeted at others with the XY chromosome, irrespective of age. These were the aforementioned “MythBusters,” as well as “Pawn Stars” and “The Deadliest Catch.” (And yes, while I realize some women and girls watch these shows, they exemplify values that a father would particularly like to share with his son.)
Of the three, “MythBusters,” with its occasional female science assistants, tried the hardest to appeal to girls and debunk the myth that only nerdy boys liked science. But in the end, the show’s entertainment value relied on explosions (over 900 in nearly 250 episodes), car stunts, rockets, danger and other elements that appeal to 10-year-old boys.
The series has rightly been praised for teaching the scientific method (i.e., demonstrating how you develop and then test a hypothesis). I wouldn’t go as far as the New York Times did in asserting that the show “transformed science and education” — but it did teach a generation of students how to think logically and creatively. And it made science literacy fun in our family.
“Pawn Stars,” the series about the multigenerational family who runs a pawn shop in Las Vegas, is a winner for tween boys on two accounts. It teaches history through the artifacts that are presented to them for sale — but more important, it teaches the basics of economics and the need to be both disciplined and honest in business affairs.
Time and again, patrons bring in items that the pawn shop owners personally crave (Civil War pistols, 1950s juke boxes, Napoleonic-era swords) but won’t buy unless they know they can sell it for a profit.
These mini-lessons in microeconomics are important for kids who are just starting to think about what they want to be when they grow up.
There’s another important lesson on the show too: the grandpa who founded the store, the dad who runs it now, and the son who expects to run it someday in the future provide a lot of intra-family conflict and wise-assery. It’s good for sons to know they can disagree with their dads and still maintain a loving relationship.
The third show my son and I used to watch — “The Deadliest Catch” — is the most masculine of these three shows, but also the most raw emotionally. It’s a standard reality show following the lives of Alaskan king crab fisherman as they troll in the often-tumultuous Bering Sea. The cameras follow the crew of several crab boats facing danger from gale winds, high seas, slippery decks, and their own mistake-prone natures.
“Deadliest Catch” is a story of bravery to be sure, but also about the discipline and teamwork necessary to survive on a fishing boat. And because the captains are a main focus of the series, “The Deadliest Catch” also provides a lesson in leadership.
Discipline, logical thinking, bravery, leadership, delayed gratification, compromise and flexibility: all these values are celebrated on these shows. None of them are explicitly designed to be teaching tools for young boys — but at a time when boys seem to be in crisis, you can do a lot worse than plopping down in front of the TV with your son and enjoying a good explosion, a tough negotiation or some old-fashioned crab fishing.