ON March 7th this newspaper published a questionnaire for young readers as part of our participation in Newspapers in Education Week. We invited answers to 14 questions designed to reveal attitudes and habits rather than knowledge. Over the next few weeks we were happily deluged with 2,209 candid responses from 42 states and the District of Columbia. Kids and teenagers 5 to 19 years old from all kinds of neighborhoods in cities, towns, and rural areas responded, often because teachers and parents made answering the questions a class project or family effort.
(Some responses had to be invalidated because of lateness or incomplete identification, but a total of 2,039 were read and tabulated by Monitor staffers.)
The results are more of a snapshot on a winter's day rather than a complete portrait. It is tempting to draw conclusions from the statistics (and we will), but it is more valid to listen to what these young voices are telling us about the world that is shaping them.
As we expected, we found plenty of surprises reading through so many thoughtful, funny, and sometimes disturbing responses.
Many answers were impressive for their integrity and honesty. For instance, we asked: Which television character would you most like to be? There were answers such as Bill Cosby, actor Michael J. Fox, Big Bird, Alf, singer Paula Abdul, or Winnie Cooper (of ``The Wonder Years'').
But we were surprised that a large number wanted to be Bart Simpson, an animated character, apparently the latest popular hero for many kids and teenagers. Both boys and girls wanted to be him. Not even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got such affection.
Bart is the oldest son (10 or 11) on ``The Simpson Family,'' a Sunday night animated show on the Fox network. He is a mischievous ringleader to his younger brother and sister, and part of a clumsy but ultimately loving suburban family with bulging eyes and wry hearts. As 11-year-old Brandon Stroman from Rockport, Mass., wrote, ``I'd like to be Bart Simpson because he's funny and cool.''
A lot of kids said the question of what TV character they wanted to be was silly. ``I would not like to be a television character,'' wrote a 14-year-old girl from Marina Del Ray, Calif. ``I'm happy with who I am.''
The graphs on this page indicate, as many national surveys have revealed, that most kids in the US spend much more time watching television than they do reading books. ``TV is the most radicated coolamagig in the world,'' wrote a boy from an eighth-grade class in Connecticut. Many teenagers told us that they never read books ``because they are boring.''
A boy from St. Jerome school in Oconomowoc, Wis., wrote, ``I don't read. I watch TV because TV is more interesting and it doesn't take as long.''
At the same time, a common response was an admission that despite the ease and attraction of TV, reading was an experience they liked ``better.'' Wrote Shani Larsen, 15, from Spanish Fork, Utah, ``For every hour I watch TV, I probably spend 3 to 5 minutes reading. The weird thing is, I like reading better.''
An answer that many parents might confirm came from a 14-year-old girl from Rockville Centre, N.Y. ``I don`t read and I don't watch TV. I talk on the phone.''
The responses to our four questions about TV probably confirm a change in the impact and direction of television for the next generation. In the past, TV has often been a kind of electronic hearth, offering families programming on only three or four networks. Tens of millions of families could watch the same show each night and talk about it the next day.
Now there are so many channels available day and night, showing an array of programs, that widespread viewing of the same show - including no doubt ``The Simpsons'' - is probably waning.
The responses to the question ``What TV show would you take off the air?'' consequently was incredibly varied, with many of the shows unknown to this writer. There are literally hundreds of shows available to children, particularly kids with access to cable TV.
At the same time, most responses indicated that kids and teenagers use television, newspapers (not much radio, but a few magazines), and school discussions equally to provide them with information about the world. A seventh-grade girl from Illinois confessed, ``Actually, I don't know what the heck is going on around me.''
Do most kids think too much is expected of them at school and home? The majority said no. A 14-year-old boy from Glenview, Ill., wrote plaintively, ``Not much is expected of me at school. At home I do everything.'' And a 17-year-old girl from Covina, Calif., wrote, ``At home I really don't feel that enough is expected. This may sound a bit odd, but my little brother does most of the housework.''
When it comes to illegal drug use, the answers indicate that elementary school kids seldom know someone their own age who uses drugs. Yet the 533 teenagers who responded to the question ``Do your friends use drugs?'' were just as likely to know drug users as not.
Perhaps the most sobering and tragic response in all the questionnaires was this from a 14-year-old boy in southern California: ``Take my father. He was doing drugs because he felt they helped him with his problems. ... He killed my grandma, his mother. It was an accident, but he did actually point the gun and shoot ... he had no idea my grandma was on the other side of the door. He was on cocaine and since he was fighting with my grandparents they called it involuntary manslaughter. Now my father is in prison and will not be out for another two years. Well, that's my opinion of drugs.''
If there was one question that touched off a number of very emotional responses, it was our request to know what was the most serious problem in neighborhoods. A small but angry group said that the big problem was dogs: dogs on the loose, dogs barking, dogs anywhere. A high school student from Illinois angrily described the dog next door as ``a rabid poodle from hell.'' Another high school student from Minnesota responded with expletives, while an eight-year-old girl from Louisiana asked, ``Can't somebody train dogs to mumble loud, not bark?''
Other answers to this question were matter-of-fact: drugs, crime, vandalism. From cities kids said they wanted to rid the neighborhoods of gangs. But the majority of answers indicated that kids perceived their neighborhoods as trouble-free.
Reflecting, perhaps, that the United States is indeed becoming multi-ethnic in both urban and rural areas, the overwhelming majority of responses from all kids is that they have friends of different races. A number took us to task for even asking the question. ``I find it offensive,'' said a high school student from Stillwater, Minn. ``It's a white man's question.''
A Cambodian girl from California wrote, ``I am the different race.'' And Rebecca Lloyd, an 18-year-old girl from Oakland, Calif., went even further. ``Yes, I have plenty of friends,'' she wrote,``but I never noticed where I met them and I don't much care for the question. I don't see skin colors.''
If any of the kids ever came face-to-face with President George Bush, they were nearly unanimous as to what problems they'd ask him to address. Virtually all kids wanted the President to stop illegal drugs, protect the environment, and help the homeless.
Our Special Thanks to ...
A special thank you to teachers, librarians, or administrators of these schools for involving students in our survey. If we failed to list your school, it was for lack of complete identification or because the cover letter was misplaced in processing.
Hope (Idaho) School Palm Springs (Calif.) High School Iola (Wis.) Scandinavian H.S. Imlay City (Mich.) Schools Marrion Elementary School,
Vancouver, Wash. Higham Family School, Santa Rosa,
Calif. Westside Alternative School,
Marina Del Ray, Calif. Underwood School, Newton, Mass. Springman J.H.S., Glenview, Ill. Santa Fe (N.M.) Indian School St. Jerome, Ocononowoc, Wisc. Skyline High School, Oakland Acacia School, Hemet, Calif. San Pasqual High School,
Escondido, Calif. Stillwater (Minn.) High School John S. Armstrong School, Dallas Meyers Advisory, Winnetka, Ill. South Valley Middle School,
Platteville, Colo. Payson (Ariz.) High School Janesville (Calif.) Elementary The Japhet School, Madison
Heights, Mich. Pine Ridge School, Grand Rapids,
Mich. Simpson Elementary School,
Montesano, Wash. Alpa Montessori School, Wichita Montessori School of
Greenville, S.C. Spanish Fork (Utah) School Roberts J.H.S., Medford, Mass. Emerson Elementary School,
Madison, Wis. J.H.S. 51, Brooklyn, N.Y. Redwood Day School, Alameda,
Calif. Kent School Inc., Chestertown, Md. Moraga (Calif.) Intermediate
School The Buckley School, New York Oakdale (Conn.) School Constantine (Mich.) Middle School Forest Hills School, Jackman,
Maine Montessori School, Plainview, N.Y. Lockwood School, Bothell, Wash. Southville Middle School, Rockville
Centre, N.Y. A.A. Stagg High School, Stockton,
Calif. Rancho Elementary School, Spring
Valley, Calif. D Street School, Needles, Calif. Flood Brook Union High School,
Londonderry, Vt. Academy of the Sacred Heart,
New Orleans Durham (N.Y.) Elementary School Keys To International Learning,
South Pasadena, Calif. Death Valley (Calif.) Elementary Derby Line (Vt.) Elementary South Hills High School,
West Covina, Calif. Northbrook School, Bolingbrook Ill.