The Berenstain Bears’ Computer Trouble: A book review

Hi, I’m Sylvia, Director of Curriculum for DIY Girls. I’m also a graduate student studying library and information science. In order to graduate, I have to complete a portfolio that proves my competency in the field. In doing so, I ran into this essay I wrote about The Bernstain Bears. Listen to the book here.

On The Berenstain Bears’ Computer Trouble by Jan and Mike Berenstain (2010)

    Computer Trouble is a cautionary tale. It opens with, “Computers have their uses – they’re great for work or play. But it’s not a good idea just to stare at them all day.” The first page shows Papa Bear hauling home a computer to help with work. Quickly, the family becomes enraptured by it, and before long, Mama, Brother, and Sister all have their own computers. Papa notices things spiraling out of control – Brother isn’t focused on his schoolwork, Mama is addicted to e-Bear, an online auction site, and Sister is being bullied via Pawbook. He limits computer use to one hour a day, and just like that, all is right with the world: the children play outside during the day, and the family reads together in front of the fireplace at night. The next day, the family goes out…to a movie. The book ends with a list of safety tips for kids – “Never give out private information,” etc.

    Though the Bears’ lesson of moderation is well-intentioned, ultimately this book does a lot more harm than good. Most obvious in this 2010 book is the reinforcement of gender stereotypes – Mama Bear has an online shopping addiction, and it’s “Herb the mailman” who tells Papa, “you’ve got to get this e-Bear thing with Mama under control.” (At this point, one Amazon reviewer notes, “I shut the book and told my daughter ‘the end.’”) Papa is the decision maker of the house. It’s Papa who brings the computer into the house, and Papa who decides to take it away—Mama is just along for the ride. Brother Bear plays soccer; Papa is a carpenter. Meanwhile, Mama shops and knits and Sister worries about boys.

    Another destructive element is the book’s demonization of computers and technology. The front cover announces “With Internet Safety Rules,” and though the guidelines themselves are good, the idea that this book helps prepare children for the internet age is all off. Computers in the book largely function as a diversion, an enjoyable evil like candy. Apart from a little bit of work and schoolwork, nothing productive happens with technology; it’s all shopping and games.  Papa encourages the children to go outside and enjoy the traditional joys of childhood – “pick wildflowers, watch clouds…collect rocks, pretend you’re space bears.” No one can argue that those all sound great. But in the assortment of wonderful activities, the book makes a clear value judgment that these are superior ways for children to spend time.

    What about all of the ways in which computers can stimulate childrens’ imaginations? What about the “wildflowers” we pick online, the exciting things we find? Why doesn’t Papa give his children a 3D modeling program so they can design hip cabinets for the family furniture business? Or tell Mama Bear to create her own online store with Etsy and sell her beautiful knit blanket? By reducing computers to “candy,” an enjoyable evil to be consumed with as much self-control as we can stir up, the book risks depriving children of the real benefits that can be had by computers, and reducing them to one more mechanism to consume things – like the movie theater they visit at the end of the book.

Who’s doing it right? Check out Linda Luikas’ new children’s book, Hello Ruby, for an exciting introduction to computers and coding.

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