Children have always been staple characters on television shows, and over the decades they have presented various pictures of family life. First there was the 1950s stereotype of a perfect "Leave It to Beaver" family, and later, in the '80s, the let-it-all-hang-out "Roseanne" household.
Recently, TV has favored another picture of family life: that in which the kids are more mature than the parents. It reflects - or reinforces - a burgeoning perception in society that children are growing up faster and faster, usually independent of parents' guidance.
In "3rd Rock From the Sun," for example, only the teen son has a grip on reality, while his elders act out their "inner child." On "The Nanny," the elementary-school-age daughter discusses her "co-dependency problem." Meanwhile, her grown nanny thinks affirmative action is an anti-cellulite product.
"The whole attitude that adults are dumb and kids are smart presents a distorted view of kids and families," says Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin.
The creators of shows deflect such criticism. "People worry too much about what's on TV and not enough about what's happening in the real world," says Howard Gould, executive producer of "The Jeff Foxworthy Show."
Take the Hollywood version of family dynamics la "Cybill." The level-headed teen Zoe constantly drips sarcasm on her mother's nutty antics such as adopting a pig to save it from becoming bacon. "What can be wrong with depicting kids as mature?" asks Mr. Gould, who was until recently executive producer of "Cybill."
A recent survey of TV shows by Katharine Heintz-Knowles, assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington, Seattle, documents the phenomenon of hypermature TV children.
"Parents are almost irrelevant to the lives of these children, since there are very few programs where parents and children interact in a meaningful way," she says. "Children used antisocial means, either physical violence or deceit, to achieve their ends. The message is, you need dishonesty to obtain your goal."
An analysis by Amy Jordan, senior research investigator at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, confirms the role reversal where children "parent" their parents. "Children gave adults advice and adults were confiding in children about their relationships," she says.
Some believe precocious youths are not just a sitcom staple but a fact of life. "Kids are much more aware of adult realities because they're more exposed to what's going on in the world via TV, the Internet, or whatever," says Mark Crotty, a Dallas high school teacher who has studied families on TV. Yet he hastens to add, "Kids grow up faster, but they do not necessarily mature faster."
Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television and visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees. "Children have a different vocabulary now and see things they couldn't see in the old days, but they're really not sophisticated in the way broadcasters show them. Little children are still afraid of falling down the drain in the bathtub, and older children are afraid of sex and puberty."
How much stock characters like buffoonish adults and smart-aleck kids influence viewers is a much-debated question. "Clearly kids get ideas about how to behave from the media," Ms. Wartella says. The more realistic the setting (like a show set in a home or classroom), the more children consider characters as role models.
In the family sitcom "Dave's World," the father is a spacey goofball, while his 11-year-old son fires off wisecracking zingers. To executive producer Tim O'Donnell, these extremes are just a comic convention. "The character of Dave is taken from Dave Barry's writings and reflects the Peter Pan syndrome of a kid who never grew up."
Mr. O'Donnell says, "I do feel a responsibility when I tell a story. Since television is a mass medium that has an impact for good and bad, you have to be careful." He recalls that when Fonzy, the cool hipster on "Happy Days," got a library card, requests for cards from kids surged at American libraries.
Some criticize TV's relentless hucksterism. "The premise for the whole broadcast industry is that children are miniature adults to be targeted with messages to spend money," Ms. Charren says.
A show that equates Armani with nirvana is ABC's new sitcom "Clueless." For these high-schoolers, the perfect fashion accessory looms larger than the perfect test score. Co-executive producer Pamela Pettler insists, the teens' consumerism is "absolutely an exaggeration for comedy."
As a mother and former college professor, Ms. Pettler feels a sense of mission. "First, we try to be funny, but we give the same priority to responsibility to our audience, which is at a very vulnerable age."
The characters do not drink, do drugs, diet, or have sex. "We start with an ironic concept the girls are rich and inhabit a frothy world of shopping and clothes. But we feel girls should be fully fleshed-out characters who are masters of their own future. Smart is good." Future episodes deliver a strong antismoking and pro-self-esteem message.
One dramatic series that has been praised for its positive messages is "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," which tells stories about Colorado Springs in 1871 and also has plots involving illness and treatment. "The show takes modern-day issues [like racism] out of the modern context without diluting their complications," says producer Tim Johnson. To tell a good story, it's got to mean something. We respect young viewers and try not to underestimate their intelligence."
Network gatekeepers countenance tough issues if they're set in a distant era like "Dr. Quinn," but dealing with reality in contemporary comedy is more difficult. Peter Noah, executive producer of "Mr. Rhodes," set in a prep school, explains why his show avoids thorny adolescent concerns: "A potential problem with getting serious is that networks don't want you to do it."
When "Roseanne" was rated No. 1, its creators had the clout to deal with topics like teen drug use, but each episode required a pitched battle with networks. "Roseanne blazed trails in terms of realistic depictions of problems, as when [her daughter] Darlene lost her virginity. But the networks had to be bullied into acquiescence," Noah explains.
Many industry watchers urge parents to view TV with their children. "They can talk about issues that are raised," Ms. Jordan says, "and negotiate what it means."