THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

All a-bored

A cult of obedience for Thomas and his friends

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 24, 2011

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THIS ONE goes out to the parents, grandparents, and friends of toddler boys. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Preschooler walks around in a happy daze, ignoring the world around him, mumbling catchphrases about cheeky trains on the Island of Sodor.

Yes, it’s the mind-grip of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, as documented in a study from last year’s Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. A fellow Thomas inductee recently showed me the story: A 3-year-old in California watched Thomas episodes on TV for five hours a day, and descended so deep in his train reverie that he wouldn’t talk to anyone at preschool.

It was suggested that the boy had other underlying issues. Still, the report launched another wave of outsized fear about exposing young kids to TV. (I know some parents proudly declare that their kids never watch the tube. Apparently, they never need to cook dinner or take a shower.)

In fact, the study confirmed what fans of TV moderation have long known: It requires far less than five hours a day for Thomas to take over a boy’s brain. At 2, my son asks for Thomas books and plays with a waterproof Thomas in the tub. He spends hours on the living room rug, pulling a vast collection of tiny die-cast train cars, whose gray plastic faces range in expression from cheerful to constipated.

Some cars are nearly identical. Some have names like “Skarloey.’’ My son, who cannot read, can tell each one of them apart — including two passenger cars that look exactly the same to me except for names marked in tiny cursive print.

He also knows, via a song he once asked me to sing 800 times a day, that these trains are known as the Really Useful Crew, and that each has a Different Role to Play in a productive daily worklife.

This, to me, is the more unsettling fallout from a Thomas obsession. Most of today’s preschool TV is cheerfully benign and somewhat educational — filled with “pro-social’’ stories about sharing and poor losing, sometimes mixed with science concepts or the alphabet.

Thomas, though, is a story about work and the unending joys of serving your boss. Born from a 1940s series of books by an Anglican minister, it’s the sort of show Ayn Rand would have loved to foist on the children of the proletariat; it’s the story of engines that chiefly value being useful. They compete to be the most productive, and request more work when they can get it. (Typical story: Trevor the Traction Engine, bored with his cushy job in a pasture, can’t wait to haul some freight around a dock.)

If the engines go astray, they get sternly punished by a portly capitalist named Sir Topham Hatt, who always wears an extremely fussy suit. If they’re obedient, they get a paint job, and perhaps more freight to haul.

This focus on work ethic is useful, to a point. If Thomas rubs off on my son’s homework habits, I’ll be thrilled. And yet there’s something a little disturbing about the show’s happy cult of obedience — and, through casting, its genius appropriation of the counterculture. The first man hired to narrate the TV show, in the 1980s, was a post-Beatles Ringo Starr. When the series launched in America in 1991, George Carlin was brought in to do the voiceovers. I’m sure he made good money. But when I hear him in those episodes on Sprout on Demand, doing his stern-capitalist voice, it makes me pine for what used to be.

My son, of course, doesn’t know Carlin from Caillou, has yet to learn which words you can’t say on TV, and may not be internalizing this obedience talk at all. He seems more interested in the mechanics of the trains, the mesmerizing longshots of them rolling over trestles.

Still, I sometimes wish, for the sake of America’s future big thinkers, that Thomas and his friends would show a little more spark, even question authority from time to time. They could unionize and demand better conditions in the shed. Or band together in some modern green energy initiative, instead of puffing out so much black smoke. Usefulness has its place. But even parents of small boys understand that rebellion can be useful, too.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.