One of my favorite quotes on parenting comes from Bill Cosby on his 1983 “Himself” album:

“My wife and I were intellectuals before we had children.”

Having been through it three times now, I can attest to the truth of that statement. A parent with a toddler and an infant is lucky to have two brain cells firing at the same time. There are the diapers, the diaper leaks, the wardrobe changes (for you and baby), the bottles, the spit-up, the next round of wardrobe changes, the 3 am “please sleep please sleep ohhhh please don’t start crying again” wishful thinking…

And then there’s the TV shows. The insipid, mind-numbing, absolutely awful TV shows.

I don’t mean the kids’ shows. Those are actually pretty good, especially since they took Barney out behind the barn in 2009 and “extincted” him.

No, I mean the stuff you turn on because all you really want is 20 minutes of background noise. But then you get sucked into it because your brain is too weak to put up a fight, and before you know it, you’re saying things like “oh, I’ve seen this episode before, this is the one where the guy is coked up and the two girls are making out.”

In our household, though, not all reality TV is acceptable. It boils down to one question: at the end of the show, how do you feel? There are really just three options:

  • Grateful. This kind of show makes you feel incredibly fortunate for whatever education, upbringing, or current life situation keeps you from relating to the people on the screen. These are the shows that serve as a warning for your children. Think Cops, The Bachelor, or anything Flavor Flav has ever been involved in.
  • Smarter. If you can put aside the manufactured drama and learn something about how to deglaze a pan, throw a pumpkin 50 yards, or survive for a week in the wild on grubs and tree bark, then you’ve actually emerged slightly better off. It’s a rare occurrence, you should feel good about it.
  • Depressed. When you’re watching a pro athlete showing off his Lamborghini collection, or a 25-year-old schmuck shopping for a summer home in Fiji, or a flitty socialite planning a multi-million-dollar wedding, you tend to lose perspective. Instead of being thankful for what you have, you start thinking about all the things you don’t have. Don’t we all deserve 21,000 square foot homes with chandeliers in the bathrooms? Or at least the occasional $1,000 bottle of wine?

In our house, we embrace (well, tolerate) the first two kinds of shows. But we try to avoid any programs that fall into the third category. We are blessed with health, loving family and friends, a roof over our heads, and food on our table. I don’t need a TV show reminding me of what I don’t have. I like feeling good about my life.

And really, isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Whatever the message, whatever the medium, we like things that make us feel good about ourselves.

It’s a principle that holds true…

… in popular culture. For instance, zombies. In a very interesting article in Slate, Torie Bosch points out that the survivors in a zombie apocalypse scenario tend to be the salt of the earth. The popularity of zombie culture is a celebration of the blue collar folks who can fix a car or fire a shotgun. Try debating Nietzsche with the undead and see where it gets you. Zombie movies tell us it’s not just okay to be an Average Joe, it’s the best thing you could hope for.

…in politics. Think about the backlash Mitt Romney is facing after that $10,000 bet he proposed to Rick Perry in a recent Republican debate. People can relate to a $10 bet, or even a $100 bet if you’re really serious about something. But in a country where the median household income is around $50,000, waving ten grand around like it’s pocket change just reminds people how little they have in comparison. John Kerry’s yacht, John Edwards’ haircut, Newt’s credit line at Tiffany’s… it’s all the same. It’s difficult to credibly pay homage to the values of the hard-working middle class while so casually flaunting your own wealth.

… in marketing. Want to sell video games to gift-giving parents? Then don’t show a kid in his room blasting enemy soldiers, show a Kinect family dance party in the living room. Want to sell a big box shopping experience in a “buy local” environment? Don’t talk about saving money, talk about saving time, and how less time shopping at Target means more time with the family, which translates into being a better parent. How about selling cars to customers known for their social and environmental concerns? Don’t offer them rebates on Subarus, donate to relevant causes instead. Help your customers be the people they want to be.

Want to feel good about yourself? Stick with the guy in the middle.

So whatever you do, whoever your audience is, try to spend a little less time making them like you, and a little more time helping them like themselves. Trust me, they’ll love you for it.

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